27 May 2011 –“Recharged” was how one attendee described the Australian Building Sustainability Association conference held on 18 and 19 May at Melbourne’s six star Green Star Convention and Exhibition Centre.  “Exceeded my expectations,” was another.

ABSA accredits, certifies and conducts training for residential building sustainability assessors.  The conference theme, “Sustainable building – does it measure up?” examined the energy efficiency industry and existing tools that measure building performance in detail.

Providing insights were a range of speakers including a climate change  activist (this is how she was introduced in the program), members of Parliament including Adam Bandt and Mark Dreyfus , academics such as Usha Iyer-Raniga and Alan Pears from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, housing developer Mike Hill and architect Tone Wheeler and more.

The conference was a major step in rebuilding the confidence of  ABSA members after a series of failed and cancelled government programs for residential environmental programs saw a rapid increase in the numbers of building assessors followed by sudden collapse of demand for their services. (See a statement from ABSA on the current strategy for the organisation posted below.)

It was no surprise to many observers that a number of assessors are feeling that the future was not so clear. “Brand damage” was referred to frequently by a number of presenters.

Despite the recent turmoil, however, many presenters gave an optimistic future for the energy efficiency sector. Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Mark Dreyfus pointed out that while Australia was lagging internationally in the energy efficiency space, there was a huge opportunity to fill this gap, with many opportunities that could be seized.

He pointed out that there would be an increasing need for services that reduce energy costs. “Credible and reliable information on how to build, renovate and maintain homes would continue to be needed at an ever increasing level” Dreyfus said

Conference delegates, left to right: Bryan Roles, Mike Purtell and Danielle King

A number of presenters gave specific suggestions and advice on how the energy efficiency brand could be repaired, in addition to where new work could be found in the sector.  In particular they pointed to the need to find new methods of communicating to budget decision makers within families (which was stated as being about 70 per cent women) in simple money saving terms the benefits of changing certain behaviours in the home.

Non door-to-door approaches such as The One Million Women campaign was mentioned as an example of how this has been done well.  The success of this campaign has triggered the creation of the 10,000 Teens campaign

Director of Sydney University’s Institute of Sustainable Solutions Sam Mostyn,who also sits on the advisory board of research institute Climate Works, to the conference  that “building sustainability assessors were on the forefront of a growth curve.”

Moytyn’s optimism for the sector was clear through a number of examples she provided that indicated growth and demand.  She pointed to a recent research report, Commercial Buildings and Emission Reduction Opportunities that was undertaken by Climate Works – for the then Climate Trust – now known as Low Carbon Australia

This report concluded that 80 per cent of emission reductions in 2020 will come from buildings that exist today.  Clearly the current building stock really matters with respect to tackling climate change, Mostyn said.

“The opportunity for retrofits, advice and counsel that these building owners get really matters,”

Key programs that Mostyn suggested  offered opportunities include:

Moystn advised the conference delegates to look for work being done by credible institutions that are undertaking or using good research, particularly those that are forming partnerships to deliver on programs and initiatives.

Chief executive officer of the Building Code Board of Australia, Ivan Donaldson was scheduled to present to the conference. Due to illness, a presentation from the board was delivered by Timor Grubits and Claire Culross instead.

The presentation argued why the Building Code of Australia was a suitable mechanism to deliver on energy efficiency outcomes. Grubits and Culross said that the code as a nationally consistent approach, empowered consumers to reach beyond the minimum standard and that it did not inhibit best practice.

The code accommodated different climatic regions through inclusions and exclusions, they said.  However, it also needed to be read in conjunction with states and territories’ specific legislation and regulations.

Over the past few years the code had been adapted and revised  to incorporate sustainability measures in multi-unit residential buildings, as well as commercial and industrial building classes.  In consideration of whether the code measured up, the presenters concluded that it plays a part. Some of the audience members challenged these assumptions stating that there were so many exclusions that the code is ineffective as a useful tool.

Another encouraging presentations came from Michele Levine from Roy Morgan Research who provided detailed market analysis of Australian society for instance https://www.roymorgan.com/resources/pdf/papers/20110401.pdf which outlined segments that would be receptive to energy efficiency measures, why and in what order.

Adjunct professor with the Centre of Design at RMIT Alan Pears, posed a range of concepts to challenge how we traditionally consider housing. These included considering new and  creative ways that homes could generate revenue, transportable houses, to cope with ongoing change and converting homes that were  “above requirement” with respect to many households having unused rooms .

He said that housing occupation rates in 1961 were 4.37 persons per dwelling; now it was 2.2 persons per dwelling . Houses could be designed with multiple internal flats, for instance, he said.

Director of the residential energy efficiency section at the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency David Smith provided a glimpse into the federal government’s progress on residential mandatory disclosure.

Smith told the audience to expect the regulatory impact statement on mandatory disclosure within a matter of weeks.  The audience was invited to provide close scrutiny.

Architect Tone Wheeler recommended an array of publications that consider sensible and adaptive climatic design. These included The Australian & New Zealand solar home book, A practical guide by Szokolay and Sale as well as M.Parnell & G. Cole’s Australian solar houses. For an easy online version that encompasses effective design principles Wheeler recommended www.designingforclimate.com.au to which he was a contributor.

While many words of praise were used to describe ABSA’s fourth national conference, some members requested that their representative body take on a greater leadership role to help repair their brand as assessors, and the energy efficiency brand.

“The whole industry is in a state of flux and while measuring tools are important to get right, members are seeking support and direction,” summarised one member.

Following is an edited statement from ASBSA to summarise the organisation’s current state of play

ABSA was established in Sydney in 2003 to service and support the growing number of professionals interested in residential sustainability assessment.

Today, ABSA has offices in both Sydney and Melbourne with more than 1900 members. Its core business is to accredit, certify and conduct training for residential building sustainability assessors through two accreditation schemes –the Home Energy Rating Scheme and the Home Sustainability Assessment Scheme.

ABSA has been the only authorised accrediting organisation for the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme, or NatHERS, since 2006. Through this scheme, HERS assessors provide a specialised assessment service to designers, architects and householders in the design and planning of a new home by conducting house energy ratings. ABSA encouraged the move from five stars to six stars as a minimum energy requirement. Australian states and territories are progressively introducing the new requirement.

ABSA is currently working with the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency to ensure the successful completion of a number of key projects including the set-up of a technical advisory committee to support the validation and update of NatHERS software, and the development of proactive consumer advice campaigns under the national strategy for energy efficiency.

A second accreditation scheme is the Home Sustainability Scheme. The ongoing problems of Green Loans and the scrapping of Green Start reaffirmed ABSA strategy that a private practice model is the key to developing a robust sustainability scheme.

The challenge for assessors now is to themselves as independent assessors in communities where government enforced mandatory assessments and assessment rebates may not exist.

ABSA is therefore developing a new home sustainability assessment program that is not dependent on government policy and programs, but still able to service them as them as they arise. Called Habitat Partners, the program is a quality, independent sustainability assessment service dedicated to helping households and small business save money by better managing electricity, gas and water.

Since its establishment, ABSA’s membership numbers have continued to increase steadily from year to year. Due to failed government programs over the last few years (namely Green Loans), we have seen (and planned for) substantial increases and decreases in assessor numbers (and consequently membership numbers), but ABSA is pleased to report that it has had steady increases over the first quarter of this year.

Industry scrutiny

There is no denying that our industry has attracted its fair share of unflattering attention, mainly due to bungled government programs and rebate schemes and factually incorrect and misleading media reports.

Establishing the brand and the reputation of our emerging industry takes time, and needs the support of members themselves as well as politicians and policymakers.

ABSA has set the wheels in motion with programs that include:

  • managing close working relationships with federal, state and local governments to ensure assessors and the industry stay on the political agenda
  • developing Habitat Partners, a new program for home sustainability assessors to work in
  • working towards the development of national accreditation training standards
  • membership of committees and working groups that aim to ensure the regular review of assessment tools, and government regulation papers
  • strengthening relationships with key industry organisations and associations
  • increasing and maintaining assessment standards through a quality assurance system
  • Professional Development
  • improve consumer confidence through contributing to media “good news” story about the industry