How You Can Make Your Carbon Footprint Positive And Light
2021 has been busy in a brilliant way for Positive Footprints. “We have lots of jobs pushing in different directions,” Director Jeremy Spencer explains. Thermotek recently had a chat with Jeremy about success, the industry and more.
Jeremy started his career in timber sculpting and primary school teaching. “It’s been a bit of a winding path to where I am now. …working in a little timber carpentry school for kids in South Australia.”
The husband and wife team then moved back to Melbourne. At that stage, Chi Lu and Jeremy were ready to buy a home. “I read the Michael Mobbs book ‘Sustainable House.’ So I was very keen to have a very low impact house.” Looking around, there was nothing on the market at the time. So Chi and Jeremy made the decision to do something for the planet. They started their company, Positive Footprints, in 2001.
“Chi went back to school to study design and I went off to study building and house energy rating.” This was before house energy ratings existed in Australia. At that stage, it was a three-star system. “I learned how to be a house energy rater. For the first few years, I was doing thousands of ratings for builders.” The system was soon online and builders knew how new homes at least needed to achieve a star rating. “It started with three stars, then went to four very fast, then five and six over the years.”
Creating Carbon Zero Housing
Positive Footprints goes that extra step ahead and designs and builds nine-star homes. “Our new series is the Carbon Zero series. We offer beautiful homes that tread very lightly on the environment. That led to our name, Positive Footprints. That’s our goal. To produce a house that instead of having a negative impact has a positive impact… We’re a long way along that journey and building homes that are very energy efficient. They don’t use much energy in the first place. Very water-efficient and capture rainwater, and reuse greywater.”
They look at materials that go into the home and assess their impact. “We look at the health impacts of some of the off-gassing and chemicals that are in our modern materials. We try and limit those so that we have a good indoor air quality in the house. You end up with a house that’s very cheap to run.”
Passive, solid design principles mean a great interaction with the outdoors. “We’re trying to pick up that northern sunlight. … You’ll have nice big windows facing onto a sunny private space. And because we’re insulating well the homes are very, very quiet.” The double glazing which the windows provide create a real sense of sanctuary inside. “The temperature is very stable inside the home itself.”
They are very beautiful spaces and desirable buildings to live in. Aesthetics are important. “There’s no point building an ugly home because that’ll be knocked down in 20 years time. Or as soon as the owners have some more money. And that’s not sustainable at all.”
Positive Footprints have gone to the next step with their new, Carbon Zero series. “We’re calculating not only the operational energy that the house is going to use. We’re also looking at the embodied energy that goes into the materials of the house itself. We’re putting enough solar panels on the roof that it will provide as much energy over the years the house uses. And some more panels to slowly, over time, offset the energy that went into the construction of the house itself. So, over a 50-year period, the house will be net zero.”
The company also provides the capacity to charge your electric car at home. “We put in the infrastructure for future car charges when owners get those cars. With the amount of panels we put on the roof, you should be able to run 50 km a day on solar-power, charging your car.”
Building Sustainable Success
The business has grown at a steady pace. “We are in a niche market but that niche is expanding all the time. We’re as busy now or busier than we’ve ever been. We’re in a nice balanced situation at the moment.”
Quality control of the final product has been a key ingredient to their success. “A clear message, that’s one key to our success. We’re very clear about what we’re providing. The difference between the homes we build and the standard that you find in the marketplace. It’s very clear what we’re doing. So that attracts a certain group of people.” Their target market are people who want to make sure the way they’re living is in harmony with their beliefs.
“The other thing is having a really good team that you can rely on.” The team includes a builder, energy rater, designer, project manager, carpentry, etc. “And making sure that you deliver. At the end of the day, we’re making big claims. We need to put our money where our mouth is. We’re not handing it off to another builder. There’s no one else to blame if the house doesn’t perform as we said it would.” Being a one-stop-shop has also improved their success over the years.
The Future of the Industry
Sustainable housing needs to become mainstream. “That doesn’t mean that all homes have to be 9 or 10 stars. But we do need to move to a net zero. The whole world is going to net zero.”
Construction contributes around 40 percent of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This includes construction materials. “We’re not going to achieve a low carbon world without the construction industry getting involved.”
In Australia, we have commitments to reduce our carbon output by 25 per cent by 2030. “The domestic industry has come quite a long way. There’s the star rating system, and energy efficiency is starting to progress. People have a bit of an understanding of it, a lot more than they did when we started. So there’s been a lot of good change. But we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s important that the industry as a whole starts looking at the quality of construction. Lifting their design a little bit from six to seven stars. Trying to improve their construction practices. To make sure that they are presenting homes that actually perform to that level.”
Collaborating with the Thermotek Team
Jeremy knew about Thermotek because as an energy rater, he has access to a huge windows database. “One of the ways to increase the performance of a house is to select different windows… and see how they perform. Thermotek came up really well, especially for the price point for the quality. This was the sweet spot for us. Thermotek is really good value for money in that sense.”
These days everyone is time poor. People don’t want to do any maintenance. “I remember when we first brought Thermotek’s windows on site. My construction team thought they were such solid windows. The hinges on them are really strong. They’re great from a security point of view. They really last a long time.”
The willingness of the Thermotek team to help with window detailing was important. “We like to try and have minimum thresholds so we’re rebating into the slab as much as we can. To try and minimize that step. Being able to get the window details from Thermotek was very useful.”
Positive Footprints don’t usually use brick veneer, the standard construction in Melbourne. They use a lot of lightweight cladding and metals. “It was very useful to work with the technical department. Determining how we’re going to finish these windows so they’re waterproof with the frame at the join, with the claddings. So it looks nice.”
Jeremy was also impressed with our after-sales service. “A lot of companies we’ve found in the past have been very difficult to get to site if there’s anything wrong or needs fixing up. Whereas Thermotek are eager to work with us and help.”
Yes, we are Open: Sharing the Window Love
“When we’re designing, we look at breeze paths and try and find where the wind is blowing on a summer afternoon. So that we can align windows and floor plans. So should the breeze be cool enough like a sea breeze, we can open up and just let it blow through the house. Get a bit of free cooling.”
That’s why Positive Footprints use a great deal of Thermotek Casement Windows. “If the wind’s blowing past the side of the house, the casement window can open up and suck that air in or scoop that air in. There are few uPVC frame companies that offer that.” Positive Footprints wanted a window that would swing out and hold in that position. “We find that a really useful feature. It’s also good upstairs because you can open up fully. The window, as it opens up, it swings across and makes a little opening. So you can put your hand out and you can clean the outside of the glass from the inside.”
Many other window companies’ casement windows have a size limit. This is due to weight restrictions on their hardware. “They can only go 600 wide as an opening pane. Thermotek can go 900 which tends to work with a certain cladding that we work with.”
“We use Thermotek’s Awning Windows up high with motors.” Often in Positive Footprints’ design, they’ve got a popped roof area. They like the windows to be able to open so that hot air can rise. “If there’s heat in the house, it will rise to that highest point. We can press a little button on the wall. The window will open and it can vent that hot air out nice and easily. You can bring some more northern light deep into the belly of the house.”
They also use and like Thermotek’s Bifold doors, the sliders. “I like the lift and slide concept a lot. One of the issues with sliding doors that we’ve had in the past is that they just rely on brush seals. Brush seals over time can wear out. Whereas the lift and slide tend to pull, lift and go out. You slide along and turn the big handle and it brings the whole door and pulls it back onto the seal nicely.”
“Our customers can see straight away that it’s a quality object, it’s nice and solid. Especially since you’ve brought out a new colour range recently.” There are now more colours to choose from. With a greater palette selection, Thermotek provides more options. “You can do both sides now a different colour. You can have a different colour on the inside and a different colour on the outside. That just gives more flexibility to what we can do as far as design when we’re thinking of colour palettes.”
Positive Footprints used to use timber windows. “There’s nothing worse than driving past a house that you built five years ago and the owner hasn’t maintained their windows. You don’t have to worry about that with Thermotek’s products.” Thermotek windows and doors are still aesthetically pleasing many years later.
Jeremy summarises our collaborative spirit. “…A strong partnership together. We’re both trying to provide a good quality product. We’ve both got the same eco-philosophy about sustainable living. And that was very clear to me when we first started talking to Thermotek. Thermotek were eager to work with us because we’re on the same wavelength.”
Jeremy sits on the board of Design Matters, a building design association. “In a sense, I don’t see any competitors because what we’re trying to do is not so much make money. I’m actually trying to spread a new model and move the industry in a certain direction.” Jeremy shares how to design passive solar homes that use very little energy. “I’m sort of with my competitors, saying ‘what do you want to know? I’ll let you know all my secrets and then if someone else can do it better than me, fantastic. I can retire!”
Positive Footprints are trustworthy and experienced compared to startups, and it shows. “I’m not particularly concerned that someone’s going to outshine us tomorrow… The market is broadening all the time. It’s getting bigger. So I’m happy for people to come and join this segment of the marketplace.”
Australian Builders Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency
“During the pandemic, I started a group with other concerned builders,” says Jeremy. Builders Declare Australia believe there’s a climate emergency. Their mission is to spread information. Jeremy and 6 other sustainable builders founded the initiative.
They focus on passive solar houses, new homes and renovations. “A group of experienced builders have come together and we’ve organised webinars. We’ve got 200 plus members now. We’re creating a website where we can put information, how-to sheets, and content. We’re trying to upskill the building profession.”
It makes sense for builders to learn to build in a high-performance manner. “It doesn’t take too much effort. It’s not super difficult to get a good outcome. It’s about knowing where to focus attention and effort.”
The aim is to educate and push the sustainability message. “It’s exciting to work with other like-minded builders. It’s a hub for what can be a little bit of a lonely existence for a sustainable builder. Now there’s a group where we can all share. What’s worked for us, what hasn’t worked, what products we like, what products we don’t like. It’s builders talking to builders.” The next goal is organising future face-to-face networking events.