Sustainable Scarfie flats warmly welcomed

By Shane Gilchrist |

The University of Otago has created The Sustainable Neighbourhood as a ‘living lab’ to help students learn how to save energy, compost and recycle.

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Aleida and her flatmates conscious of their carbon footprints

This fresh new flatting option is a response to some students wanting to live their sustainability values and live with people who share them.

The Sustainability Neighbourhood, in Great King Street, North Dunedin, is the brainchild of Ray O’Brien, Head of Sustainability at the University of Otago. Owned and administered by the University, the Neighbourhood comprises three houses and some 20 residents.

Each of the three houses is fully furnished, double-glazed, and insulated above building code, with an energy meter installed for monitoring power use. The houses are spread across a half-acre and share a communal vegetable garden complete with beehives, a worm farm and composting. This year’s students pay $185 a week each for a spot in one of the fully furnished flats, a price that includes power, internet, pastoral care, and community events. O’Brien hopes that these flats will show students how easy it is to embrace sustainability, and the lessons they learn will set them up for a lifetime of low-impact living.

Warmer, drier, healthier

It’s a far cry from some other student accommodation; “You know, that Dunedin cliche where you open the windows to let in some warm air,” jokes Jessie Barron, one of the 20 students who lives in the Neighbourhood. The students were selected in 2020 after submitting video applications demonstrating their interest in sustainability.

Jessie says typically flats are cold, but students try to keep power bills down by “heater shaming” anyone who turns on the heating. Even filling a kettle to the top before boiling it was a no-no. Because the Neighbourhood’s power bills are included in the rent, there’s no need to live in a cold flat, but Jessie says the heater is rarely needed because the house is designed to capture and hold onto warmth. And because everyone is committed to managing their energy use, we try and act responsibly,” Jessie adds, “and only use the heat pump or the flat panel wall heaters in our bedrooms when we really need to.”

Aleida Powell, another resident, says it’s common practice to simply stay at home, set up and study in the main living room area, which offers passive energy gain via several large north-facing windows.

“It’s nice and comfortable,” Aleida says. “A lot of friends come over, too.”

Expanding the Sustainability Neighbourhood

Shared Garden in sustainability housing The Neighbourhood is designed to be a ‘living lab’, with researchers and students monitoring the flats to find out what works and what doesn’t. O’Brien is hoping that the lessons learned from the Sustainability Neighbourhood can help to change the entire flatting scene in Dunedin. Student residents are also encouraged to come up with their own ideas to improve the overall footprint of their accommodation.

“We are still very much in discovery mode,” explains O’Brien. “This year has focused on setting up the neighbourhood, and a biodiversity study in the backyard will record how it has changed during the year.”

There are plans to add a four-bedroomed flat to the neighbourhood and, depending on demand, a six-bed residence. So far, demand from applicants has far outstripped the supply of spaces. Hopefully, the old damp, frigid Dunedin flat will soon be consigned to students’ history books.

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