The Future Of: Sustainable Housing

Featuring Dr Emma Heffernan

The Future Of series asks UOW experts and researchers a set of five questions to gain some insight into the future states of our lives, our communities, and the world.

Dr Emma Heffernan is a Research Fellow within the ARC Research Hub for Australian Steel Manufacturing and works in the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences. She is a UK registered Architect with a Masters degree in Urban Design from the University of the West of England. Emma completed a PhD on zero carbon homes and sustainable communities from the University of Plymouth.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

I’m working on a cutting edge project exploring innovative ways to construct mid-rise apartment buildings in Australia. I work within a multidisciplinary team of researchers and industry partners, which allows us to develop creative and holistic solutions.

More and more people are choosing to live in Australian cities. As a result, cities are becoming denser, with a greater proportion of the population living in apartments. This demographic shift has resulted in a significant increase in apartment construction. The construction of apartment buildings in Australia currently relies on traditional construction methods and materials. The vast majority of mid-rise apartment buildings, those between four and eight storeys in height, have a reinforced concrete frame and are constructed using a range of complex site-based activities.

We aim to develop a prototype that allows the construction industry to deliver apartments that are not only cheaper and quicker to build, but are also more environmentally friendly.

The project is seeking to explore the potential for using loadbearing cold-formed steel for the structure as an alternative to reinforced concrete. This form of offsite construction would enable the structure to be made into panels in a factory and rapidly erected on site. This has the potential to:

  • Reduce the amount of people and activities on site
  • Improve the safety of workers
  • Improve quality control
  • Reduce exposure to causes of construction delay, such as inclement weather

We are also exploring the relative life-cycle impact of a cold-formed steel apartment building when compared to one using traditional construction techniques. Initial results from our comparison of our prototype with conventional concrete construction are very positive.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

There are many innovations and emerging areas of focus within the field of sustainable construction. The Internet of Things brings a vast range of possibilities to the field of sustainable construction with virtually endless possibilities for embedding sensors within buildings to create Living Labs. There are also some exciting projects looking to develop innovative solutions for generating energy using the façades of buildings, which are particularly relevant in the apartment sector.

In terms of societal problems to be addressed, one major issue is the rate of renewal of our building stock in Australia. This is currently around 1-2 per cent per year, we therefore have an ageing building stock, much of which was constructed before energy efficiency regulations were introduced in 2003. As well as having the potential to reduce energy costs, sustainable features can contribute greatly to the comfort and wellbeing of occupants within the built environment. Therefore, there are multiple benefits to upgrading ageing buildings, and the field of sustainable building retrofits is necessarily growing.

I’m currently advising on the early stages of a project in which an interdisciplinary team of researchers is exploring the barriers and enablers to sustainable retrofitting in the residential rental sector. Nearly one third of all homes in Australia are within the rental sector.

However, homes within the sector are often of poor quality and do not include environmentally sustainable features. Because there is no requirement to disclose the energy performance of houses in Australia at the point of sale or lease, people are currently uninformed. Within this project we are seeking to identify the most appropriate policy and market-based solutions to encouraging the sustainable retrofitting of rental homes.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

There are many sources of sustainability and energy efficiency information; it can be difficult to find trusted sources with genuine scientific rigour. To ensure any retrofits home owners or occupants carry out are of genuine value to their wellbeing, it is important to be cautious of the integrity of information.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

With growing awareness of the imperative for sustainable buildings, there is a need for a new generation of professionals that can work in multi-disciplinary teams to deliver high performance buildings.

There’s growing demand for highly skilled building professionals who are aware of the benefits of sustainable technologies and who understand the correct way to design, install and maintain them for optimum results.

Current students at the University of Wollongong are extremely fortunate to again have the opportunity to be involved in the Solar Decathlon competition. Construction work is progressing well towards completing Team UOW’s entry for Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018, the Desert Rose House.

Team UOW brings together students from UOW and TAFE Illawarra to work in a multi-disciplinary team. This provides fantastic real world experience, preparing students for a career designing and constructing net zero energy buildings. In Desert Rose, Team UOW have set themselves a further significant social challenge to address – they are designing a dementia-friendly house that supports ageing in place. This kind of holistic approach to tackling the very different societal problems of climate change and an ageing population will provide excellent foundations for careers in the construction industry and beyond.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

My family and I moved to Australia from England two years ago, and we have been shocked by the low standard of thermal comfort in homes here. Despite the significantly milder climate here in Wollongong when compared to the UK, I’ve never before been so cold and uncomfortable in my home!

Sydney and Wollongong have a heating dominant climate – we need to heat our homes more than we need to cool them. However, people seem to believe that it does not get cold enough to need to insulate our homes or make them airtight.

With careful passive design at the outset, or through appropriate retrofit solutions, homes can use less energy to both heat and cool them for their lifetime. This also helps to maintain a more comfortable thermal environment in the home in both summer and winter. Therefore, I would say, if you are in the position to make decisions about the design and construction of your home, getting it right at the outset is worth the investment for your ongoing comfort and energy cost savings.

For more from Dr Emma Heffernan you can visit her UOW Scholars profile.

After over 18 months of designing, drawing, building and testing, the Desert Rose house is going to be revealed! Learn more about the launch and this fantastic project bringing together students from UOW and TAFE Illawarra, via the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre.

On Wednesday, August 22, Dr Heffernan will be one of three researchers to share their innovative steel research project at Uni in the Brewery (an event where our academics give brief talks on their research at a bar or pub). For more details, sign up to receive to our UOW Research News & Events e-mailing list.