Today’s news is full of reports that energy costs have doubled since the carbon tax was abolished. Both residential power prices and the frequency of power outages have been rising inexorably over the past couple of decades.
While governments and industry dally over a workable energy policy that can smooth our transition to clean energy, Australian householders are facing the twin problems of decreasing energy affordability and lack of energy availability as the phenomenon of blackouts due to lack of electricity supply occurs more and more frequently.
For residents of high-rise apartment buildings proliferating in cities across Australia these problems are a perfect storm where energy insecurity is literally designed in to the dwellings they occupy:
- Energy affordability – while multi-storey apartment buildings are inherently energy-intensive, many are completely energy-dependent for everyday living, and thus expose residents to cost of living pressures.
- Energy availability – an energy-dependent apartment building in a blackout is unliveable.
The likely impacts of electricity shortages on occupants are many and sometimes have unexpected consequences.
Research undertaken in Brisbane in the wake of the 2011 Brisbane River Flood (Kennedy and Lewis 2012) drew attention to factors that exacerbate the lack of energy security of multi-storey apartment buildings. The findings showed that the more energy-dependent a building is by design, the more vulnerable it is to failure during power outages.
The research identified a number of critical systems failures that have a significant impact on residents’ wellbeing, comfort and safety. Blackouts seriously limit occupants’ access and egress when lifts are disabled; and increase their feelings of insecurity when moving through darkened corridors and stairwells. Dwellings without access to cross-ventilation quickly become stifling and can overheat due to poor ventilation and air quality issues when air-conditioning fails; disruptions to phone and internet communications are problematic; lack of security when electronic locking fails; and lack of fire safety including failure of fire sprinkler systems and alarms – made even more risky when residents use candles or other naked flames.
Multi-storey housing design in Australia is far more energy intensive than it should be and needs a major rethink to meet these growing problems.
Design quality of multi-storey apartment buildings is a critical factor in reducing reliance on energy but has been ignored by both regulators and developers.
The regulatory focus on energy efficiency actually ‘locks in’ energy use and does little to reduce demand for energy. The National Construction Code requires buildings to have an ‘energy efficient’ envelope to ensure that energy used by the built-in appliances that heat, cool or light the interior of a building is an efficient use of that energy. (The ‘envelope’ describes the materials that the building is made of that separates the ‘conditioned’ space – usually the habitable interiors – from the ‘unconditioned’ space such as plant rooms and emergency stair wells).
While well-intended, the energy efficiency objective assumes that dwellings will be air-conditioned and the material enclosure will control heat flow into or out of the building. In more and more cases the envelope is predominantly constructed of floor to ceiling glazing without openable windows.
Developers tend to focus on up-front costs rather than ongoing operation and maintenance costs for future residents and meet regulatory issues with generic design solutions that help them maximise yield.
Building designs that respond to different climatic conditions and climate-related lifestyles are not supported by regulatory or market descriptions. Energy demand is exacerbated by buildings which are deemed to be energy efficient in their material, yet their structure, form and layout ignore fundamental design rules regarding planning orientation, shading and natural ventilation which can be applied to respond to a range of climatic regimes.
Design is inextricably linked to social and environmental trends and is not just a technical or aesthetic exercise. The strong trend to accommodate expanding urban populations in multi-storey buildings is unlikely to abate in coming decades and electricity will continue to play a major role in the operation of these buildings.
The influence of the design of apartment buildings on energy affordability and liveability for occupants, and on long term value for cities, must be recognised and capitalised on.
One way of averting the rising financial and environmental costs of the energy-intensive approach is to question default generic solutions to multi-storey apartment buildings and take a fresh look at the way that stakeholders’ priorities converge around the residential environment. Context-driven, resident-centred design that results in structure and form that is not vulnerable to the vagaries of the energy market requires a comprehensive evidence-based understanding of complex factors that can only be developed through trans-disciplinary collaboration. Creative approaches like our intensive design-led workshops shape better and more flexible apartment building solutions.
Kennedy R and Lewis J (2012) The impacts of power outages on the residents of contemporary multistorey apartment buildings in subtropical environments. In Gomes, Vanessa & da Silva, Maristela G. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 4th CIB International Conference on Smart and Sustainable Built Environments (SASBE2012) : Emerging Economies (1st Edition), Fundacao De Desenvolvimento Da UNICAMP – Funcamp, Sao Paulo, Brazil, pp. 339-344. See https://eprints.qut.edu.au/54159/