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Energy-saving guide for Northern Australia

Design for your climate zone

This section sets out the climate characteristics in northern Australia as well as the house design features that respond best to the region’s conditions. It also shows how to take advantage of breezes to cool your home, and links to resources and information to ensure you’re prepared for extreme weather events.

There are 3 climate zones in northern Australia:

  • Zone 1: Tropical

  • Zone 2: Sub-tropical

  • Zone 3: Hot arid

A map showing the three main climate zones in northern Australia

Zone 1: Tropical

Very hot, humid wet season (November to April) with high rainfall, followed by a dry season (May to October) with warm, dry sunny days and cooler nights.

From Exmouth in Western Australia, across to midway between Townsville and Mackay in Queensland, the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory.

Diagram shows a raised Queenslander-style home with tall trees and broad eaves, tall trees for shade, ventilated roof and louvered windows, with animations showing how breezes can be funneled over, under and through the house to cool it.

Tropical house—key design features

Top tips for tropical design

  • Look for design solutions that maximise shading, such as wide eaves and window awnings, and verandahs.

  • Create covered outdoor living areas to provide additional shade to the home.

  • Shade the entire building in the wet season (the region’s warmer months).

  • Create ventilation through the use of large window openings and louvres, and through the roof space with eave and roof vents.

  • Use light colours for roofs and exterior building materials to reflect the heat.

  • Choose lightweight building materials to avoid heat storage, with controlled use of mass materials such as concrete slabs or brick walls for air conditioned areas.

  • Consider elevated design for underfloor air flow and passive cooling.

Zone 2: Sub-tropical

Hot humid summers with mild winters; cooling breezes.

Coastal Queensland from midway between Townsville and Mackay south to just below Coffs Harbour in New South Wales.

Top tips for sub-tropical design

  • Look for adjustable shading and ventilation to promote more comfortable indoor temperatures. Select solutions that block the sun in summer but allow it to enter in winter where needed.

  • Choose narrower floor plans, with ventilation and window systems that can be operated to capture breezes.

  • Consider lighter colours for roofs and external walls to reflect heat.

  • Include insulation in the roof space and ventilate the roof space through eave and ceiling vents, taking care to manage for condensation.

  • Include a well-positioned and shaded outdoor living area.

Zone 3: Hot arid

Very hot, dry summers and warm winter days with cold nights. Low rainfall and dry winds all year round.

Northern central Australia from Carnarvon in Western Australia, encompassing Newman, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Longreach and Charleville as well as the Queensland hinterland west of the Great Dividing Range.

Diagram shows a home in the hot arid zone with concrete slab foundation, living areas oriented to the north, adjustable eaves, windows and doors aligned for natural air flow and tall trees for shade, with animations showing how breezes can be funneled over and through the house to cool it.

Hot arid house—key design features

Top tips for hot arid design

  • Look for appropriate use of thermal mass for building construction: brick walls and concrete slabs are two good options.

  • Select a light-coloured roof to reflect heat.

  • Choose appropriate shading and landscaping to block summer sun from the home and allow winter sun in; this is how you’ll maximise your comfort levels.

  • Evaporative cooling can be an effective way to manage indoor comfort levels.

Top design tips for all zones

Orientation

The first thing to consider when designing any home is its orientation. Ideally the house will be positioned both to take into account the sun’s path throughout the year and to capture prevailing breezes and keep out hot winds. Ideally, living areas and bedrooms should be located away from the hot western afternoon sun; a garage or bathroom is more suitable for this side of the house.

Breezes

Understanding where the cooling breezes come from is important across all 3 climate zones in northern Australia, as it allows you to take advantage of them in hot weather.

Compass diagram showing North, South, East and West.

If you live near the coast they generally come from the ocean. This means that on the east coast of Australia, cool breezes generally travel north-easterly to south-easterly whereas on the west coast, they’re commonly south-westerly. The predominant cooling breezes in the Top End come from the north-west in the wet season and the south-east in the dry season.

Breeze direction can vary within a few hundred metres due to landforms, vegetation or buildings. Talk to your neighbours or spend time on your house site in hotter seasons to establish the direction of your most reliable cooling breezes. The Bureau of Meteorology also has records of wind data for major locations.

Inland, capturing breezes can be more of a challenge. But while many inland areas often receive no regular breezes, cool air currents can form as cooling night air flows down slopes and valleys (just as water would). In flat inland regions, thermal currents created by the temperature differences between day and night, can also provide useful cooling.

These are often brief and occur later at night or in early morning. This cold air mass can be trapped and stored in your home’s building material, such as concrete and bricks, for the following morning (see Thermal mass).

To become aware of local climate variations and take advantage of cool breezes, air currents and thermal currents you need to step outside regularly—or invest in a temperature gauge or home weather station. This is particularly helpful in conditions where you might fail to notice changes in outside conditions, such as when the air conditioner has been running for long periods.

Shading

Ensure parts of the house exposed to hot sun are minimised at key times of the year to reduce the amount of heat entering your home. This applies in summer for the hot arid zone and throughout the year in the tropical zone. For sub-tropical zones some sun can be allowed in during cooler months. You can avoid sun exposure through good orientation and appropriate levels of external sun shading—think eaves, pergolas, sun-hoods or external blinds (see ‘Zone-specific tips’).

Fans

Create air movement and relief from the heat by installing ceiling fans in bedrooms and living areas. They’re cheap to run, around 2 cents an hour. You’ll get the best results if your ceiling fans are located directly over beds and seating areas. See ‘Stay cool for less’ and ‘Zone-specific tips’.

Dogs sitting in front of fan

 

Extreme weather

Tall trees blowing in tropical storm

Northern Australia experiences a range of extreme weather conditions from heatwaves to fire, flood, drought, cyclones and storm surges. With a changing climate, extreme events may become more frequent and severe. It’s vital for all households to:

  • have a plan in place to help you respond and stay safe during extreme weather events

  • maintain your home to ensure it is structurally sound and manage for potential hazards

  • know what design features are important when buying, renting, building and renovating.

As a first step you should familiarise yourself with local extreme weather planning and preparation advice from your local council and state or territory government. You should also sign up to get local weather warnings and emergency alerts. The Helpful resources section at the end of this guide will help with this.

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