ATA member profile: Ten years in a (non-)leaky boat

ATA member

Get the building envelope as good as you can before focusing on the bling, says long-term ATA member Dr Wendy Miller. She talks to the ATA’s Richard Finn about what she’s gained at home and at work in her two decades in the sustainability arena.

DR WENDY Miller and her husband Ray have been part of the ATA family since 1997 when a renewable energy subject at the local TAFE made them keenly aware that what they were doing now impacted on their children’s future. As a family of five, they decided to try to get their all-electric house’s stationary energy consumption down to one kilowatt-hour (kWh) per person per day. This meant renovating their hot 1970s house as finances allowed: installing ceiling insulation, changing roof colour, adding external window shading, purchasing energy-efficient appliances when replacements were needed and installing solar hot water and solar PV.

Over time (about eight years) this resulted in a reduction in electricity consumption from 22 kWh per day to 5.7 (with four adults): about 1.4 kWh per person per day. For a short time their solar PV system (installed in 2000) was even an officially registered power station on Australia’s energy network! Wendy remembers: “That was an interesting time at the start of the rooftop solar revolution. I remember, perhaps not so fondly, the robust discussions with government and the network to get ‘permission’ for our system to be connected. But it did lead, a number of years later, to being invited to Queensland’s feed-in tariff discussions as a consumer advocate.”

In 2008, as ‘empty nesters’, Ray and Wendy took advantage of a move to the Gold Coast to take their sustainability drive to the next level and construct their 9 Star ‘eBay House’— so called because much of the construction and fitout (including the kitchen sink!) was purchased secondhand.

Wendy talks proudly of the rainwater collection, water and waste recycling system, the rooftop solar system and revegetation of the once bare block to not only produce food, but to support indigenous native plants and encourage bird, marsupial and reptile life. Energy-wise their total daily consumption is about 4 kWh per day—and all of that is well and truly met with their 1.7 kW PV system. “I’m really pleasantly surprised at how the price of solar has decreased: in 2000, a 1.5 kW system cost in the vicinity of $16,000. Now you can buy a system three times as big for a quarter of the price!”

However, she is quick to state: “The more you do, the more you realise what needs to be done.” In terms of the built environment she says that we need to think differently, and question just why Australia has settled on the standard “two adults, two kids, granite benches and air conditioning” type house. “I’ve got nothing against granite benchtops,” Wendy says, “but ideally we should focus first on getting the building envelope as good as we can, rather than focusing on bling and gadgets. If your house is designed and constructed well, it (like a boat) should not be leaky. Like a bilge pump, the air conditioner should be considered a ‘safety mechanism’ for extreme events, not an everyday item to make up for poor quality design and construction.”

Her career as a senior research fellow in energy efficiency and housing at the Queensland University of Technology has meant exposure to the world. In Europe, she’s seen new approaches to designing housing for non-traditional groupings, such as communities of single people all buying together, or collectives of families leading their own residential development. In the USA there is the Tiny House Movement.

Wendy believes the ATA and its publications provide essential services. Apart from the chance to share an idea or ask a question, the ATA is a voice for the people, a chance to be heard at governmental level, she says. Wendy was a long-time Brisbane branch member and convenor, before shifting down the coast.

As the weather heats up, and other houses’ ‘bilge pumps’ get switched on, in eBay House Wendy and Ray are walking the talk, now sailing their ‘boat’ into their grandchildren’s future.

This member profile is published in Renew 139. Buy your copy here.