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Building or Buying – which is more sustainable

In the pursuit of being more sustainable in our everyday lives, one question remains – to build new or buy an existing home?

The answer is not so straightforward.

The key ingredients to sustainable building are to reduce, re-use and use more sustainable products. Therefore, to buy a home is a sustainable action ‘to re-use’ - as you are making an existing home yours and ‘to reduce’ - subsequently preserving these materials from landfill and preventing the consumption of new materials.

Yes, but does the home function sustainably as well?

Old homes were not constructed to the same standard as today and may be poorly designed for solar orientation and with materials questionable to occupant health. Modifications would be needed to improve the energy efficiency by reconfiguring the layout or glazing, removing harmful materials and improving the indoor air quality with natural materials, paints or finishes. This is still a sustainable approach but is dependant on the amount of modifications needed before it becomes cumbersome.

Some homes have just been poorly designed in the past.

In the ACT since 1999, sellers of residential properties had to provide information about the home’s Energy Efficiency as part of the sale. It is shown that there is value to the consumer to know how their future home rates and the expected energy needs to operate the home on a yearly basis.

New homes in Victoria are required to have a minimum 6 Star Energy Efficiency Rating and it is exciting to see that there are new homes easily exceeding this standard. However, the energy rating only takes into consideration the thermal performance of the outer shell of the home. On top of this are the selections of materials, are they from sustainably managed sources? Do they reduce waste in production? How far are materials transported? Do they off-gas toxins over their lifespan?

Both building and buying have their challenges, however both can have a sustainable outcome, which is dependant on your priorities.

You may decide that your goal is to reduce your footprint – a smaller home, to build new - yet use 70% recycled materials or to renovate – by adding green technology to an existing home.

In the next blog we will look at what features to look for in an older home if you are looking to retrofit or renovate.

Till next time,


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Fiona Golding is an Architect at Live Architecture, a Warrnambool-based studio, specialising in sustainable design, green buildings and healthy homes.


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