Tag Archives: sustainable home

Lights On or Off – What Should We Really Do?

‘It uses more energy to keep turning the lights off and on, so just leave them on’. We probably all grew up with this one, but is it really true? Well, naturally the issue is a lot more complex than you might think – but leaving all of the world’s lights turned on based on this logic would clearly be idiotic, so I’ve dug around and found a collection of research-based conclusions that bust this myth.

lights off

To put things in context;

  • The studies compare incandescent globes with Compact Fluorescent Light-globes [CFLs];
  • A globe’s [or ‘lamp’] lifespan [rated hours] depends on both how durable the design is, how often it’s turned on and off [uses], and the operating cycle [how long it’s left on for]
  • CFLs are rated at around 8,000-10,000 hours life span [let’s say, to keep things easy], based on a typical operation of 3 hours on then 20 minutes off;

One of the best facts I found was from the US Dept. of Energy site: when we switch on a CFL it has an ‘inrush’ phase where it does use more energy, but only for 1/120th of a second, equivalent to 5 seconds of operation. So unless you’re a little kid standing there flicking the lights on and off fifty times a second and going ‘whooohooooo’ then don’t stress – just turn them off.

For some further detail, this Rocky Mountain Institute study conducted in 2008 has some great findings and write-up (i.e. easy for me to understand). It found that no matter what, a CFL still trumps an incandescent globe. Increasing the uses and/or decreasing the operation time, e.g. switching it off and on many times a day and only running the light for 5 minutes at a time will significantly reduce the lamp’s lifespan, however even then a CFL will still;

  1. pay itself off with the energy savings;
  2. last longer than an incandescent globe;
  3. emit less greenhouse gases [by a long way];
  4. emit less mercury [by a long way].

In the office the story is pretty much the same. Lights such as T5s are rated for 10,000 or more hours and will typically stay on all day. Switching them off at the end of the day is part of what the lamps are designed for – at least 6,000 cycles and rising as the lamp technology improves – so don’t fret, just turn them off when you’re done, even in the smaller rooms that you might visit a few times a day.

Hopefully this leaves you feeling illuminated for the week : )


Gnomes Really Will Come to Life at Night

I like to consider myself to be relatively brave when the pressure’s on. I’m not too phased by snakes, rats, roaches or bugs in general. But if I’m confronted by a spider all bets are off – not so much the small ones [poisonous or not] but if it’s one of those big ones that takes the broom out of your hand I turn into a hopeless mess. If I had tattoos I’d have to have them all removed ‘cos I’m not so tough really.

Around October each year our orange and lemon trees get an infestation of ‘stink bugs’ [Bronze Orange Bugs] who systematically destroy every bud on the trees. They multiply rapidly and if not stopped they will destroy the entire crop. This season I started nailing them early with pyrethrum spray which is the safest yet most effective, non-systemic non-residual spray I’ve been able to find. I lost a fraction of the crop but we look like we might have a winter treat this year.

And whilst I was doing this work I started day-dreaming about nanotechnology and robots, as I do, and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could get tiny robot spiders whose sole job was to protect our plants, crawling around at night zapping-squashing-burying-ingesting all manner of evil on our trees?

robot spider

Robot spider already available. Not yet with lazers but give it time. And already spooky. Check out the video via the link.

Problem is, even if it’s a robot spider I don’t think I’d be able to sleep at night. I’m brave enough when the pressure’s on – snakes, bugs, rats or roaches don’t really phase me – but spiders are another story… there’s something about any reasonably sized spider that turns me into a complete coward. I even quiver when the kids bring home plastic spiders which are sadistically designed to look like real spiders – I just know I’ll be padding around at night and spot one on the floor…

So maybe robot spiders wouldn’t be so cool, but how about a robot Gnome? We regularly watch ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ with the kids [no spoilers here]… so it seems a reasonable aspiration to one day have a family of robot garden gnomes [or even fairies?] who tend our gardens at night. Something a bit more friendly.

I’d program mine to also ‘deter’ the neighbours cat which I’ve busted killing a blue tongue lizard in our garden and who also pees on our lawn and kills the grass… ‘deter without prejudice’ I’d command them. I’d consider rewarding them with a box of spare parts but I’d be worried they might build their own robot spiders as pets and sub-contract the work out to them.


Gnomeo from Gnomeo & Juliet. Now where’s that cat?

In any event, these critters are on the way. I’d give it only a few years before we can 3D print our own stink bug assassins at home and enjoy plenty of fresh orange juice in our back gardens, wondering what ever became of the neighbour’s cat…

Happy gardening this weekend. Get your hands dirty and let your imaginations run free.

The Pocket Neighbourhood

Have you ever been drawn into a fence dispute with a neighbour? We’ve certainly had our fair share… I’m not sure if it’s because of or despite the fact that my wife and I are from an architectural background. To us it’s a pretty straightforward deal: follow the local planning controls and fencing Acts, run a string-line along the boundary, agree on materials and select a quote, and boof! – there’s your fence. Simple, right?

Noooooo. Not on your life. The more I’ve shared our latest escapade with friends the more I’m convinced that this is Newton’s Fourth Law – Friction is directly proportional to the length of a new fence. It seems that most people have to suffer when installing a shared boundary fence.

Perhaps it’s this recent experience that has sent me off looking for the opposite effects (Newton’s Third Law?) – an approach to community design that negates the fence fights and acts to bring neighbours together.

A friend sent me this ‘pocket neighbourhoods’ link [by Ross Chapin] during the week and as soon as I jumped in it took me back to the period when I was doing a lot of retirement village master planning – maybe it’s the denominator of ‘common cause’ and a stronger focus on pedestrianism that made me sentimental, but in exploring this site I’m thinking ‘how can we decant that into larger urban scale development?’

pocket neighb

My ability with words isn’t a patch on the photos on this site so just take a look for yourself… but look for the sustainable community attributes of these pocket neighbourhoods – how they deal with the commons and shared spaces (shared infrastructure), public-private (reduced land consumption), transport (reduced emissions), pedestrian connections (social and physical health) and so forth.

This site also has some good links to other urban sustainability sites – worth a cruise during your Friday lunch time.


Front Yard Blitz #02 – 10% Stormwater Runoff

So we’ve managed to get the overhead wires underground – what’s the next step in our green street refurbishment? There are a few options but it’s good practice to work from underground upwards, so let’s sort out our stormwater situation.

A few facts before we go on;

  • Rainwater = generally defined as ‘rain’ that has fallen but contains little or no dissolved matter or soil – so it’s generally what we can catch on roofs;
  • Stormwater = essentially rainwater that is running off over land, and the main source of downstream water pollution;
  • Sewage = from toilets and the like. In Australia the sewer and stormwater mains are required to be physically separated.

A typical residential neighbourhood will see around 55% of all of its rainfall leaving as stormwater runoff. In more built up urban areas it reaches up to 95%.  This runoff picks up contaminants along the way, sending everything to the nearest waterways. Two major problems here; loss of a valuable resource, and the downstream pollution (which can’t be fixed downstream).

Reducing our stormwater runoff to 10% (and you can aim even lower) requires a series of interventions, all of which add some value for homeowners (and I’ve chosen some dowdy images simply to demonstrate how easy some of the interventions can be);

Rainwater Harvesting – Adding a rainwater tank pulls out a certain amount of the total water flow – plumbing this back into landscape irrigation or toilet flushing saves you some water costs and adds value to your landscape (worth up to 10% of your home’s value). There are so many tank types around now that you could fit one almost anywhere. Keep using the water! This effectively increases the tank’s capacity.


Rain Gardens and Swales – rather than sending your excess rainwater off-site (and usually into the street gutters), slow it down and let it soak into the ground (more landscape benefits). Rain-gardens alone can strip out the majority of the stormwater runoff, and will take most of the pollutants out as well. When approached with design intent these gardens can become great additions to a landscape scheme – you might need help with ensuring that you don’t set up local flooding instead! (inlet-outlet invert levels etc.). Think of a ‘rain garden’ as a planted pond that only fills up during rain, and a ‘swale’ as a planted open spoon drain.


Street Rain Gardens – a great way to re-vegetate the public space and treat almost all of the stormwater. Check these out; rain garden retrofit and green streets for a cleaner harbour.

Soft Kerbs – ever watched all that stormwater running down the street in the gutters and wondering if there’s a better way? Soft kerbs can be suitable as part of the street rain garden retrofit, allowing stormwater an easier path into soft ground. This one requires considerations around traffic & safety and is typically only suited to local low-traffic streets, but streets with soft kerbs often have that something ‘special’ about them.

soft kerbs

These first two Blitz steps go hand-in-hand – removing the overhead wires allows us to get some serious planting into the street, and the stormwater bounty supports a much richer landscape.

Our next instalments will cover street trees and traffic calming.

New Urbanism Vs New Pedestrianism

Once upon a time I believed that ‘New Urbanism’ was just a developer’s clever way of cramming more residential Lots into an estate, creating residential sub-divisions defined by over-bearing garaged streetscapes, abundant paving and almost non-existent landscape.

From Wikipedia;

New Urbanism is an urban design movement which promotes walkable neighbourhoods containing a range of housing and job types.

To date one of the flaws with this approach has been that whilst the ‘walkable’ bit is achieved, there is often nowhere to walk to… no mixed use retail-commercial village centres, no local stores or services etc. One still has to get into a car to reach anywhere meaningful. What has been missing is the whole macro-economic design stage. The New Urbanism approach only seems to have real potential when done at significant scale, for example when a new village or town is being created. Otherwise it really can be just a way to cram more into less.

The even newer kid on the block is ‘New Pedestrianism’ [NP][coined by Michael E. Arth in the US]. This takes the concept of new urbanism but seeks to fix some of the main flaws, being car-centric streets and hard alleys. NP makes the front ‘street’ pedestrian only, with all vehicle servicing via the rear streets. The concept below is by Michael E.Arth;


New Pedestrianism, showing comparison with typical suburban design and New Urbanism. Drawing by Michael E. Arth

Out of sheer curiosity I thought I’d try to compare these with each other from a developer perspective to try to see what some of the drivers might be. The New Urbanism and Pedestrianism models have a range of sustainability virtues but I’ll visit these another day – some at least are revealed in this comparison (Lot sizes are indicative only for comparison – will vary between countries);

lot design comparison

So why, despite the perverse incentives for both the developer and local Council to adopt the traditional suburban development [developer has the most land to sell, local Council has the least land to maintain], are we seeing a growing number of developments that are focussing on all the good stuff that New Urbanism/Pedestrianism might enable?

I’m a big believer in good aesthetics being a strong selling point for real estate, and I suspect this may be at the root of why more developers (and purchasers) are placing real value in street trees, more greenery, community space (commons) and less dominance by the automobile. Our lifestyles are also of course swaying us towards smaller lower maintenance Lots. As a by-product there are a raft of great sustainability / resilience outcomes that actually reduce running costs for all concerned.

Keep an eye on the ‘Front Yard Blitz’ series as I explore many of the elements found in both New Urbanism and New Pedestrianism – as to which one is ‘best’?

Well, I’m sure it won’t be as clear-cut as that… ; )

Front Yard Blitz #1 – Undergrounding the Cables

I’ve had enough of these crazy backyard-renovation-blitz shows. Never do they pay attention to streetscape, neighbourhood, place making or community. They don’t create any legacy. So I’m running my own series right here – the Front Yard Blitz series.

The goal is to see how we might refurbish our suburban streets to become more resilient, more engaging, environmentally restorative and maybe even healthy for us.

This first instalment looks at the dog’s breakfast of overhead power cables lining most existing neighbourhood streets.

In 1838 Samuel Morse kicked off the telegraph revolution and still today we’re adding more junk to the very same infrastructure that was built for the telegraph. The reason we’re not witnessing a nation-wide project to put it all underground is mostly due to up-front cost.


For reasons that will become clear, getting the cables underground is perhaps the key enabler for this green street project. Besides the reduction in storm damage, reduced road deaths and bushfires, if we can get the cables underground it lets us proceed with a whole range of value-adds which we’ll explore as we go.

So the question is, ‘how much?’.

I’ve found a range of figures online for Australia, and the average cost per-household seems to be around $12,000. Of course this is based on a range of assumptions and conditions, and for the sake of argument let’s say $15,000 per household for a typical suburban neighbourhood with detached or semi-detached homes.

This might go up or down depending on what other works are being undertaken at the time, e.g. footpath or road resurfacing. Some utilities require you to pay the entire bill (e.g. Ausgrid) whilst others (e.g. Western Power in south-west Western Australia) might pay 25%. Local Councils will also usually chip in, sometimes up to 50%, and some State Governments also contribute up to 25%. Naturally I’m too time-pressed to research all of this across all of Australia, but the punchline seems to be that you’d be unlucky to have to pay the entire cost yourself.

In Perth the cost for the resident is down to around $4,500 thanks to the multi-agency contributions. I haven’t been able to determine whether or not this includes the cables from the street to the homes, so there may be some additional cost.

So would you pay $15,000 (assuming no funding support) just to get the cables underground? And what chance do you have of getting the majority of residents in your street to do the same (which is required before the project can proceed)?

An Australian National University study concluded that putting the powerlines underground can increase a home’s value by 3%, which is for example a $15,000 rise on a $500,000 property. ‘Money for jam’ as they say. Street presentation is one of the first selling points in real estate, so a street without all that junk in the air always stands a better chance.

In the next posts we’ll start to explore what is possible if we can remove the encumbrance of the overhead cables.

Information sources;

Strengthening Neighbourhood Resilience

In another component to the Resilient Communities theme I’ve had going for the past few weeks, this component is arguably the most important – the resilience of the social community.

This report from Canada, entitled ‘Strengthening Neighbourhood Resilience – Opportunities for Communities & Local Government’, is largely about some approaches we can take to stimulate a healthy local community of residents. It covers topics such as local economy, leadership and planning and is a comfortable read with great clarity around the softer aspects of building resilient communities… so it dovetails well with the Building Resiliency Task Force NYC that I posted last week.

snr report

“Resilience is our ability to respond and adapt to change in ways that are pro-active, that build local capacity, and that ensure essential needs are met.”

Some key out-takes;

  • resilient communities have a high level of social capital [mutual trust, social norms, participation];
  • a focus on resilience emphasise the dynamic nature of communities and the fact that they are always changing (p5);
  • resilience prioritises tasks by focussing on what strengthens long-term adaptive capacity;
  • resilience planning sees the community as one interconnected system, rather than component parts. This is at the same time more complex but also more responsive to the community as a living thing.

This report is really worth the read if you’re trying to gain some understanding or appreciation of the softer side of resilience and how to design for it. The language is clear and leads you through the argument, and much of the report is laid out as a workbook to focus on practical actions.

This is a great one for local Councils and design teams alike to pick up.