Dr Gill Armstrong, Senior Project Manager in Climateworks’ Cities team, discusses the move to 7-star homes, the need for net zero buildings and her love for bunny rabbits.

Dr Gill Armstrong smiles. Green background.
Dr Gill Armstrong

Gill, we’ve had a win with progress on the National Construction Code (NCC). So what differences will a person living in a 7-star rated home notice?

The first thing will be lower energy bills and higher levels of comfort both in winter and in the hot summer months — especially important for people who are financially disadvantaged but live in a new home constructed to NCC 2022.

Apartment dwellers will benefit too — new apartment buildings will be ‘EV ready’ so they’ll be much more future facing.

It’ll encourage owner occupiers to engage with building designers earlier around some key decisions for energy efficiency that will help their building perform better and be a lot more resilient.

Having said that, a 7-star rating is not that high.

There’s a lot more to do to make sure people’s homes are safe and comfortable, especially given we’re experiencing much more intense and longer heatwaves.

You’re about to publish research — what are some important considerations for retrofitting existing homes?

From Climateworks’ perspective they include reducing how much energy a building consumes, and upgrading the thermal shell of a building.

And this doesn’t only mean adding new or upgraded technology — it’s also about reducing energy demand and driving up comfort without using more appliances like air conditioning.

It can also mean not needing as many solar panels in the first place, yet achieving higher comfort levels.

In Australia our current expectations about how our homes should perform is quite low.

But we can raise this through steps like retrofitting and code upgrades, and by visiting homes that have been retrofitted so people can actually feel the difference (such as through double glazing).

In my chapter, I look at why vacancy is problematic.

For example, it’s a really inefficient use of land and leads to pressure to build into the food bowl or floodland plains.

Within CBD offices, pockets of vacant space produce depressing effects on their surrounds. There is evidence showing they degrade at faster rates than occupied buildings.

So it’s worth making better use of the building stock we have, as we have a tendency to focus on the ‘new shiny’ rather than existing buildings.

Some media have questioned the expense of transitioning to net zero buildings. What do you say to that?

For new buildings, a lot of the changes we can make involve no cost, like the direction you site a home, the pitch of the roof, and how a building is designed so you don’t have massive northern facing windows.

Much is just ‘designing from day one’ — passive measures that make a big difference.

As you move into areas like heating and other infrastructure, yes there is a cost. But there’s also a cost of not acting.

The ongoing devastation for residents in places like Lismore shows that, as climate events become longer and more severe, we really must consider the costs of inaction.

Nobody questions the cost of adding a seatbelt in a car, because we know they save lives.

Having lived in the UK as well as in Australia, what’s your preferred thermal comfort level?

I’ve been here for ten years and still think I’m defrosting after living in England, which I fondly refer to as the ‘damp mouldy island’.

I’ve lived in Adelaide too, so I like the dry heat.

Finally, rabbits: Tell us about the rabbits, Gill.

We have two. We got the first as a rescue rabbit during lockdown, and we’ve been interviewing to find a companion.

A brown rabbit sits on the head of a grey rabbit while nosing a stuffed toy rabbit.
Dr Gill Armstrong’s rabbits Dapple and Griffin.

The new rabbit has been in the rescue centre for some time. He’s a grandpa who our current bunny has bonded with.

I know they’re regarded as pests in Australia but as I say, being born wasn’t their choice.

My first rabbit is litter trained and she doesn’t attack anything.

Oh, except that she does like to chew through electrical wiring (as an alternative to naturally wearing down her teeth on tree bark), so we’ve had to bunny-proof all that.

Gill, thanks for your time!