In Praise of Older Houses 1

It only took a day to demolish a 50-year old house down the street. It was there yesterday morning, a neat but well-worn Californian style bungalow, and it was gone by the evening. Half a century of memories disappeared in a flash; husbands carrying their young brides over the threshold, kids growing up and leaving home, old people dying, the storehouse of memories demolished and the debris gathered up by bobcat, slung onto the back of a truck and carted away to the tip. The gap left was like a black tooth in a complete set of pearly whites; a hole in the streetscape and the neighbourhood psyche. And as far as I could tell nothing was saved for re-cycling, the removal trucks had doors and windows mangled with smashed basins and toilet pans, broken bricks with steel waste pipes, even curtains wrapped around with copper wiring. Probably the cost of labour unpicking the materials and fittings was considered to be more than any re-sale value, or maybe it was the time factor as the builders were on site within a week. Though a visit to any of Perth’s salvage yards reveals a cornucopia of used materials and fittings, and an organised industry servicing smart builders and developers who know this source.

What I will miss the most about the house is the shady, vine covered verandah overlooking the street, and the cheerful wave from the old boy on his rocking chair. He is now in a nursing home. You just know the front of the replacement house will be a double garage door dominating the street frontage, plus a pair of entrance doors and windows to the master bedroom. There will be no social engagement between street and house, all the activity will be in the backyard.  If  there’s an old man on a rocking chair, you won’t see him, he’ll be around the back.

To add insult to injury, a sign appeared on the block this morning  Another 6 Star Energy Rated House by (builders name withheld). It failed to mention the loss of the energy embedded in the building rubble. An average double brick and tile house on concrete slabs and foundations fully demolished results in about 200 tonnes added to landfill, the concrete and bricks by themselves weigh 180 tonnes and represent hundreds of kilojoules of embedded energy. It will take at least 10 years for the new 6 Star house to offset this loss. A fairer and certainly more holistic energy assessment system would be to put a much greater penalty on the landfill contribution offsetting the overall energy star rating, thus encouraging the retention and recycling of more homes.

It would be wrong to name that particular builder or this one, whose signboard appeared on another cleared site nearby.

Like the vast majority of Western Australian project house builders (another very efficient industry) total demolition and new construction is regarded as more economical than renovation, and claims to meet current market expectations of clients seeking new houses rather than old.  There is a love of newness in Perth, evidenced by the quality of bulk rubbish placed on verges for Council collection. My parents had the same bedroom suite all their married lives. But is this love of newness encouraged by builders opting for the simplicity of a cleared site, by banks advising customers to ‘maximise’ the potential of the block (i.e. build a 4 bed, 2 bath house even though there’s only the two of you) or by clients actually preferring new over old?

Houses in Perth of even 30 years vintage, certainly 50 years, are considered old and due for replacement. Its a bit different in Europe and elsewhere, even in the Eastern States, where houses are often weatherboard or brick veneer with tin roofs, making alterations far easier than Perth’s double brick and tile house norm. There is greater respect even reverence for the old stock of buildings in Melbourne (shabby chic, somebody once called it’s architectural ethos) and newly built structures are often required to empathise with the scale, proportion and external materials of their venerable neighbours. There are proportionately more builders in Melbourne who can economically recycle old houses.  I am not arguing for heritage controls, which are often viewed as an impost on homeowners, but a process of appreciating the economic worth of an existing house as well as sustainability, aesthetics and contribution to the streetscape.

You can recycle fizzypop bottles and beer cans, even mobile phones, why can’t we recycle our houses in Western Australia?

The New South Wales Government has committed to lessening the amount of construction and demolition waste entering landfill, considered to be 28% of all waste or approximately 2 million tonnes (2006-7 figures). NSW based its booklet on the 2003 publication A Guide to Deconstruction by University of Florida Centre for Construction and Environment.

US data suggests (2003 figures, so pre-GFC) that around 270,000 houses are pulled down annually, with most of the debris ending up in landfill. To imagine the scale of this, one year’s demolition debris is sufficient to construct a wall 9 metres high and 9 metres wide around the entire border of the continental United States.

Building construction represents over 30 per cent of the world’s resources, including 12 per cent of its water and 40 per cent of its energy. Buildings produce 40 per cent of the waste that goes to landfill and 40 per cent of air emissions. Household energy use contributes about 10 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions.

The NSW Government and USA organisations have defined the different approaches to house deconstruction as:

Demolition – No re-use or re-cycling;

Selective deconstruction – Only recovering materials for re-use or recycling when removal is economically viable;

Complete deconstruction – Systematic, careful dismantling to maximise the amount of material recovered for re-use or recycling.

This last approach should be expanded to include an assessment of the merit of retaining more of the existing structure and other elements, and avoid the excessive costs and time spent on careful dismantling compared to demolition (up to 60% longer and 4 times the cost for a full brick house). Let’s for now call this  ‘reconstruction’.

An easy example of reconstruction is the use of a 1920s weatherboard home (above) typical of Melbourne, which was re-located in the 1980s to CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick East and is now used as a sustainability education exemplar to show that even homes a century old can be revamped to be sustainable, affordable and contemporary (e.g. now with open planning). Perhaps different systems of building in Western Australia e.g. timber frame, weatherboard will lead towards more recycling. CERES’ excellent website includes an interactive tour of the exemplar house:

A study by the British Empty Homes Agency, New Tricks with Old Bricks, is available on their website:

The study estimates that reusing empty homes could save 35 tonnes of carbon dioxide a property by removing the need for the energy expended on new building materials and construction. The study nailed the lie – house builders claiming that new homes are four times more efficient than older houses – proving that refurbished houses can be as just energy efficient as new homes.

The study compared old and new buildings and found that not only did older buildings emit less carbon dioxide, but even a well-insulated new home would take several decades to make up for the large amount of embodied carbon dioxide used in its construction.

It is time to rethink our love of new homes and rediscover the old. And if have to build new, there are significant lessons to be learnt from the past and plenty of re-cycled materials to use instead of new.

The second part of this article will look at a Perth example of converting an old house while addressing the energy shortcomings.

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One Comment

  1. Stuart Huggett
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Hi Frank. Can you contact me urgently re an interesting project? I am currently in NZ.

    Good to read your blog

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