Adapting our homes for climate change  

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My Cool Home

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AdaptWest is the Western Adelaide climate change adaptation plan that operates across the Cities of West Torrens, Charles Sturt and Port Adelaide Enfield.

More extreme weather events are already being experienced across the region as a result of climate change, including longer, hotter and more frequent heatwaves with less annual rainfall, and more intense storm events.

Our built environment

The region is experiencing rapid change as a result of infill developments with larger, single home allotments being cleared and replaced with multiple dwellings.

Western Adelaide's rich history is reflected in its architecture which adds to the history, environmental, cultural, and social contributions of living in the west, providing a recognisable sense of place which is valued by our community.

Whether they be our homes or non-residential buildings, one of the challenges with existing buildings, is how to adapt them to our changing climate.

Existing Buildings - Renovation vs. Restoration

Renovation – seeks to modify an existing building to meet current standards and codes, often while retaining the key aspects of the building (such as façade or historical context)

Restoration – seeks to undertake work that will return a building to the state it was originally constructed.

Existing Buildings and climate change

Most of our existing buildings were built for past climate conditions. They were not built for the climate change we have already experienced; let alone the scenarios we are expected to experience as part of the future climate.

Existing buildings also have had a lot of energy already sunk into their construction and operational life, known as 'embodied energy'. Utilising the resources we currently have, through adaptive re-use of our buildings rather than demolishing and building new, will reduce the overall environmental impact of our buildings, particularly the embodied carbon emissions associated with construction. 

Hence, many buildings will need to be retrofitted or refurbished to respond to a changing climate

Existing Buildings and adaptive reuse!

We will need to adapt buildings to hotter average temperatures while renovating to the needs of modern occupants to extend their useful life.

Many existing buildings currently use more energy than is necessary to maintain the comfort of the occupants simply because they were never designed to respond to climate or were designed with the assumption that cheap and accessible air conditioning would maintain comfort – but this comes at a cost, with many buildings having to run air conditioning almost continuously in summer and winter just to maintain a comfortable internal temperature.

What to do?

Regardless of your building or your budget, there are things you can DIY today, or work with an architect / builder if you renovate or refurbish.

These tips can help you save money and make for a more comfortable building, whilst also reducing your overall environmental /carbon footprint


Top Tips

Key points to consider when doing a climate renovation 


Regardless of the type of insulation you use, it is essential that it is installed correctly. This means a continuous insulation barrier – you want to minimise, and eliminate where possible, any gaps in the insulation. Any point where there isn’t insulation is an “energy bridge”. It means that energy can travel across the building fabric, bypassing the benefits of the insulation. This leads to higher power bills and decreased comfort.

While addressing ceiling insulation is relatively straight forward, not all existing walls can be easily insulated, such as double brick which is typical of houses built prior to 1970. It is worth contacting an experienced insulation provider to understand the best way to insulate your existing building. 

Gap and crack sealing and controlled ventilation

(Ventilation, Sealing and Zoning)

Buildings that are “leaky” are characterised by having numerous gaps and cracks that cause unwanted or uncontrolled ventilation.

This results in undesirable energy gain and loss, uncomfortable drafts, and increased power usage.

Spending time to eliminate as many gaps as possible in the building – around windows and external doors, fixing cracks in walls, around skirting boards, appliances (dishwashers are notorious) and closing unnecessary wall vents. Much of this can be achieved with off-the-shelf products from a hardware shop. There are also specialist ways that air infiltration can be measured (using what is called a blower door test). This test pressurises the building to escalate and identify points of leakage. It can be useful to benchmark the performance of an existing building and identify an upgrade path to fix unwanted air leaks.

All that said, buildings can be too airtight! Fresh air and controlled ventilation are important for indoor air quality and to prevent the growth of mould and reduce unwanted condensation.
Windows and doors

Windows form a vital part of the building façade as they provide views, ventilation, and a connection to the outside.

However, windows are essentially a hole in an insulated wall. The wall, being much better insulated than the glass of the window.

Where possible, consider upgrading the windows to double glazed units or other higher-performance glazing treatments.

Of course, not all windows can be upgraded. Heritage concerns to maintain the look and feel of the existing windows being a prime example.

Other options to consider in these circumstances might be installing a window film on the existing glass, refurbishing the window units to improve the operation and air tightness, gap sealing around the frame, installing external blinds, or using heavy drapes and pelmets.

Air conditioning  

Historically evaporative air-conditioners were thought to be more efficient than reverse cycle air conditioners - however, this is changing.

Evaporative air conditioning becomes less effective as the climate warms and humidity increases. Evaporative can also use a lot of water, bring unwanted air and pollution into the building and be a source of significant heat loss in winter.

Modern reverse cycle air conditioners are an efficient way to cool and heat, with much better temperature control and air quality regulation.

If you are stuck with evaporative cooling it is important to close off vents in winter so that any heating is not sucked out of the duct work through a chimney effect.  

As with any air conditioning it is important to size the unit for the space that it is being conditioning. Being able to zone the building so that only the occupied space is heated or cooled, and not the whole building, is important to consider. 
Roofs The roof of your building can be a significant source of unwanted heat gain in summer. Ways to minimise this include the use of heat reflective paint or simply painting the roof with white or a lighter shade of paint. This helps to reduce heat transfer into the building by reflecting heat energy in summer. While this might not be possible with all building types, it is an important consideration when thinking about refurbishing a building for future climate.
Lighting Consider upgrading lighting to modern, more efficient units. As always, it is important to consider lighting that is suitable for the task and is sympathetic to the intended use of the building. For example, an office will want uniform lighting that allows workers to undertake their tasks with minimum strain, whereas a domestic environment might want brighter lights in a bathroom and kitchen, but less so in a living room or bedroom.
Renewable energy Renewable energy systems, particularly solar photovoltaic panels, provide a great opportunity to off-set the energy use often inherent in older buildings. While it may not always be possible to locate solar on a roof (due to historic preservation guidance, over-shadowing by existing vegetation or other buildings), power can be purchased that is 100% derived from renewable sources. Home battery technology is also rapidly advancing and reducing in upfront cost. Benefits of batteries including using power you have generated during the day at night when the sun has set and with the right system, providing back-up power if there is a power failure.
Water use When upgrading bathroom fittings and other sources of water use in the building, always aim for the highest possible water rated (Water Efficiency Labelling Standard - WELS) fixtures. This will reduce the water consumption of the building.   Consider install rainwater tanks where feasible and plumb these to the house, particularly for non-potable water use such as toilet flushing or use in the garden for irrigation.
Gardens  The protection of gardens and associated vegetation can conserve the microclimate brought about by existing plantings. In any building work, paying attention to existing vegetation on-site and minimising the site disturbance through tree protection zones and liquid waste disposal is essential. Pay attention to the spaces around the building as these areas can be used for additional planting to help maintain a comfortable outdoor temperature on hot days. Irrigating your garden prior to hot weather is the best way to protect your plants and provide a cooling benefit. Considering installing micro misting systems around outdoor entertaining areas as this can lower the ambient temperature.
Roof plumbing and gutters  While the average rainfall for Adelaide is set to decrease, what is likely is that we will see stronger storms with greater peak rainfall events. If there is an opportunity to upgrade the roof plumbing and associated downpipes and in-ground drainage, then consider upgrading to a higher capacity system to mitigate against localised flooding of the building. If you live in a flood prone area, consider the drainage around your home and what can be done to minimise risk. If in doubt consult with your council for advice on what to do.


Further Resources 

See the AdaptWest tool My Cool Home for more information on retrofitting, designing, or building an energy efficient, climate resilient home (My Cool Home URL / QR code)

Adaptive Reuse of historic buildings – additional information


Changing for Climate Change