Renovating for comfort in our climate

By Pam

Having lived for 30 years in the comfort of a passive solar home out of town, I could not contemplate not having the same comforts and low living costs when moving into town.

But, where I plan to live in my retiring years, is an old red brick house in Wangaratta which I wanted to renovate. I had to think through how to bring those elements I valued into this situation while keeping the integrity and delight of the old home.

The asbestos ‘lean-to’ at the back of the house had to be removed. This meant the very small window which allowed the previous owner just to peek out, would be removed giving an opportunity to open up to make a feature of the amazing treed parkland to the rear of the block.

The best bit though, was to allow what was to be my main living space being added to the back of the house, to be north facing, unlike the orientation of the original building, which simply had the front door to the street. The new section needed to be linked at an angle (approx. 30 degrees). This meant that ‘passive solar’ features – winter sun doing the warming and shade from summer heat reducing the need for cooling – all this giving minimal running costs and comfort given as starters.

What was intriguing, were the many ways our ideas and building techniques have changed, improved, progressed and become so much more efficient certainly over the 120 years since this house was first built.

Whereas the beautiful old wooden floors of the old house have no insulation and no ability to hold warmth, the new concrete floor (providing thermal mass or a solid core) absorbs the warmth of the winter sun during the day and holds on to let it go in the evening – sort of a natural free heating cycle.

When looking over the building in progress during mid-winter, even with there still being some ‘holes in the walls of the new room’, visitors commented on how much warmer this new section was compared with what they felt walking into the old part of the house – so noticeable. Big windows (double glazed) allowed the winter sun to flood half way across the new concrete floor warming it to the very core.

In summer, when the sun is directly overhead, no sun will be on this floor, or even the outside walls, so stopping them warming in the first place. The shade is provided both by the width of the eaves and pergolas which will have deciduous grape vines planted as soon as possible.

I was so surprised that the double brick walls of the old house had no air gap between the inside and outside walls. How much more efficient this section of the house could have been with an air space acting as insulation. In the new room, insulation has even been added between the two layers of brick to make it even more efficient.

And I was delighted that the bricks from the demolition of the old ‘lean-to’ section could be re-used. The ‘brickie’ was able to tell me about the different sources, timeline and materials used in the making of these beautiful old bricks – fascinating – thus keeping the new section in keeping with the old.

There have been a number of other ideas introduced in the renovation to make the premises more efficient and with lower running costs – an all electric build (gas to the premises being removed) – solar panels laid (with the potential for battery storage in time), a heat pump for both heating throughtout and for hot water, double glazing of windows, insulation in the roof, new windows in the old house for extra light and cross through ventilation as the evenings cool during summer, with ceiling fans added hopefully reducing the need for any airconditioning use at all, even during the temperatures of summers in North East Victoria.

It is proposed that a pergola structure will be added to the existing outside wall of the old house (which faces N-N/W and thus cops summer sun for a great deal of the day), with a sail of shade cloth at the top close to the wall which will give that wall permanent summer shading for the first time ever – a very simple, cheap but hopefully very efficient addition.

I plan to plant deciduous trees and vines to provide leafy summer protection to the north but to allow maximum sun in winter – cannot wait to get started on the garden project – a big task, but a labour of love.

Scroll to Top