Photo: Alternative Technology Association- www.ata.org.au

In Australia in 2010 there are no rules requiring houses or construction to be sustainable. There are, however, rules in most states and territories requiring houses (and in some jurisdictions units, too) to be designed to use less energy and water. There is almost no checking, however, whether the designs approved under these rules do in fact achieve the reductions or efficiencies forecast by the different rules. (1)

There is no government in Australia I know of that has set measurable goals for sustainable development. Nor do I know of any proposal by a government to carry out a monitoring program on the performance of innovative water, waste water and energy systems of domestic, commercial or industrial projects. The combination of a lack of performance monitoring, an absence of a readily available, independently maintained database of best practices for sustainable projects (particularly about the costs), and a lack of measurable goals for living sustainably is, in my opinion, a major barrier to widespread adoption of sustainable development practices.

The absence of such information must also impede the creation and refinement of regulations and standards to achieve sustainable cities.

If you don’t know how buildings perform in response to designs, how can you design red tape that you know will, in fact, achieve sustainable results?

How, then, does someone find and buy a sustainable house?

There are a couple of real-estate agencies specialising in sustainable properties: www.eco.com.au/; www.ecobusinesslinks.com/green_real_estate.htm. And the mainstream real-estate industry is starting to think about this issue with articles such as this: www.realestate.com.au/renovate/focus/green-living/articles/new-housing-sustainability-regulations.htm

Some magazines carry advertisements for sustainable properties, for example: www.earthgarden.com.au/; and www.greenmagazine.com.au/

However, there’s no requirement for sellers to state whether their house is sustainable or not. Sellers in the ACT are required to give the energy efficiency rating of houses and the Coalition of Australian Governments has agreed to bring in a national equivalent in 2010 (including minimum 6-star energy standards) (2) Also, there is no single definition of what a sustainable house is, or any requirement to quantify its water and energy consumption, sewage disposal or other environmental impacts.

True, most owners would not be able to claim their house is sustainable, but if there’s one thing that would reward people who want to make their properties sustainable before they are compelled by legislation to do so, you would think governments would make it mandatory for sellers to state whether or not the house is sustainable.

What would a sustainable property need to qualify?

A statement of sustainability would tick “yes” or ‘no” to some key questions, perhaps no more than 15. They might look like this:

1. Is the refrigerator passively ventilated to enable it to achieve its star rating? Fridges are rarely included yet they typically consume 50 per centof a house’s energy.Good ventilation can increase a fridge’s efficiency by up to 25 per centand so help it actually achieve the star rating nominated (The star ratings are awarded to fridges tested in a climate similar to Tasmania).

2. Is there air-conditioning?

3. Is there a swimming pool and a pool pump?

4. Is there a railway station within 400 metres?

5. Is there bus route within 200 metres, with at least half-hourly services?

6. Does the zoning allow more than residential uses on the premises?

7. Is there a car-share facility, with at least two service providers, within 150 metres of the house?

8. Is there a road garden at the front?

9. Is there a farmers’ market within one kilometre?

10. Is there a community garden within one kilometre?

11. Is the house self-sufficient for water using rainwater?

12. Is the house disconnected from mains sewer and reusing all sewage on site?

13. Does the house have a pale roof?

14. Are the roads adjoining the house’s urban block covered by at least 50 per cent of shade, or are the roads pale in colour?

15. Is there a solar electricity system on the roof, generating more than 50 per cent of the house’s electricity?

There are three things about this list. First, very few properties would satisfy seven of the 15 criteria. Second, most of them have absolutely nothing to do with, and will be largely unaffected by, any carbon trading scheme. Third, the list is truly sustainable; rating schemes (BASIX, Green Star, NABERS, FirstRate, etc) confine themselves to reducing use of dam water and coal-fired power. They don’t aim to make sustainable water and energy use the dominant form of supply, that is, rainwater instead of dam water; solar, thermal, wind or geothermal instead of coal-fired power. With population growth and the consistent failure of designs to meet the rating schemes’ ideal levels of efficiency, all they achieve is a lower rate of increase of these unsustainable systems.

In other words, the sources and causes of the things we build, use and do in Australian cities, and which cause most energy, water, food and transport abuse, overuse, pollution and environmental damage, are yet to become part of the mainstream policy debate in Australia.

That’s why the discussion about greenhouse gas emissions is inadequately framed and I think it’s leading us nowhere, no matter how many folk sign any number of treaties and commit to whatever targets. Worse, it distracts us from the here and now tasks of cooling our cities and developing food security.

(1) A university audit of buildings constructed under sustainability rules in NSW and Victoria has discovered that the forecasts by the rules have not been met in practice. An example of the growing concern over the shortfalls of BASIX and the emerging data about new BASIX houses using more energy and causing more climate change than existing houses since it and other star rating systems were introduced – some 6 per cent higher – is covered in “Sustainability beyond the stars” in the journal Renew, Issue 104, September 2008, p18, and in a report by George Wilkenfeld to the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment in 2007.

In 1994, Britain’s Department of the Environment published a review of 10 energy-efficient houses, Report 39: Review of ultra-low-energy homes as part of its energy efficiency best practice program. Forty schemes were profiled in Phase 1 of the review and a further 34 schemes were identified. The report states: “The schemes contained in Phase 1 account for over 500 homes. They show that high levels of energy efficiency can be achieved with a wide range of construction methods and techniques. Only a small minority of the UK schemes have been fully monitored. In most cases the exact results of applying the energy-conscious design features are not known.

“Where UK schemes have been monitored, the performance is generally not as good as expected. Only four schemes meet the original target of the Department, which is between 9 and 90 kWh/m²yr in each case. Two major factors contribute to the poor performance of the monitored UK schemes. These are the high air leakage rates and the poor design and/or commissioning of heating schemes.”

It’s useful to compare the approaches of the Australian schemes with the British scheme.

Since 2005, when NSW adopted the BASIX rating scheme, various similar schemes were made afterwards in other Australian states under different names – FirstRate in Victoria, for example.

These new planning rules set minimum efficiency standards for energy and water in new and renovated houses. Later, other, less efficient, standards were brought in for residential units. There are no standards for offices, shopping centres, schools and other building types but they may be implemented in the next few years.

(2) COAG, however, is a graveyard for good works. It is a great source of red tape and we may expect that, if such a scheme does emerge, there will be an rise in compliance costs. It’s hard to believe there won’t be a bonfire of consultancy work to be created so that sellers will need yet another consultant’s report about energy efficiency (water, sewage, food, transport and so on). We may also expect that ‘deemed to comply’ devices – by which owners are able to achieve energy efficiency without retaining a consultant to use a computer to produce a report – will be killed off.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. michael@sustainablehouse.com.au