Sustainability in homes is more than just flavour of the month, it’s also really important for a secure energy and water supply. Whether you’re retrofitting, renovating or building from scratch, it’s worth keeping a couple of simple ideas in mind. And, if you’re buying a unit off plan, ask your developer to implement them from the start.
Rainwater harvesting is the obvious starting point for water security. Plan ahead for tanks, whether you want to put them underground, build concrete on site, or install plastic. A small roof can collect an enormous amount of water, so plan for a battery of tanks if you have high water needs or live in an area with low annual rainfall.
Water tanks need a strong, flat foundation, and you want them to blend in aesthetically, or at least be hidden from your lounge. One option is to plant a pretty hedge around them, or a few strategically placed shrubs. You’ll also need to make sure your roof and gutters are suitable for rainwater collection.
Use untreated rainwater in your washing machine, toilet cisterns, or for cleaning the house – but make sure you filter out leaves and caterpillars. You can use it for drinking if you treat it properly – there are some great ultraviolet light treatment options. Make sure to check your estate regulations before installing – and challenge your homeowners’ association (HOA) if it doesn’t permit rainwater collection.
Definitely channel your grey water into the garden – and you’ll be surprised at how much of it there is. You can drip irrigate water from your bath, shower and washing machine straight onto your shrubs and trees. Water from your kitchen sink can be used, too, but needs a larger-outflow pipe straight onto your trees. Non-food plants and trees are brilliant for helping to biodegrade the detergents, plus they will benefit from the extra nutrition in the oils. For your vegetables, rather use rainwater.
Planting indigenous helps to secure water supply on your property because the right plants create the right microhabitat to help soil absorb and hold rainwater. This not only reduces your watering needs, but also turns your garden into a slow-feeder sponge for your local stream.
The biggest user of energy in your home is likely to be your lovely hot showers. Start with insulating your hot-water pipes; most geysers are manufactured with excellent insulation, but there’s still heat loss from the pipes in our homes.
Solar water heating technology is reliable and more affordable than electric in the long term. There’s often a surplus of heat and not enough water to transfer it to, so plan for more storage for your hot water. You’ll need a roof that’s structurally sound for the weight of the solar panels and water pipes. When you’re building, watch the sun and then angle your energy-capture roof to make the best of it.
If solar won’t work, opt for a gas heater that heats on demand. For kitchen use, it’s worth installing a small electrical geyser under the sink because your kitchen needs are different from your bathroom needs. If you are using an electric geyser, set the temperature to 60°C or lower, and install an independent hardwearing switch to reduce potentially expensive wear and tear on your distribution board.
Fire is by far the best, and most atmospheric, space-heating option. Invest in a good wood-burning stove with a secondary burn cycle. They burn wood first, and then they burn the smoke. Compared to an open fireplace, they are safer, hotter, more efficient – because they use less wood – and give off less air pollution. Fires have the added benefit of providing a market for wood from invasive alien plant clearing, which helps protect biodiversity and water resources, and also creates employment. That is, of course, if you are allowed them on your estate.
For cooling your home, air and water may be all you need. Natural evaporation processes are effective and easy to implement. Make sure there’s good airflow through your home, and place water features where air flows in or out. Plant a deciduous creeper on your north-facing wall. In summer its leaves will help insulate your home and, in winter, heat will penetrate into the wall.
If you want to stay with electrical space heating and cooling, think about a heat pump. It’s more effective and energy efficient than an element heater. It’s also a good option for water heating if solar won’t work.
Indigenous plants and trees are water-wise, adapted to local temperature extremes, and support a great diversity of small local wildlife.
Instead of an extensive lawn, why not plant up part of your garden with a mix of shrubs and groundcovers with little secret stepping stone paths? Select plants that flower at different times of the year so you always have colour. Remember to choose plants that grow locally in the type of habitat in which you live. Go urban trendy with vertical gardens if you have limited space.
The best practice for a sustainable home is practice. Recycle – and remember to plan enough space in your scullery for multiple small bins – and install a composter in your courtyard for your vegetable scraps. These are more efficient at scale, so campaign for your estate to recycle, compost garden waste, and implement communal composting of kitchen waste. Use shorter wash cycles on your washing machine. Fill your dishwasher before running it. Switch off appliances at the wall, and shower like a Capetonian. Most of all, pay attention to how you use water and energy in your home and working life. It won’t take long before these things become a habit, and you find you are living in greater harmony and balance. Join the dance.