Ralph Alphonso’s groundbreaking 5×4 Hayes Lane project in East Melbourne is complete, and now he’s been living and working in it for the past two months, he says all the theories and risk-taking are proving their worth.
The building has a tiny 20-square-metre site footprint, and four levels totalling 88 sq m of liveable space – 11 sq m of which is occupied by plants, Alphonso says.
It has all the mod cons – a rooftop deck, garden and hot tub – and features one bedroom, one bathroom, a living room, study area and reading area.
It also features “off the shelf” technology that contributes to sustainability and low-energy use, including a heat reclaim ventilation system, geothermal heating and cooling system, LED lighting and six-star rated appliances.
The original project budget was $300,000, and the final cost including consultants’ fees came in at about $430,000. By comparison, according to realestate.com, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in the suburb is $448,000, with newer “luxury” branded product up to $900,000.
One of the final elements to be installed and commissioned on the project was a four-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system that it is estimated will generate 20 per cent more electricity than the efficient building uses.
The solar system comprises 15 Yingli Solar 270W panels integrated into the building’s façade and roofline over three different angles including six installed vertically on the northern facade.
Enphase microinverters have been installed behind each panel, and both the occupants and the general public will be able to look at data on the system’s performance in real-time via Enphase’s Enlighten software platform.
Alphonso says there are plans to upgrade the microinverters in the near future, as the ones currently in use are not enabling the system to generate power to the full 4kW capacity.
Because the system is exporting excess electricity generated to the grid during the day, there are plans to install a battery system in the near future so the solar power can be used at night.
Managing director of Enphase Energy Asia-Pacific Nathan Dunn said the development “sets a benchmark for sustainable living through intelligent design”.
“Five x Four is set to be one of the first homes in the world to generate, store and control its own power,” Mr Dunn said.
Alphonso says generating power on site was one of the key components and goals of his project. He also aims to have a home automation system installed that will enable control of energy use down to an individual power point level.
This, he says, will also mean being able to have appliances such as washer and dryer operate during the peak power generating times in the middle of the day.
“I want to be able to push the envelope, and see my energy consumption,” he says. “That then leads to behaviour change.”
The whole project has been both about the building itself and how to design and construct more sustainably, but also about how Alphonso lives in a space, and how to reduce waste and have more sustainable behaviours as an occupant – things like reducing food waste, using eco-friendly cleaning and personal products, and swapping one-use plastic containers for glass, he says.
Alphonso also designed multi-functional furniture for the spaces that was crafted by a local workshop – a couch that converts to the dining table made of PVC-free eco-friendly materials and recycled timber; a bed that incorporates storage; a bench that converts to the TV unit.
The building was designed using One Planet Living Principles, and constructed from prefabricated engineered timber panels and framing. All the glazing is high performance double glazing, with integrated shading elements. The design also maximises the benefits of passive solar orientation.
Energy use for heating and cooling has been minimised through the use of a geothermal heat pump system and eco-friendly wall insulation that contains a phase change material.
Alphonso says the combination of thermally efficient elements in the building envelope has worked so well that the home generally stays between 21 degrees and 23 degrees interior temperature. During the cold months he has had comments that it feels “too warm” even without heating – not a common Melbourne winter problem.
A blower door test was carried out to assess the building’s air tightness. Alphonso says it showed an air change rate better than the UK standard for air tightness.
This makes using the mechanical heat recovery ventilation system important, he says, if energy has been used cooling the space, as “the building isn’t leaking fast enough!”. The mechanical system uses 200 watts when operating at highest capacity, and its operation responds to air quality sensors. Mostly, it has been operating at between 30 to 50 per cent capacity, he says.
The design also enables effective passive ventilation. Because the layout has a chimney effect, Alphonso says it is possible to open windows on the ground or first floor, then open the door to the deck, and create extremely good airflow through the effect of thermal stratification.
These initiatives mean the project’s peak energy load for cooling on a 40 degree day is estimated to be less than 3kW.
An assessment of the embodied energy of the building was conducted in November 2013 using eTool LCA. The assessment found the project was negative for operational carbon, saving 273 per cent against the benchmark and achieving eTool platinum standard.
- Read more details of 5×4’s sustainability initiatives in our previous case study
The project has attracted support from City of Melbourne, Melbourne University, ACF and Beyond Zero Emissions.
Alphonso says that while the living spaces are small, it has the benefit of encouraging “getting out and socialising”. The walkability factor is high, with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars all within close proximity – Victoria Street is two blocks away, Smith Street three blocks away, Brunswick Street five blocks away and Fitzroy Gardens only 80 metres away.
A professional photographer and media producer, Alphonso has always been interested in sustainability, and also has done numerous jobs photographing architecture. Project managing 5×4 as an owner-builder brought all those elements together, he says.
“There has been a lot of greenwash [in property]. I can see through some of the advertising jargon and rhetoric.
“The economy and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. If you are more economical, you are more sustainable, and more efficient with resources.
“Part of this project is showing you can live in a contemporary house that doesn’t look like it’s full of eco-gadgets. It looks normal – but it performs incredibly well.”