Australian consumers are not being given information they need to make a responsible choice when buying a house.

If a sales brochure states that a house is “green” or “sustainable” or “six stars,” what does that actually mean to a consumer? Is the language meant to promise health and well-being, or is it meant to simply evoke a vague sense of moral responsibility to the planet?

The number one feature of a sustainable home is quality. It should not have to be repaired soon to fix poor workmanship. It should not have defects that could harm health. How sustainable are allergies or asthma?

In Australia, the breakneck pace of development is not being matched by steady increases in quality. The days are coming when this will come back to haunt us. An ominous article by ABC, Leaking buildings, mould and court battles: The dark side of the apartment boom, gets right into this issue.

Lawsuits over build quality have bankrupted countless builders over the years, and incredible rates of growth do not help. Back in 2002, in an article enumerating the lawsuits facing one builder said, “The problem is especially acute in fast-growing suburbs, where inspectors are usually rushing from one job to the next.” And as one former warranty manager for a large US builder put it, “it’s not a corruption problem, just a growth problem.”

A look around construction sites in Australia offers a sobering reality. High-end building product manufacturers face serious competition, whether from other high-end companies or from manufacturers of cheaper knock-offs. But the true adversary is market ignorance and tolerance of shoddy construction quality.

This isn’t just about nice finish quality. New homes all tend to look beautiful – nice flooring, smooth paint, clean caulking. A look at one particular granny flat just built near Sydney serves as a perfect example. Walking around this home, you would assume it is well-built and that granny would be happy, healthy, and comfortable, but taking a deeper look, you may not like what you see. As one of my associates put it, “They look like nice pants, but don’t take them off because you won’t want to see the dirty underwear underneath.”

A blower door test of the house was conducted because the builder wanted a quick assessment of how he was doing. A blower door test is a quality control test for the draft- and weather-proofing of a home which uses a fan to put pressure on the house, allowing you to measure how leaky the house is as a result. It’s such a straightforward and easy test that large parts of Europe and the US now require it in their building codes. Combine a blower door test with an infrared camera, and lots of interesting things sometimes show up.

The test shows the home using infrared wavelengths to show cool spots in the home; dark purple areas are relatively cool, and bright parts are hot. Bright yellow squares on the ceiling show missing insulation in the ceiling cavity. According to the infrared, the spots with missing insulation were several degrees warmer than the rest of the ceiling. Granny in her granny flat will feel this heat when she is sitting on her couch, no matter how hard the AC works. This is nothing you can see by walking around, but you will feel it.

When granny goes to bed, something even more sinister lurks. As the blower door was running, a single corner of the bedroom floor was noticeably cold and it instantly suggested moisture damage. Looking outside, it was confirmed. It had rained the week before, and it looked like at some point, water pooled behind the house and soaked the first course of bricks outside that room. The moisture evaporating from these materials made the corner of this room cold. If this drainage is not fixed soon, this corner of the house will forever be at risk of mould, rot, and termites.

Sadly, this granny flat was hardly an isolated case, with these problems far too widespread.

  • Hi Sean,

    Great post! It seems like buyers are often ‘dazzled’ by great staging and obvious inclusions like nice flooring, while potential issues like overheating and moisture damage don’t even rate a mention. In Australia, I think part of the problem relates to lack of supply – people are so desperate to get into a property that ‘minor’ issues like inadequate insulation are ok as long as they don’t end up costing a fortune down the track. Unfortunately, it's not widely known that money isn’t the only thing that could be at stake. Coming from a Building Biology background, I’m always concerned when I see people living in houses that can potentially cause serious health problems. Most of the time people don’t know how influential the built environment can be on health, and older people – like the granny you mentioned – are often the most vulnerable.

    That said, there are lots of organisations “beating the drum” and making noise about the health costs of poorly constructed buildings. The ASBB – the Australasian Society of Building Biologists – is one. They have a bunch of people working hard behind the scenes to grow awareness of all types of environmental health issues. It’s also encouraging to see organisations like the International WELL Building Institute joining forces with the Green Building Council of Australia to champion health and wellbeing in Australian buildings. In the last few years, I think we’ve started to see a real change in the way we view ‘sustainability’ – increasingly, a sustainable home is one that’s good for the planet AND good for personal health and wellbeing. Hopefully, this change will continue to gain momentum.

    Cheers, Sam