Elements of a sustainable living room

Click on a pointer to the image to get more information on the sustainable elements of a building envelope

Clickable living room Natural daylight and energy-efficient light fixtures Energy-efficient appliances Monitoring energy consumption Furnishings and furniture Sustainable flooring materials Indoor plants Indoor air quality Pelmets, blinds and drapes Natural daylight Heating and cooling Image Map

Indoor air quality

Flooring, interior paint, insulation and furniture can all be a source for emission of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC), affecting indoor air quality. Formaldehyde is a nasty chemical that is used in the glues for composite timber materials such as MDF and plywood, and in insulation materials. It is also found in some plastics, paints and varnishes, adhesives, sealants and textile finishings. Make sure that products used during building or renovations:

  • do not contain formaldehyde, or
  • have low formaldehyde emissions certified to Australian Standards, and/or
  • are coated or sealed on all sides (e.g. with laminate, acrylic paint or polyurethane) to prevent emissions.

It is best to use materials which do not need finishes applied to them. Examples are natural wood ceilings, bricks and tiles or roofing steel with the colour baked on at the mill. For paints, stains and varnishes, use water-based/plant-based/ zero/ low-VOC products, or natural oils and waxes.

Older homes in Australia have paints containing high levels of lead. DIY home renovators can be unknowingly creating a health hazard for themselves and their families when sanding. Even small amounts of dust or chips of paint containing lead can be a health risk and these can remain in the home or garden for many years after the actual work has been finished. When doing renovation work, use a paint/varnish remover or stripper which limits the possible exposure to lead via dust when the surface is sanded.

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Sustainable flooring materials

Choose sustainable flooring materials from a range of options in timber, bamboo, stone, slate, cork, tiles, concrete, sisal, coir or synthetic resilient surfaces such as linoleum. Ensure that zero or low-VOC water-based sealants and adhesives are used for whatever flooring material you use.

Concrete slabs have high embodied energy but they offer greater thermal comfort. There are eco-concrete options such as those that use fly-ash, a by-product of coal plants, or those that incorporate recycled materials such as glass. You can also refinish existing concrete floors instead of replacing it with new floors.

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Furnishings and furniture

You don’t have to always buy new. Using vintage or recycled furniture helps to save money and resources. For wardrobes and cabinets that use laminates or veneers, consider options where you can use:

  • sustainable timber (FSC-certified or reclaimed) or timber veneers with zero or low-VOC sealants
  • eco-accredited laminates and particleboard.

Trim work around the house, such as around doors, windows, walls, ceilings and stairs, add beauty to your home. Instead of using fine grade, virgin solid wood for these materials, use salvaged materials that can also provide unique architectural details and historical pieces for fireplace mantels, ceiling medallions, columns, etc., in your home.

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  • Databases like Ecospecifier can help guide product selection.
  • Some suppliers of recycled timbers and building materials in Sydney are Heritage Building Centre (Rockdale), Ironwood Australia (Rozelle) and Recycled Timbers (Warragamba)
  • You can also look for recycled timber on Build Bits, an online marketplace where you can buy and sell used, new, recycled and surplus building materials and products for free.

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Heating and cooling

Reversible fan.jpgBefore purchasing any mechanical cooling or heating device, you should consider other non-energy consuming means of providing a comfortable home environment. See page on Design Aspects.

Fans are a great feature to include as they reduce the need for air conditioning. When we feel air move across our skin a temperature drop is experienced due to evaporation of moisture. Reversible ceiling fans in the bedrooms and living areas can provide downward cooling in summer and upward circulation of warm air in winter too.

Gas ducted heaters lose about 50% of their heat energy to the atmosphere. On the other hand, modular mini split system air conditioners running in reverse cycle (heating mode) gain their delivered energy from the atmosphere. This calculator by Fair Air can help you work out the capacity of the air conditioner required to cool a specific area but it is best to consult a professional.

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Indoor plants

Indoor plants.jpgAir inside our homes and buildings is often found to be more polluted than outdoor air (See section on Indoor Air Quality on this page). Cleaning is an important part of maintaining a home with good indoor air quality. However, many cleaning products that give off ‘clean’ smells such as eucalyptus or citrus fragrances, can actually worsen indoor air quality by expose you to harmful airborne chemicals.

Plants and soil bacteria are nature’s bio-filters. Indoor potted plants such as peace lily (Spathiphyllum), mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) and rubber plant (Ficus elastica) can help remove significant levels of chemical pollutants directly from the air.

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Pelmets, blinds and drapes

Placing tight-fitting pelmets over curtains and blinds, helps to trap air and create a layer of insulation. Using close-fitting blinds or heavy drapes that touch the floor and walls on either side can also be effective in keeping winter heat in and summer heat out.

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Energy-efficient appliances

The home itself might be energy efficient, only requiring a modest amount of heating or cooling, but if this is supplied by inefficient appliances (e.g. electric resistance heaters) then the good work done in making the building envelope energy efficient is lost. Always buy the most energy-efficient appliances you can afford for longer term savings

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Natural daylight and energy-efficient light fixtures

Many homes have halogen lights which waste a lot of energy through the heat they generate. Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs and tubes are better but light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs have the additional benefit of being non-toxic at the end of their life cycle and lasting up to five times longer. Though they can be more expensive to purchase, LEDs use around 80% less energy than halogens and hence their operating cost is much lower.

Surface mounted battens and pendant lights provide more lighting than a recessed downlight of equivalent power. Clearance is required around downlights as part of AS/NZS 3000 and installers leave out 20-50mm insulation around each downlight. The heat lost through this uninsulated part of the ceiling will double the heat lost through the whole ceiling. This reduces the effective R value of the insulation. Use downlight covers that allow insulation to be installed up to the side of the cover.

The number and placement of lights is important. Don’t over-illuminate. Installing light fittings that automatically adjust to ambient lighting helps to save energy. Windows and skylights allow daylight into a room and reduce the need for electric lighting. See section on Windows and Skylights in the Building Envelope webpage for more information.

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Monitoring energy consumption

Energy monitor.jpgEnergy monitoring devices that show household electricity in real-time are now available, assisting you to make more powerful energy efficiency choices. The data can either be viewed online, on your smart phone or on in-house displays.

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