Tom Roper

20 February 2013 – Turning around the sustainability of the residential development industry will be complex and need to overcome deep structural impediments, not least of those deep opposition from industry lobby groups. But at least now there is a roadmap thanks to a comprehensive report from the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

The council this week released the roadmap, based on its report, Net Zero Emission Homes, An examination of leading practice and pathways forward.

The report was commissioned by ASBEC and undertaken by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, with strong input from the Residential Development Council of Australia. It found that while the capacity of the building industry to deliver low and zero carbon homes was increasing, industry professionals were “unanimous in the opinion that the building industry currently lacks the skills and capability to deliver zero carbon homes on a large scale”.

Among reasons offered by interview participants from the residential industry for lack of capacity to deliver zero carbon homes included lack of demand from mainstream buyers.

However, according to The Fifth Estate sources there is anecdotal evidence that demand is shifting – that buyers increasingly want to know what the energy running costs of a house will be.

Industry lobby groups have also fiercely resisted every move to make the housing industry more sustainable. The most recent is the industry’s success is pushing back agreement by the states to introduce mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency for houses.

In the wake of this week’s ASBEC report, chief executive of industry policy for the Housing Industry Association Graham Wolfe deflected responsibility for the industry.

He told newspapers that the bulk of residential emissions were actually from transport, rather than homes themselves.

ASBEC president Tom Roper said that to bring about net zero emissions from housing it was important to be ” clear on the key deliverables that will drive change and introduce a stepped approach to achieving this goal.”

The report examined the Australian industry and comparable industry practices internationally. It was “not just about new housing but also a major retrofitting exercise for existing buildings,” Mr Roper said.

“This roadmap is a starting place for a conversation that we hope will lead to Australia having a majority of net zero carbon homes in the coming decades.”

Highlights of the report follow.

Key impediments to progress cited by interview participants in the ASBEC report included:

  • At this point in time, anything more than the minimum requirement is not something the mainstream homebuyer is particularly interested in. Most builders develop sufficient skills to meet this mainstream demand, not to change it.
  • Insufficient monitoring and compliance mechanisms are in place to ensure buildings are built as designed. A home may achieve a 6?star rating in simulation but fall short of that performance in practice because of poor building sealing and poor installation of insulation. As few audits are conducted, builders are not learning to improve their practices over time.
  • There are additional costs for energy efficient materials themselves (such as double glazing and high level insulation) and additional costs associated with using such materials (for example the increased time in sourcing new materials and learning how to use them). As many interviewees noted, the construction industry on a whole is a conservative industry and is happy to continue working with materials and techniques they know work. In a highly competitive industry, few builders have the time to experiment with new materials and techniques.”

The report found another issue was that most of the existing industry capacity in delivering low or zero carbon homes was focused on new detached houses.

There were few, or no, examples of multi?residential buildings that approached a zero carbon standard in Australia, the report found.

“There are also relatively few examples of retrofits that approach a zero carbon standard. Given that urban planning is increasingly focused on increasing the density of our cities, there is likely to be stronger demand for both renovations and multi?unit residential buildings in the future. It is critical for the building industry to develop skills in meeting this demand more sustainably.

“Research conducted by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute argues that high?density precincts and redirecting growth and urban investment inwards, rather than outwards, represents a more sustainable form of urban development from economic, environmental and social perspectives (Towards a new development model for housing regeneration in greyfield precincts from AHURINewton, Murray, Wakefield, Murphy & Khor, 2011).

“Consumer demand is supporting this change in direction. From a survey of over 1200 households, 58 per cent of the sample identified ‘compact city’ as their preferred living environment.

“However, a recent article published in The Fifth Estate (High rise apartments can be greened, it takes a little energy, 2011), argues that high?rise apartments are typically more energy intensive than detached houses, using up to 30 per cent more energy. Lighting in common areas, lift motors and water pumps were identified as the main contributors to the increased energy use. Finding ways to build and retrofit low and zero carbon high?rise developments is vital in light of their increased energy use and the likely increase in this kind of development over time.”

The report found there were very few voluntary initiatives in Australia that aimed to deliver zero carbon homes. Those that did included the South Australian Land Management Corporation’s Zero Carbon Challenge, the Australian Zero Emission House Project and several demonstration homes.

Yet demonstration homes costs showed that that low and zero carbon homes could not yet compete with the high?end housing market.

“Leading international voluntary initiatives on zero carbon homes include voluntary energy and carbon standards for single homes: Passivhaus, MINERGIE, R?2000, Super E, the UK Code for Sustainable Homes and several voluntary standards in the United States, and precinct?scale developments – Climate Positive and One Planet Living, voluntary targets – the 2030 Challenge and coalitions established to facilitate the emergence of zero carbon homes – the Net Zero Energy Home Coalition in Canada and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s Energy Efficiency in Buildings project. Canada’s Net Zero Energy Home Coalition is of particular interest as a possible model for coordinating voluntary action.

“In Australia, there were also several voluntary home rating programs, including Green Star and NABERS, that encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from homes, without explicitly aiming for zero carbon. The Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme and associated rating tools can be used voluntarily, in addition to being used for assessing regulatory compliance.”

Demonstration homes, which had voluntarily aimed for low or zero carbon included five homes delivered under VicUrban’s Habitat21 project, Mirvac’s Harmony 9 sustainable prototype home, Jade Projects’ Jade 909 and Landcom’s The Ponds.

The report found that with mandatory disclosure of energy performance for homes still under discussion, the future role of voluntary rating tools in driving zero carbon homes remained uncertain.

“Green Star has been particularly successful in driving sustainability innovation for commercial office buildings, where there is strong recognition of Green Star ratings in the market and developers aim for particular Green Star ratings as a way of gaining attention and attracting buyers or tenants.

“There is strong market demand for commercial buildings with high Green Star ratings. However, the same level of market demand does not exist at this time in the residential sector and there is no single dwelling?specific Green Star tool.”

The report found that if mandatory disclosure of energy performance for residential buildings was introduced, householders would become more familiar with a particular rating approach at the dwelling level.

“Ideally, future voluntary rating systems would be able to build on the mandatory system, using similar methods and language. This will be crucial to avoid marketplace confusion, while providing additional incentives to go beyond mere reporting of energy performance.”

The report says the National Strategy on Energy Efficiency provided overarching policy direction on energy efficiency for Australian homes with the Federal Government in the process of establishing a National Building Energy Standard?Setting, Assessment and Rating Framework to provide more detailed policy guidance for energy performance in the building sector through to 2020.

Other key actions under the National Strategy on Energy Efficiency include a proposal for mandatory disclosure of residential building energy, greenhouse and water performance and various appliance energy regulations.

“The Australian Government’s Clean Energy Future package also includes some initiatives with the potential to support zero carbon homes. These include the Clean Energy and Other Skills Package. Further, the Australian Government’s National Carbon Offset Standard may have a role in determining what kind of emission reduction measures can be used to achieve zero carbon homes.”

The report identified three themes to help Australia move towards a low carbon future. They are:

Theme 1: Assisting households and businesses to transition to a low carbon future

  • Industry capacity building
  • Increasing innovation in energy efficient technologies
  • Increasing consumer awareness of the availability and benefits of energy efficiency technologies appliances
  • Improving national data gathering and reporting.

An initiative that has already been undertaken under this theme is the development of a long?term training strategy for energy efficiency assessment skills by the National Framework for Energy Efficiency Commercial and Industrial Implementation Group.

Theme 2: Reducing impediments to the uptake of energy efficiency

  • Delivering useful information to consumers and businesses that will drive energy efficient behaviours and encourage uptake of energy efficient technologies
  • Increasing research into impediments for investing in demand side management and encouraging increased investment into a more efficient energy network.
  • National legislation for Minimum Energy Performance Standard and labelling.

Theme 3: Making buildings more energy efficient

  • Mandatory disclosure of residential building energy, greenhouse and water performance at time of sale or lease
  • The development of an integrated national outcomes?based framework for energy standard setting, assessment and rating framework
  • Increasing the coverage and stringency of energy efficiency provisions for all new residential buildings
  • Incentives for residential building owners to undertake energy efficiency improvements
  • Auditing of energy efficiency of public housing stock and implementing cost?effective upgrades
  • Addressing opportunities for renewable energy at building lot or precinct scale.

The report’s executive summary says that for some, “it is too soon to aim for zero carbon and we should be focusing on low carbon”.

“For others, zero carbon is just a stepping stone to buildings that have a net positive or restorative impact. This report specifically focuses on a zero carbon goal while recognising that many of the proposed actions will be equally relevant to low carbon or beyond zero carbon goals.”

The key recommendations are to:

  • Establish a consistent long?term, regulated timeline towards zero carbon with industry?agreed targets
  • Develop voluntary standards to drive and reward innovation
  • Use a single rating system for home sustainability within the National Construction Code, mandatory disclosure and any voluntary standards that is consistent across jurisdictions and includes comprehensive auditing
  • Research on the Australian Zero Emission House found an additional cost of 15 per cent and a payback period of around 11 years, which is too long to be attractive to most consumers. To reduce payback periods, implement mechanisms such as cash rebates for low carbon products and materials, innovative financing mechanisms (such as ‘pay as you save’ schemes and environmental upgrade agreements) and provision of favourable tax treatment.
  • Undertake marketing and education to increase consumer awareness of the benefits of zero carbon homes, for example via a recognisable brand and logo, awards programs and targeted communications
  • Ensure that a dedicated organisation (like the Zero Carbon Hub in the UK) takes on the role of providing research, education and capacity building to move towards the zero carbon goals. This could include maintaining a database on cost and performance of zero carbon homes, establishing an industry?endorsed definition and terminology for zero carbon homes and developing technology roadmaps for key zero carbon products and services.