There are myriad tools to assess building sustainability.

6 March 2014 — Is the proliferation of rating tools a sign that sustainability in the built environment is gaining momentum and changing the face of our social landscape? Or is it causing a situation where greenwashing, confusion and conflicts between different legislative, planning and ratings instruments undermine the overall goal? Willow Aliento investigates.

Since the concept of building sustainably first gained currency in the mid-1990s, the development of tools to achieve green outcomes and rating systems to verify them has grown – much like a snowball rolling down a mountain turns into an avalanche.

While some of the rating systems and tools such as LEED and Green Star are extremely specific and technically detailed, referencing national or international standards, others function more as a set of practical guidelines, such as the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia’s rating system, which offers multiple pathways towards an endorsement of best practice with a lower burden of proof.

The difficulty is that there are so many different systems, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring that everything claiming to be green in terms of training, practice and certification actually is. In other words, we’ve got so many things in the sustainability toolbox, it’s sometimes hard for end users to sort the useful instruments from the bogus ones.

How it looks at the action end – a builder’s perspective

From the builder’s perspective, there are some issues at ground level with implementing some of the requirements of sustainability ratings.

Peter Helfer

Devco’s Peter Helfer has been a design manager for tier two building contractors for the past seven years, and is a judge for the Victorian Regional Building Awards for the Master Builders Association of Victoria. He told The Fifth Estate there appears to be duplication between Commonwealth, State and local government sustainability requirements when making applications for planning and building permits.

“This can be a source of conflict throughout the design stage of a project,” Helfer says.

There can also be major problems with the procurement of fittings and equipment, where the local regulation requirements are in some cases either not available, or where a required energy performance standard limits the options to only a few suppliers. This can have implications for cost-competitiveness and for program timelines where the manufacturer has insufficient Australian stock on hand. Even more concerning is the rapid change in products, which can result in the originally specified items no longer being available.

“Under the sustainability requirements of specific planning permits from some local government authorities, there are often only limited products available, for example in the case of drawer type dishwashers, which will meet the energy standards required,” Helfer says.

Missing products and materials

“There can also be cost issues for the builder and problems for the developer where sales documentation may list an item which needs to be substituted for compliance. On a design and construct project, when you start to procure you have some flexibility [in product specification]. Only then issues start to emerge in the live construction environment, which cause problems not foreseen at the beginning when contracts are signed based on off-the-plan pre-sales, but later it is found the products shown in the plans and marketing pictures are not the ones that will be supplied.

“There is also such a churn with products, so an architect can specify them in initial design, and later [during actual building] that product is not available.”

Water and energy

Helfer points out that while the ideal is for all suppliers to improve water and energy ratings, this is not always the case, and the range of supplier options for many products is still very limited in terms of what can meet Green Star or other sustainability rating requirements.

For example, under Victorian Government requirements for residential projects, a six star NatHERS rating for energy and water is the baseline for all new projects. This translates into specific requirements for lighting, plumbing fixtures and appliances. However, in Helfer’s experience, it can be difficult to find product options, which meet both the water and energy benchmarks.

A resolution he suggests would be for sustainability measurements to focus on the building as a whole, rather than “micro-managing” specific items.

“Some of these [sustainability] requirements are written without assessing what suppliers can do. There is no point specifying standards that are aspirational or only available from limited manufacturers,” Helfer says.

“If [an authority] is having the intent of achieving green outcomes, issuing the planning and building permit requirements based on overall building performance gives [builders] and developers flexibility.

“If you are going to have one standard, which is a general standard [like the six star benchmark in Victoria] which is going to apply across the board, make that the requirement rather than each appliance needing to be rated.

“There are so many variable, which can [achieve sustainability], including the layout and size of apartments and materials. Let designers and building specifiers use creativity to achieve the sustainability outcome.”

Another major obstacle for builders is the time it takes for a project to achieve an accredited As Built Green Star rating. Devco’s Williamstown High School project, the first Green Star by Design Pilot educational building in Australia, took three years post-completion to receive an As Built rating. For the builders and consultants that means a requirement to maintain – in some cases without added remuneration – a far longer involvement with the project than the contracted period for getting the project to practical completion and the subsequent defects liability period.

“How does that encourage people if it is an onerous process?” Helfer asks.

“Maybe there is a more efficient way. There is also the question of who is paying for it, as the client gets to keep the builders and consultants working on it, which might be manageable for large firms but stretches the capacity of smaller firms.

“With a project like a school, where resources are very tight anyway, is there a way to make it more palatable in terms of cost and time? If there are only a few schools achieving as built [Green Star] accreditation then the scheme may not be meeting the objective of encouraging green building.”

Helfer identifies some sustainability initiatives, such as energy-efficient mechanical systems and water harvesting, as reasonably simple to implement within budgets. However, he questions whether the return on investment on higher-end initiatives for smaller projects has shown itself to be as good as perhaps initially predicted during the design stage.

Essentially, if the common goal is to achieve more buildings designed and built sustainably, he believes the process of achieving the outcomes needs to be improved, including potentially containing the period for assessing and certifying an As Built Green Star rating to the normal defects liability period.

“From a delivery point of view and from a market point of view, it is important to make it more efficient for all parties, and to have [the requirements] for achieving ratings contained in a way that encourages better outcomes.”

Carrots and more carrots – green building from the grassroots

Sometimes it can hard to discern if a system is a tool, a rating or a general approach. The Master Builders Association deals with all three, including their own in-house program, Green Living Building. This is an opt-in program that is facilitating education and professional development for builders in the general principles of sustainable construction, and includes an accreditation that sets certain basic requirements in terms of any building’s design and construction.

Dr Phillip Alviano

The program was developed eight years ago by the MBA’s sustainability advisor, Dr Phillip Alviano, who says there is more of a market in the commercial sector for green building due to bottom line drivers around building value than there is in the residential sector, where owner preference is the deciding factor.

“In terms of commercial building, [Green Star] has been extremely successful. It has become almost a requirement for the larger part of the construction industry, so builders have had to learn to meet [Green Star’s] requirements,” Dr Alviano says.

“It even comes down to the people working on site in terms of Green Star As Built requirements. [Trade subcontractors] all need to be aware of what they are doing, including chain of custody requirements.

“The market has been a big driver in commercial building. Green Star buildings get bigger returns, and for the big companies and state and federal governments it is becoming a requirement for their buildings, and this has pushed the industry to build that way.”

Because there has been no similar system for the domestic residential sector, as NatHERS is focused exclusively on energy, the Green Living Building program aims to bridge the gap and address the broader aspects of sustainability including waste, materials selection and design. Participants range from large builders to husband and wife operations.

The program involves a two-day training course and a range of commitments from the builders including a commitment not to pollute.

There are also specific requirements under the Victorian requirements of the National Building Code for all projects, not just Green Living Builder projects, such as ensuring any domestic home they build has either a solar hot water system or rainwater harvesting and storage that is plumbed to deliver water for toilet flushing.

All Green Living Builders pay for a formal accreditation, and attend an annual conference to stay up to date with advances in sustainable practice. They are also required to report on their activities. In exchange, they receive support and advice on standards, techniques, product selection and suppliers, particularly in terms of relatively new sustainability approaches such as onsite domestic greywater recycling.

Dr Alviano says the program stresses incorporating sustainability before the detailed design stage, in aspects such as building orientation for passive solar benefits, and extends through to considering thermal mass and options for improving indoor air quality by specifying and using low VOC paints, finishes and adhesives.

One of the major issues for builders implementing sustainable practices is the credibility of supplier and service provider claims around sustainability. Where no formal compliance standard or product certification exists, obtaining accurate and reliable information on products, materials and techniques can be challenging.

“The hard thing is there are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there,” Alviano says. “People should seek advice from reputable Registered Building Practitioners or licensed trades.”

Dr Alviano is also concerned that for some of the more leading-edge sustainability initiatives, such as cogeneration, the ROI is going down as fixed prices go up. There are also feelings of unease among MBA builders over the regulatory environment.

“Uncertainty as to where the rules and regulations are going and changing technologies mean that what may be good advice today may be different in the future,” he says.

“The impact this has for builders is they advise clients based on current information, but if the ground rules shift, it becomes a potential liability of ROIs or ratings shift in response to regulatory changes. Basically, clients may feel a degree of discontent if the standard they were promised is no longer being achieved due to changes in the reference points.

The MBA is currently developing a new initiative for members working on large projects, which is an induction system for basic environmental management aspects based on EPA requirements around pollution, including stormwater issues. It is hoped that the Master Builders Green Card will sit alongside the industry’s safety induction white card.

“Green Living Building changes according to the feedback [from our members], including what questions they are asking. Our constant contact with the industry means that our training is responsive and targeted to industry needs.” Alviano says.

Energy assessment illuminates the issues

Energy use has been a focal point where standards have been formalised on a federal level, at state levels, and within the tools and ratings developed by organisations such as the Green Building Council of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia.

In New South Wales for example, there is the BASIX system for assessing domestic residential energy and water efficiency; the nationwide NABERS system for commercial building energy efficiency; the NatHERS system, another national system that covers the residential sector; the Building Code of Australia Section J, which applies to all class 2 to 9 buildings in Australia (those that aren’t detached residential premises or terraces, town houses, etc) and sets minimum benchmarks for thermal efficiency including building orientation, energy and water. These are all schemes that are compliance based and must be applied where relevant.

Rodger Hills

On top of these, there are opt-in tools and certifications such as the UDIA EnviroDevelopment ratings or Green Star. Chief executive officer at the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors, Rodger Hills, explains that all of these tools “have their own strengths and weaknesses”.

“If you picked the best aspects of BASIX, NABERS and NatHERS then mashed them together you’d end up with a really good national scheme for residential buildings,” Hills says, “because they all rely on proven building science principles that apply in the Australian context.”

Of course the “elephant in the room” according to Hills is non-compliance, especially in the residential sector where BASIX and NatHERS ratings are only done at DA or Construction Certificate stage and nothing is done at post-completion of the building to check if what is built complies with the original ratings.

How big this problem is cannot be proven at the moment except by anecdotal evidence, because the burden of proof rests on home owners, with lengthy investigative processes required to establish the facts. However a National Energy Efficient Building project is currently underway to quantify the extent to which energy efficiency of buildings in Australia may not always match the energy performance requirements in the National Construction Code.

At the root of the issue is the question of who is doing energy assessments, and what are their credentials? Hills said that there are no check mechanisms in most state and territory legislation, and only NSW demands mandatory accreditation of building assessors for BASIX Simulation assessments – though it also still gives builders and home owners the option of self-assessment through the BASIX DIY process.

“In effect, the legislation says, ‘We trust people to do the right thing,’ and a building certifier can’t easily check things like whether double glazing was indeed used or if the insulation was properly installed,” Hills explains.

He says one of the key issues in terms of energy ratings and assessments is that none of the legislation – federal, state and local government – forms a cohesive and robust system yet.

“And we are unlikely to get past that stage until all the states and territories stop trying to do their own thing and work in the national interest, rather than what’s good only for Queensland, or politically acceptable in South Australia or expedient in the ACT, etc,” Hills says.

Accountability and credibility – a training perspective

Steve Kostoff

Steve Kostoff, chief executive officer of Green Business Audit and Training, a nation-wide registered training organisation, says that the ever-growing number of tools for rating sustainability, energy efficiency and green marketing strategies may be “muddling” the pathway to greener outcomes.

His view is that the plethora of systems is partly a function of the technological age, the availability of IT professionals to develop and customise them for specific organisations and applications, and the emergence of green marketing strategies as a viable sales tool.

However, he cautions, unless the tools and their use are correlated to national standards, and the training for them is anchored in the recognised national training framework, there is the potential for “greenwashing”.

“As a training organisation, we have a responsibility to develop and provide training which is relevant and current, and which is then easily accessible by industry and supported by government, and that is what [in terms of training] we then provide,” Kostoff says.

“I have to respectfully say ‘no thanks’ to many tools and products provided to us by various organisations for evaluation or for use in training, because they are products belonging to that organisation, which might not fit the needs of the accredited training.

“However, it is encouraging the number of IT [professionals] who have recognised sustainability, energy efficiency and building design, for example, and worked on developing the motors [of sustainability] and the modelling for sustainability or energy efficiency. We have moved on from the past, where there were just a couple of state government-based tools, and there wasn’t the groundswell of customised training.

“[Now] a lot of industry sectors are wanting to create some sort of green certification, but many of them still want to bypass the structure of education. We see specific trades, or sales companies, for example, each wanting to promote some sort of green claim or service, yet none have locked onto the requirements of the academic training offered in the sustainability education sector, be it degree, diploma or certificate level. Whether it is a focus on NatHERS, sustainability assessing, auditing or carbon management, the qualifications are available to enhance their work and give credibility to both green claims and emerging green-collar jobs.”

Kostoff points out that nationally accredited sustainability training is informed and developed by consultation with industry, relevant peak bodies, government policy and national and international developments. Awareness of the ISO standards and AS/NZS standards that set the benchmarks for specific systems, attributes, products and processes also need to be incorporated into sustainability education, and then put into practice.

In his view, ideally all sustainability practitioners, such as house energy raters or energy assessors, should be accredited under a nationally recognised framework, with proprietary tools an “add-on” to the base level of skill with systems such as NatHERS. Some customised proprietary tools can have issues with transparency, or run the risk of becoming a form of greenwashing if their green claims do not stand up under testing.

“I get a little frustrated by [certain industry sectors] who essentially have nothing more than a sales and marketing strategy that connects with customers who are genuinely going green, yet are not prepared to support their base training with real qualifications in sustainability, auditing or carbon management – I think this confuses the emerging industry and the potential customer, and may create less-than-real outcomes,” Kostoff says.

“Sometimes I even wonder if all the ever-emerging proprietary tools and products are not actually undermining the path towards sustainability… Everyone’s going and reinventing the wheel constantly, and confusing the end-user. The solar industry is an example of a most critical industry, and one where customers and practitioners alike are often confused by claims and counter-claims of product performance.

“This potential for greenwash really concerns us [as an RTO]. As we only work in education, we don’t sell ‘products’, and we have made a commitment to embracing [sustainability] as a business and lifestyle choice. I’d like to say to [some of the industry groups] – you have the right idea, now bring further credibility to your strategies with some real qualifications, and help build and raise the standards of this sector.”

Assuring sustainability – standards and the auditor viewpoint

According to the general manager of Bureau Veritas (Australia) Andrew Mortimore, proper auditing and certification processes in relation to accepted national or international standards are an effective mechanism for revealing whether a tool or rating/endorsement really means green outcomes or is just greenwash.

In terms of proving sustainability, there is a clear distinction between a company gaining ISO 14001 certification, which then applies across all the company’s operations, and the project-by-project approach of many rating systems and tools.

Mortimore says ideally a company will do both – earn the ISO 14001 certification, and apply for the relevant ratings such as Green Star and LEED for specific projects.

“ISO 14001 is a general approach to environmental management. It involves a company identifying all activities and their environmental impacts and then setting action plans to reduce those impacts. As part of the auditing process, we also make sure they comply with all relevant legislation such as EPA requirements,” Mortimore says.

“The standard is designed for every industry and every aspect of the company’s operations – it is an over-arching management strategy.”

One of the main points in the standard’s favour in terms of embedding sustainable practice is there’s no resting on recycled laurels – companies with this accreditation must adopt a policy of continual improvement in every aspect of their environmental performance, and they are audited regularly to ensure they do.

“A lot of governments require [ISO 14001 certification] of their suppliers and a lot of big companies are also setting it as a selection criteria [for example, in tender assessment] because it can assure them a [tendering] company is legal and compliant, and can also assure them that the company’s supply chain are doing the right thing to some degree,” Mortimore says.

Other standards with relevance to the property sector include ISO 50001 standard for energy management and ISO 14064 International Standard for Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which is a standard for greenhouse gas and energy reporting.

“[ISO 14064] is useful to stop greenwashing and false or flawed reporting of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Mortimore.

An Australian standard has also been drafted for energy audits of commercial buildings, with the draft currently on display for public comment. While it is not being proposed as a mandatory compliance standard, Mortimore explains it will to some extent shape the energy audit sector.

“At least it’s a guide,” he says. “Once there’s a standard developed it becomes a benchmark to compare companies to, and about a year after the standard is released, a market [preference] for that standard develops.”

This is similar to how the market has responded to some of the sustainability rating systems and their related tools. For some, including NABERS, LEED and Green Star, auditing and certification are a crucial final step in verifying green claims and gaining the formal endorsement.

“The really good thing about tools is you can audit to a tool which is [itself] consistent to a benchmark,” Mortimore says.

Corporate social responsibility and supply chain sustainability are other facets of overall sustainability where a formal standard exists and can therefore be audited against to verify a specific level of compliance. They are also two phrases which roll easily off the pen for corporate policy copywriters, but can prove fairly empty of actual practice and outcomes.

Bureau Veritas has begun providing auditing services for the new social accountability standard ISO SA 8000, a certifiable standard for labour issues and ethical sourcing of products, and also ISO 26000, the International Standard for Corporate Social Responsibility, which was released in 2010 and is already up for review.

“[ISO 26000] is a suggested approach – a non-certifiable standard – which aims to start a process of take-up of the standard’s requirements,” Mortimore says.

“Hopefully it will become a certifiable standard. It sets out all the core principles of all the elements of CSR, and it’s a standard we can audit against.”

In the USA and Europe, assurance of sustainability claims is becoming a major business stream for the “big four” accounting firms, and a significant part of the international Bureau Veritas business. From Mortimore’s perspective, “There is no point putting out sustainability information without assurance… [and] in providing assurance, the international standards carry a lot of weight.”

The way then for users of any tool or system or sustainability service to sort the real McCoy from the Claytons is to find out: does it meet a set of standards? How were its benchmarks developed? And who verifies that the benchmarks are being achieved?

The core issue comes down to the potential sustainability ratings and tools have to deliver a fundamental shift in how the built environment is designed, delivered and financed – and the risk this can be thwarted by flawed approaches and greenwashing.

“I hope to get to a market economy that recognises sustainability aspects as [key] criteria for investment,” Mortimore says.

“There is a proven link between sustainability and financial viability.”