Since the late 1970s Griff Morris has been a dedicated champion in the research and design of sustainable, passive solar homes in Victoria and subsequently in Western Australia. He leads Solar Dwellings which disrupts the assumption throughout the building industry that passive solar designs are unaffordable for the consumer, and unprofitable for the builder.
When Griff designed and constructed his first passive solar home in 1977, his vision was to create a company which would raise awareness and knowledge of sustainable living throughout the building industry and the community. In 1991 Griff founded Solar Dwellings, with the aim of designing and constructing tailor-made, passive solar homes that are universally accessible and financially attainable for the consumer. Solar Dwellings’ sustainable designs, focus on creating individualised homes that reduce energy and water costs, are low allergen, multi-functional and multi-generational; pushing beyond compliance with the standard 6-star rating system and offering homeowners a sustainable, yet affordable, option. With construction costs at approximately $1000 a square meter for a standard four bedroom, two bathroom home, and $1400 per square metre for a two-storey 8-star design, Solar Dwellings demonstrates that energy efficient, sustainable houses can realistically cost the same as their non-efficient, non-sustainable equivalents.
Griff Morris’ passion for actualising affordable, sustainable homes – affordable to purchase and to maintain – is reflected in Solar Dwellings’ mission statement: “Making a difference to the environment in everything we do”.
The company is committed to:
- Living and working sustainably
- Making a minimal impact on the environment
- Raising the benchmark for sustainable residential design
- Inspiring innovation in the Western Australian building industry
- Providing the most up to date sustainability education for the building industry and the community.
Griff Morris and Solar Dwellings embrace the philosophy of “doing the planet a favour”. All their homes have minimal impact on the environment: intelligent passive design means they are energy and water efficient, reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions; they are also universally accessible; most are low allergen utilising low-toxicity building processes and products. Griff and Solar Dwellings have received over 50 awards since 1991, including GreenSmart smart housing, water efficiency and design concept awards as well as several MBA awards.
Solar Dwellings aim to design 10-star energy efficient homes and other buildings. They build “nothing under 8 stars”.
The main niche components of passive solar design are:
- Siting and orientation of the home, with living areas and large windows facing north, minimal windows to the east and west, and with the long axis of the home within 15° east or west of north.
- Winter warmth and summer cooling achieved by positioning windows so the sun enters in winter but not during summer.
- Natural cooling achieved by window placement that allows cross ventilation.
- Stable internal temperatures, resulting from appropriate materials, such as double brick, concrete or stone, used in the right locations. Timber floors which can absorb the sun’s warmth in winter will release it back into the home in the evening, while external shading prevents summer sun entering.
- Insulation is a barrier to heat flow, and most home builders include ceiling insulation as standard. Solar Dwellings recommends ceiling, under-roof and some wall insulation to retain winter warmth and exclude summer heat.
- Intelligent landscaping does a lot more than simply create an attractive exterior – it can protect a home from summer heat and maximize access to winter sun.
“We can further increase sustainability of a home through additional ‘smart home’ measures,” Griff says. These innovations or niches include “building materials which have low embodied energy and low environmental impact, meaning a home is environmentally responsible in construction as well as in operation.” Niches include:
- Non-chemical termite prevention
- Rainwater harvesting and other water efficiency measures
- Low-allergen and non-toxic building processes and products
- Active solar design, such as photovoltaic power generation and solar water heating
- Aerobic sewerage and waterless urinals
- Grey water recycling systems and other technologies
- All properties are universally accessible
Griff believes in the power of demonstration: “You’ve got to show people what they can do once you inform them”. He has many examples of houses that he has designed which are affordable to buy and maintain. Examples include:
Sold in 2017 for c$220,000, it is a 9-star energy rated 3×2 home.
A family home built in the early 2000s. The residents have been energy self-sufficient for the past 5 years or so.
A first-time buyer’s home, Griff’s company advised on the best-orientated block to purchase and how to construct a 3×2 house for $155,000 and a 4×2 house for $176,700.
Outside of Solar Dwellings, Griff Morris is recognised as a leading national authority, teaching sustainable design at University of Western Australia Extension and the Housing Industry Association (HIA), and serving on many committees, including a Commonwealth Government committee on home energy efficiency.
Griff has advocated for industry change by participating in various committees and industry bodies. Acting as an ‘infiltrator’, Griff takes his commitment for energy efficient, accessible sustainable housing to the core of the building industry by sitting on the Environmental Planning Committee for the Housing Industry Association. As the “fox among the wolves”, Griff acknowledges that advocating for change to industry practices from within is not without its challenges, stating “it needs a lot of grease to actually get some of those gears shifted”. For Griff, being in the space to allow for conversations that can shift attitudes, break down assumptions and initiate innovative practices is critical to breaking the existing socio-technical regimes that frame passive solar design as unaffordable, inaccessible and unprofitable. As Griff notes, the key to change is finding champions within, who can “find the weak spot and then drill in as deep as they can”. Being the voice on the Environmental Planning Committee to query existing practices allows Griff, as an ‘infiltrator’, to disrupt the existing regimes and practices of the building industry and to institutionalise change across the industry.
Griff seeks shifts in socio-technical practice landscapes such as the 6 star energy rating system and the WA planning Residential Design Codes (R-Codes). He comments that the ‘landscape’ is perpetuated by the star rating system because it is used as a compliance tool instead of a performance tool. The rating system uses a mechanical model which can be manipulated so that any home could get 6 star… “they didn’t even need to insulate the walls to get it passed”. Griff believes that the 6-star rating system was designed with good intentions but has ended up being a barrier to innovation, a psychological barrier that requires breaking through.
With regard to the R-Codes, Griff comments it is a similar issue about content versus context. The Codes are used too prescriptively rather than interpretively. Officers concentrate on the content rather than the context. Griff suggests that “you have to go back to the people doing the interpretation and you train them in interpretation. But from a context, not from the content. The content comes later. Worst thing in the world is to give someone the content. Work with the context.”
Griff Morris believes in the need for culture change; to disrupt and break the practice regimes which have served to stabilise the planning and development industry and the ways in which people regard their homes. For instance, he suggests that there needs to be more consciousness about ‘needing’ and using air conditioners. People automatically look to turn on an air conditioner when the weather gets warmer. If people can be informed, they might break the practice of unsustainable living and come to demand affordable, sustainable houses.
Similarly, there is a need to disrupt local and state governments’ and planning authorities’ “lack of commitment” to sustainability. This could be achieved through more informed interpretation of design codes, or even a basic understanding of the difference between solar access and light access. To this end, Griff has “been pushing and pushing for years on the committee to actually have local government have a coordinated training process for their building surveyors…”. In addition, he suggests that that every new estate development with their display homes, “because they all have a display area, every single one of those display areas should, at the start of the development, have to show how that home is efficient and why it is efficient.” Then you follow through: “you incentivise it for the sales person. In other words if they sell a home over 8 stars they get a bonus.” In other words, encourage salespeople to sell what is best and not what is easiest to consumers.
Griff has also “been pushing” building and construction practices: “you’ve got to get through to the builders”. “It needs an overall strategy where you target the champions of industry. The people who can make change. The people in local government who have shown a commitment to it. The people in industry, whether it has been in the planning industry, certain planning groups as well as the developers themselves. And then, you inform those people but you make sure that your information is fantastic and at the same time you go out in to the public.”
Overall, Griff Morris’ story is one of a creative disruptor, who ‘infiltrates’ organisations to disrupt their existing practices from the inside. He also seeks to disrupt the assumption that individualised passive solar homes are financially inaccessible for many. In his words: “the first thing is awareness, which is education. That’s the first thing. The other thing, once you’ve got awareness is the opportunity, because you have to build the opportunity otherwise the awareness can’t be used and again you go into reverse because you have to create awareness in the industry to create the opportunity from the awareness in the public. And then, the other side of it is… again, awareness and education of government and local government on a continuous basis so they are supportive in their processes from their planning assessment, building assessment and the other schemes inside a local government.”
Griff Morris is a champion for change. It isn’t easy, as there are many barriers to be overcome (financial practices, planning and development practices and so on). But, as Griff says, “I keep on doing it because I believe there has to be a voice and as you can tell, I can be a loud voice.”