Sunny side in

A bright and cheery Christchurch renovation proves you don’t have to leave the suburbs to go green.

Primary colours and bold stripes are only part of the reason this suburban Christchurch home is happy. Renovated to take full advantage of the sun—and rain—this eco-retrofit has cut costs but not cosiness.

It’s a crisp autumn evening in Christchurch when Jonny Simpson and Ruth Henderson welcome me into their home. The couple haven’t even turned their heating on but clever renovations have turned this once-chilly house into a warm and cosy home.

Jonny and Ruth moved into their central Christchurch house six years ago. They began renovating on day two, with a policy to eco-retrofit where possible. For the creative 30-somethings—Jonny is a graphic designer, Ruth works for a building company—creating a comfortable home and cutting day-to-day costs was as important as being green.

The result is a bright, cheerful, original home—and a shining example of eco-living for the regular person.
The changes they’ve made “just seemed logical”, says Jonny. When appliances wear out, they’re replaced with the most efficient new model.

Funky furniture has been fashioned from pieces found in second-hand stores. A 24-tube solar water-heating system heats their 180-litre cylinder almost entirely independently of electricity. Shower-heads are low-flow, lightbulbs are compact fluorescent, and household products are eco-friendly—right down to their baby daughter Tui’s re-useable cloth nappies.

“When appliances wear out, they’re replaced with the most efficient new model. Funky furniture has been fashioned from pieces found in second-hand stores.”

The black exterior of the house isn’t just an edgy modern aesthetic, either. Christchurch houses are notoriously badly insulated, so vastly improved insulation was vital to the couple’s energy-saving strategy. The dark exterior enhances the absorption of sunlight, which is then held in the concrete walls, passively heating the home. Two small, unused rooms were removed to take advantage of the sun, allowing more light to enter on the north side.

The garden needed work, too. The original big lawn and rose bushes took too much looking after, so Ruth pulled the roses out and replaced them with natives. Native plants are easy, she says: already adapted to the local environment, they self-propagate, require no watering and little upkeep. An added advantage is that the native garden has attracted birds, creating a small sanctuary in the city.

“A garden shouldn’t have to be difficult,” says Ruth. “I plant things and if they’re meant to grow, they do, and if they die they weren’t meant to be there in the first place!”

With minimal effort they now grow all their own vegetables, while their organic kitchen waste gets composted back into the garden.

The veggie garden is watered direct from the two rainwater tanks discreetly tucked into the garden—also handy for washing their cars. In drought-prone Canterbury, this means they’re not wasting precious water supplies unnecessarily.

Including their extensive insulation work and double-glazing, and appliances such as their dishwasher, over the past six years Ruth and Jonny have spent close to $20,000 on their eco-retrofit. Has it been worth it?

“When we began renovating we decided to keep a log of our electricity usage,” says Ruth. They have noticed a marked decrease in the number of units they use. Currently, they spend only $25 a week on electricity for a family of three—peanuts compared to some of their friends who spend close to $500 a month. And with the property market starting to look favourably on ‘green’ homes, the investment has definitely been worth it.

Beyond the wallet however, the impact on their lifestyle is noteworthy. “Our home feels really healthy now”, Jonny says, “and it makes us feel good that we’re making less of an impact on the land.”

Denise Bester is an environmental scientist and reporter for Ecobob

Sun shower

Solar hot water systems are the sum of three parts: a collector panel, a transfer mechanism and a storage cylinder. The solar collector panel absorbs the sun’s energy (the panels should always face north). Water or fluid is passed through the panel to be heated. Next, a transfer mechanism moves the heated fluid from the collector to the storage cylinder.

The two most effective collector panel systems are the ‘flat plate’ panel and the ‘evacuated tube’ system. A flat plate panel absorbs sunlight and transfers heat directly into the water or heating fluid. An evacuated tube system—better in colder and low-sun climates—uses copper heat tubes to absorb sunlight and transfers the heat through a super-conductor, rather than through heating fluid.

Panels prices range from $4,000 to $7,000 and generally come in three sizes, depending on how big your cylinder is. A government subsidy of $500 is available through some companies.

Rain, rain, come again

Rainwater collection is dead simple: rainwater runs from your roof and into your existing gutters, where it’s diverted into down-pipes connected to your tank. Filters prevent debris and insects from entering the tank.

The collected water can be used in your washing machine, hot water cylinder, for flushing toilets and, of course, outdoors.

Rainwater tanks come in various sizes, shapes and colours to suit your section; there are even bladder tanks that fit, invisibly, under your house or deck. The cost ranges from $400 to $13,500 per tank (including installation), depending on complexity and size.

For local suppliers see Ecobob

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