Interview: Creating comfortable homes with Sonja Markovic

We spoke with Co-Founder and CEO of Evitat, Sonja Markovic, about how she founded the home renovation platform, the traditional and historic knowledge of home design, and her personal experiences with building sustainable homes.

Q: Could you tell us how you first became interested in climate change and sustainability respectively?

A: I think there was always a bit of the knowledge transfer from my family's side on sustainability and in the sense of understanding your environment, what it produces, what it gives you. Part of my family is working in engineering, and with that came this basic knowledge of passive house or solar principles, as well as building right to the needs but I never took on that as a career. I actually went into the digital space, but I always had a very strong interest in sustainable architecture and looking into how that concept evolves.

We built a home more than 15 years ago in Queensland. Since we moved to Australia, our area actually went through a couple of cyclones. In 2017, a major cyclone did a lot of damage to the property, and we wanted to build back better to improve certain areas like thermal efficiency so that we don't rely too heavily on air conditioning. We then decided that other areas, like glazing and even our septic system needed complete overhaul because it was really badly damaged. Now we are nearly off the grid with that property. It wasn't something we aimed for, but I think our area is a bit tucked away and it's a small bay community so we haven't got, for example, a town water supply. So we thought, yeah, we can make some improvements, but navigating that space was so laborious in a way that you needed to dive deep into understanding the material choices, the products, and who is even capable of installing them. Navigating that after such an event with damages to repair and everything was a very tricky phase. At times, it really felt like we had to be doing a PhD in certain areas where you need to dig deep to even make that first decision.

I've always thought, why are we making it so difficult to make a good decision? If you cut out considerations, you could move ahead and just go with the flow but you are not improving anything. You're also not making conscious decisions about who you're giving that money and you will most likely end up with a home that might have been fixed just for the sake of plugging damages, except there's no significant improvement whatsoever. It doesn't matter if it's after a climate event like this, or if it's a renovation decision – we invest significant money either way when we want to build a home. A home is a core essential need as well as education, aged care, healthcare, and so on. These are basics of our society. Getting a home is actually one of the biggest spendings we make in our lifetime, but we are not putting any consideration whatsoever towards it.

And if we come back to what our actions are worth? In the sense of climate change, there are a couple of things where we can make the biggest impact: it's finances and economics. You know, look into your finances, into your super, who do you bank with. Then, whenever you need to make a big purchase decision, it's your opportunity to make a more conscious choice. It comes with so many benefits. A sustainable home that has selected natural materials for building comes with a range of benefits. If you're building new, look into the size: do you need 300 square meters? Can you actually live with 180? And make that all work. I hope that answered it a little bit.

Q: For people who are unaware of Evitat, how would you say it simplifies the home renovation process?

A: I think when you are planning, for example, to do a renovation and a couple of ideas are floating around and you're picking up on what you want to do for a sustainable renovation, what does it mean even? I think these first steps, navigating, and even getting clarity – these are the things we really do at Evitat. When you're on board, you're going for a module, you have two pathways. You can, for example, if you're planning a major renovation, you go through goal setting because this provides basic information we can share with an architect or with a builder so that they understand you better and how you want to prioritise certain sustainability criteria. This criteria is framed in a way that they come from your needs. For example, health needs, or if you have experienced uncomfortable winter times in your home, and you want to change that. So then we put products or services in front of you.

The other module is going off gas, being all electric, and tapping into renewables. That includes an assessment of your existing home, which gives, again, a great data set and information pool to an architect, or even if you're sharing it with an energy assessor. These are pieces of information they can draw immediately on to tailor their recommendations and next steps even further. So these are two ways we help: helping people get more clarity in the home renovation process and based on your location, they then get connected with recommendations for certain professionals, which is again, also based on their goal settings.

Q: I think it's so important that you involve architects and builders on your platform as well, because it can be overwhelming for homeowners to make all the decisions themselves before seeking services instead of involving professionals from the get-go. Why was it important for you to involve everyone in the decision-making process?

A: Home renovation is not always a linear concept. We have a million renovation cases, and I would say, a million times they work out completely differently. You have those who might have carpentry skills. They can do certain things themselves, but they might still need maybe a builder for certain areas. If you start thinking about these things, you need someone who partners with you on that journey from the professional side who understands it, because otherwise, what happens quite often in scenarios of renovating or rebuilding is your needs are often getting outcrowded by a million little things they throw at you. Choose the colour, choose the tabs, for example, and by that time you are so overwhelmed. The core, the really important decisions are not on your plate anymore. They are made for you but they are significant!

We want to bring back the fact that it doesn't need to be so complicated to discuss things. For example, you have some health conditions. You are suffering from asthma, and you went through the goal setting and now understand that there are certain relations between material choices and your asthma or allergy conditions. You can then mitigate that if that's important to you. It can be part of that discussion with your professional, whether it's with a builder or with an architect, but they also need to understand and have some experience with what that means to your home's design and the process of selecting the right materials.

I think what we want to bring is A) giving you the space of ownership to be very clear around your needs and aspirations. And then B, bringing in the right professionals to collaborate and partner with you on that journey. Hopefully, that brings far better outcomes than what we see at the moment.

Q: Tell me more about the role of AI on the Evitat platform.

A: That's a really good question because what Evitat is, it's actually a data platform. We build up a lot of data from the material side, for example. We are building that up also with renewable or general system solutions, but the data sets are slightly different. With building materials, we go really into the depth of their embodied carbon or their health implications and so on.

We also talk about this in a simplified and humanised way, so that everyone can understand it. That data flows basically into the database. Whenever you are making certain collaborative decisions around materials, let's say you want to go with biomaterials and healthy materials, which are ones that don't use any chemicals, formaldehyde and other things because you might be very sensitive to these things, you also need to consider maybe your location. If it's New South Wales, the whole structure heats up fairly quickly. So this is where it becomes then really interesting, where AI translates these improvements into an impact statement.

We have these six core categories, ranging from health, comfort, affordability, energy and water efficiency to carbon. Where we want to go is diving deeper into these specifics and then establishing a model for climate readiness so that if there are improvements, it gets measured and modelled along the way. You can then build your way up to achieving the top tier of climate readiness, which assures you that your home can retain a comfortable temperature level without turning on the air conditioner in a certain range of heat exposure and so on because what we are facing will be most likely more frantic extremes. What we will see in the future is more of these very extreme events: after a heatwave, there will be floods and, other things coming. With these scenarios in mind, we need to consider what that means with our homes being safe places for us. And in my opinion, it's not a solution to say, "Oh, just go to the shopping center."

A house where we invest 1 mil, 1.5, 2 mils should be capable of delivering a safe place where we can be assured that it can withstand these extremes to some degree. I know that there might be an intensity scale with these events and at some point you reach that and you know the property can't deal with it. But until then it should be able actually to deal with that. That's exactly where climate readiness as a measurement will be quite significant. So we are using AI to model that with validated data but also voluntary data. We will then be able to say, well, it looks like your home could actually reach the climate readiness status.

Q: That's amazing. I wanted to ask actually, could you share what the favourite improvement you made to your home was in the process of rebuilding it after the cyclone event?

A: It was an insurance case. We wanted to improve our home's thermal envelope and we did actually ask them to add the installation where possible, and I know that it was added to the living room and it makes a fair bit of difference. Since then, we can retain a comfortable temperature because we don't have an air conditioner in the living room, and since we're in tropical Queensland, our bedrooms are exposed to the afternoon sun. They get boiling hot. After fixing all the damages – we also fixed the massive sliding doors which were completely pushed into the building – it was getting slightly better.

Then we paid out of our pockets for our solar pv system. The combination with that is brilliant. What we have done now is we've installed 2 small air conditioners in the bedrooms because there were boiling hot afternoons where you would either fall into a coma because of the heat or you would not enter the rooms until you were able to open all the windows and let all the nice breeze go through, which we always do as well. But yeah, I think it really made a big difference and I'm able to see that also in the way we manage moisture. A lot of homes in that region, in New South Wales and Queensland in general, have moisture issues. I wouldn't say it was completely planned. Again. You know, we are learning also a lot. But we don't have these build ups anymore with the moisture.

I think a lot comes with how air flows in a better way in our homes now. We did install a completely new septic system which follows a very old-school kind of thinking. But it is a system solution. We have invested a fair bit of time to understand the mechanisms – it doesn't require any chemicals or anything. It really works for a period of chambers and settlements and it's used in national parks to prevent contamination of the groundwater.

It's a really simple solution but it needs area and space. We do have that so we were lucky in that time. Yeah, so, I think again, you know, every property is different but I think for us it worked out quite well.

Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learnt about home renovations or building since launching Evitat?

A: I learnt that historical design is actually quite smart. We are a very diverse team: my background is from the Balkan area in Europe and Germany. Then we have a Middle East Indian influence. When you come together and talk about how former generations dealt with heat, and so on. All of a sudden there are so many of these historical experiences and examples thrown into that conversation, and you are like, oh my God, wow!

In Iran, for example, they have built for centuries an air conditioner system, which is basically like a chimney that works very naturally to suck out hot air through the thickness of the stone. It cools down the incoming air, and it's a very simple way to think about air conditioning. In India, they use clay bricks which they spray water on, and the cooling effect of that is also like an air conditioning effect.

So Looking at Queensland, a typical Queenslander home, you know, with porches, with a lot of shading to the windows – it worked, you know. They didn't have air conditioners or anything. And they were able to deal with hot temperatures, and and so on. I think we can learn a lot from from these things. There was a great architect in Queensland, Gabriel Poole. He was renowned for his thinking around tropical design and using natural air flow to cool down homes. He was really working to understand the location, the air flows in a home, and the placement of the sun. I'm stunned by absolutely amazing homes that utilise this knowledge and historical knowledge to draw certain conclusions. Another element you will find in some of the mid-century versions of homes is that while they didn't utilise efficiency as great, the access to exposed structural elements is great because nowadays we are cladding everything. So if there's any damage from something, you won't see it for a very long time until it eats through significant elements. I like the idea of actually being able to see things and have access to them so I can check them and fix damaged things.

So let's make homes more easy to access, and easy to fix. I think we need to have that approach with many things and many products. Indigenous knowledge is also important to understand sometimes how they dealt with it.

Q: That's so true, traditional knowledge is so important! If someone was now reading up on all the benefits and all the great impacts of renovating their homes but they're now very overwhelmed by all the information they have, and they don't know where to start. What advice would you give them?

A: We put forward small things, but the first recommendation we put in front of you and support you in is typically an all-electric journey because usually these things are easy. You own the decision. You don't need an architect for these things. However, they are investments, and they're not small. So we trying actually to give you also at least an indicator of what that means with cost reductions, and so on. We then also make it easy to connect to vetted suppliers or service providers. When I'm talking about vetted, we do dive deeper into how they operate, what kind of products they install, and and so on.

Still, maybe with 5, 6 7 options, that might be overwhelming, but what we also do is then say, well, it looks like you have a lot of things and needs. For example, in energy efficiency. How about you get an energy efficiency assessor in because it's subsidised anyway at the moment? So it's such a no-brainer, to do this and hopefully, they can then talk with you directly to make these sound decisions about your priorities.

There's no linear one size fits all kind of solution. You have a couple of pathways you can take, and you can educate yourself on the way. If that doesn't clarify, we have also the community part where you can jump in and ask questions about very specific areas you might be thinking about or want to get more advice in, and we also run the webinars every fortnight pretty much with different topics.

There's a range of things, and you can do it on your terms and explore a bit what you think might work for your home. You can then also have the assurance that the materials and professionals we list are all vetted – that professionals need to have evidence of 2 projects at minimum, which needs to be 7-star rated for example. There are certain criteria that they need to meet to be even popping up in that recommendation.

Evitat are an incredible partner of 1 Million Women, supporting us to educate and support women transforming their homes beyond coal-fired power, oil and gas.

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