Apartment blocks the missing link in sustainability

by Lynne Blundell

Favourites – 3 June 2010 High rise apartment blocks, it turns out, are the biggest energy guzzlers in the residential market. But they are falling through the cracks when it comes to energy and water efficiency incentive schemes. It is something that local councils are acutely aware of while state and federal government appear to be turning a blind eye.

According to a NSW Energy Australia study, a highrise apartment uses 30 per cent more power than a typical detached house. Much of this is in the common areas such as foyers and car parks where lights are often inefficient and are left on night and day.

Water is even worse. As apartments are not separately metered individual water use is difficult to monitor, lowering the incentive to install water efficient devices.

At a recent information evening for apartment owners held at Willoughy Council in Sydney, Andre Boerema from Sydney Water told the audience that multi-unit dwellings accounted for 14.3 per cent of Sydney Water’s consumption.

Yet with millions of Australians living in apartments and many more to come if population growth figures are anything to go by, little has been done by government at state or federal level to target them for energy and water incentive schemes or rebates. Strata laws, which vary slightly from state to state, not only make it very difficult to make changes, but in some instances they also cut apartment owners out of incentive schemes altogether.

In NSW strata law requires at least 75 per cent consensus of owners to make changes in common areas of apartment blocks, such as installing more efficient hot water systems, rainwater tanks or a green roof. To vote for such changes the strata committee (made up of residents) must call either an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Owners Corporation or wait for the Annual General Meeting.

Christine Byrne of the Owners Corporation Network NSW told The Fifth Estate that there was a big gap in the traditional structure of the Owners Corporation when it comes to doing sustainable retrofits in apartment blocks.
“Most owners don’t understand what the owners corporation is,” says Byrne. Somehow they think it is something out there and that they’re not part of it. Most people just get on with their lives and don’t get involved.”

Unless an external strata manager has been appointed, apartments must have an executive committee to organise meetings and to push for changes. These are volunteer apartment owners with a mix of skills and varying attitudes to climate change and sustainability.

“A lot is expected of these volunteers – time, skills and an understanding of technical issues. And if there is an external strata manager employed they are not contracted to deal with something extra such as sustainable upgrades – it is an administrative role,” says Byrne.

But a key problem is that governments have put apartments in the ‘too hard basket’ when it comes to energy efficiency incentives. The now defunct green loans for example were targeting houses, not strata owners corporations.

Christine Byrne

Christine Byrne

“The people who put these things together don’t seem to understand the issues with strata. There are 30 to 50 homes in a building so they should be able to pool these resources. I talked to assessors for the green loans and they said each individual owner should apply, but that would mean we would have to have one hundred per cent of owners take them out.

“The same applies to gross feed-in [tariffs for solar energy]. We are not able to pool that either. To qualify you need to use under 160 megawatt hours per year. In our building we don’t qualify because there is higher combined use,” says Byrne.

Under the NSW government’s feed-in tariff scheme, which commenced on 1 January 2010, electricity customers that consume up to 160 megawatt hour a year and that produce renewable energy through eligible roof-top solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and wind turbines connected to the grid receive a “gross” feed-in tariff rate of 60 cents per kilowatt hour for all the electricity they generate.

Another issue for apartment blocks if they did earn from such a scheme is tax, says Byrne.

“The Australian Taxation Office classifies an Owners Corporation in NSW as a business so we pay tax as a business and then individuals also pay personal tax once these earnings are divided up. Gross feed-in earnings won’t be taxed for households but for apartments they will. But we are not businesses – residential strata is just a whole pile of homes in one building.”

Water efficiency can also be difficult. In the majority of cases apartments are not separately metered for water so consensus is required for water usage to be reduced.

“In the apartment block I live in we spend $45,000 a year on water for 120 apartments. If we want to reduce that we can introduce energy efficient devices in each apartment with a majority vote but we can’t enforce what people actually do in their own apartments,” says Byrne.

The installation of solar panels can be complex in apartment blocks. The size of the installation can create a hazard, as it is a mini power station, says Byrne. This must be carefully considered and managed, particularly when maintenance personnel will be accessing the roof for general maintenance of the apartment block.

But it is not all bad news. Christine Byrne believes education of apartment owners will bring about change. She has been working with several Sydney councils to help inform apartment dwellers about their options and is setting up an online knowledge base about retrofitting existing apartment buildings, Green Strata Wiki (http://www.greenstrata.com.au/), with funding from City of Sydney Council.

In Victoria apartment owners are actively seeking green upgrades according to Sharon Lameris of the Owners Corporation Victoria. She told The Fifth Estate that many of OCV’s members are extensively involved with trials and the implementation of sustainable measures within strata complexes as well as sustainable initiatives across Victoria (see her letter).

“We have proudly been for several years and continue to support and participate in sustainable forums run by the City of Melbourne and Yarra for owners, managers and tenants, research programs through various councils, as well as contribute to research being carried out by training institutions such as RMIT,” says Lameris.

Strata law specialist, Rosemary Hall, of Hall’s Strata Law Pty Ltd,  told The Fifth Estate that the strata law was changed in 2005 with the requirement for at least 75 per cent of residents to agree on upgrades or changes to common property.

“Apartment owners are a bit hamstrung if they want to make changes. People putting in rainwater tanks for example or roof gardens need to get consensus. Imagine with a group of 600 people trying to convene when everyone is not on the same page,” says Hall.

EnergyAustralia, NSW Department of Planning -Multi Unit Residential Buildings Energy & Peak Demand Study, 2005

EnergyAustralia, NSW Department of Planning -Multi Unit Residential Buildings Energy & Peak Demand Study, 2005. The blue area denotes common areas and the yellow tabs are in order (in case resolution is poor) detached, High Rise, Mid Rise and Low Rise, in order

There was no lobbying at a legislative level for change to strata law that she is aware of says Hall.

It was possible to mandate installation of water saving devices, energy efficient lighting or solar hot water in apartments if the required number of owners agreed. A by law is then introduced for that apartment block and all current or future owners must comply, says Hall.

“These sort of changes are easier in smaller schemes where you have five or six apartments. The airconditioning might break down and the owners decide it will not be replaced. Or the owners corporation may take the initiative to pay for all apartments to have water efficient devices installed,” says Hall.

For significant change to occur lobbying and education was needed.

“I think the big developers will have to take the lead in this. They are in a position to make sustainability changes.

“This can be done through redevelopment of existing schemes [apartment blocks] and in the planning of new ones. There is a big gap there,” says Hall.

Local government is trying to fill some of the gaps with several Sydney councils offering education workshops for apartment owners and tenants and some even offering incentives.

Rosemary Hall

Rosemary Hall

Sydney City Council is now regularly running workshops to help in greening of apartments, which include presentations by lawyers, water and energy companies and other sustainability experts.

Willoughby Council has a ClimateClever Apartments grants scheme, which opens for applications on 1 June and closes on Tuesday 31 August 2010.

Any Owners Corporation of a residential strata plan located within the Willoughby local government area with at least 10 individual apartments is eligible to apply.

The scheme has two sections – energy efficiency and solar photovoltaic. In the energy efficiency section Council will award three grants on a dollar for dollar matching basis for the retrofitting of energy efficient technologies that reduce the energy consumption of the common areas and/or shared hot water service in three different sized apartment buildings.

Examples of projects that are eligible include the retrofitting of shared electric hot water services with gas boosted solar hot water or the replacement of halogen lights with LEDs in the common areas. The council will provide up to $10,000 for one small to medium owners corporation with 10-49 units, $15,000 for one medium size with 50-99 units and $25,000 for one large owners corporation with 100 or more units.

In the Photovoltaic section the council will award one grant of $10, 000 provided on a dollar for dollar matching basis for the installation of a solar PV system on an apartment building. The solar PV system must be installed as a shared asset of the Owners Corporation. The council is encouraging Owners Corporations to apply for this category in combination with the energy efficiency category. For more information on the grants click here.

Utility companies are also starting to look at apartment blocks. To help reduce water usage in multi-unit dwellings Sydney Water is currently running a pilot HiRise Program that offers audits, on-line meter monitoring and funding for efficiency upgrades for large apartment buildings.

The HiRise Pilot includes:

  • • Fully funded water efficiency audits (costing between $6,000 -$20,000
  • depending on water use -free)
  • • Fully funded sub-meters (costing between $1,500 -$3,000-free)
  • • Co-funded (50/50) installation of submeters (costing around $1,500)
  • • Fully funded on-line monitoring (costing between $1,000 -$5,000 -free)
  • • Co-funded (50/50) up to $20,000to assist buildings committees in
  • implementing cost effective recommendations made during the audit

Sydney Water’s Andre Boerema told those who attended a recent information workshop at Willoughby Council that sub metering in apartment blocks could save substantial amounts of water and money by detecting leaks. A leak could waste 73 kilolitres a day, amounting to $136 a day or $49,537 a year.

Paul Myors from EnergyAustralia told the audience that hot water heaters in apartments accounted for the majority of energy used – around 37 per cent, compared to 22 per cent for heating and cooling and 9 per cent for lights.

Energy use in common areas of apartment blocks accounted for 42 per cent of their total consumption. Simple changes such as energy efficient light bulbs, motion sensors for lights, installing water efficient taps and other devices, using variable speed drives and controls for fans an pumps could make an enormous difference to both usage and power bills.

Case study – Mirramar Apartments, Sydney

The strata management of Mirramar Apartments, a 38 storey Sydney CBD strata unit residential building with 267 units mandated Sydney Water’s WaterFix program for all units.

Many apartments were found to have major water leaks and most showerheads were inefficient.

Savings:

  • 58kL/day – 21 per cent drop in historic water consumption
  • $49,000 per year on cold-water savings
  • hot water consumption was reduced by 27kL/day resulting in significant energy savings
  • $15,000 a year on energy savings
  • 36 tonnes of CO?a year in energy savings from reduced hot water wastage.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au
The Fifth Estate – sustainable property news and forum

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