9 November 2012 – Volume build residential housing is pretty well where commercial property  was 10 or 15 years ago in terms of sustainability. Nowhere.

So it’s interesting to see the Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW has appointed Simon Basheer from Lend Lease as its president. (See Jobs) Lend Lease has a legacy in the sustainability stakes with its pioneering of projects such as 30 The Bond in Sydney, and some of its recent work such as the high rise timber apartments in Melbourne Lend Lease goes for timber in new high rise  and Barangaroo. So hopefully Basheer will make a green mark in the housing area. It’s surely needed.

UDIA NSW chief executive Stephen Albin agrees the industry could lift its game but he’s not hopeful that there will be a major shift at the national policy level anytime soon, such as with mandatory minimum standards or energy efficiency disclosure at the point of sale.

The disclosure policy was proposed and broadly agreed by the Council of Australian Governments, but the idea has floundered, Albin says.

Partly this is to do with the depressed housing market, which makes people focus on the bottom line to the exclusion of any environmental initiatives.

But Albin also points to other factors around regulation, which he says is actually holding back green advances.

“You can say that regulations create lowest common denominator environmental outcomes,” Albin told The Fifth Estate in a telephone conversation recently.

“The real challenge for the industry is embracing the new environmental and sustainable technologies that are available now.’

Albin reels out a small but impressive list of innovation coming out of the housing industry.

There are roof tiles that double as solar panels, and there are doors that won’t leak any air at all (though Albin has some doubts as to whether that’s entirely a good idea.)

But one innovation that he says keep hitting a roadblock of regulation is around energy – both connecting to the grid and the storage of energy.

Albin says there are developers who can source community scale battery but are not permitted past the starting gates because of regulations.

In NSW he says, compliance with the BASIX environmental ratings system runs the risk of creating an atmosphere of complacency, instead of hunger to seek out these new ideas.

In NSW, he says, “every developer thinks that if they comply with BASIX they are doing their job with sustainability.”

In other states that’s not the case and some are probably starting to overtake NSW now, in terms of environmental rigor, he says.

Landcom, the NSW land developer soon to be changing its role, has created some exemplars in its Ecoliving range at The Ponds, in Sydney’s north-west, but the momentum to green is still in its infancy.

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Another company that’s making an impact is Sekisui House with its prefabricated sustainable offering at The Hermitage  in Sydney’s western fringes.

Albin says the next big thing that his members are interested in is community.

“Sustainability is more than just houses, and more focus needs to be put on community.”

The Green Building Council’s Community Rating tool has a very “robust” accreditation, he says, but the industry is focused on cost right now and in this market the cost factor for the tool is a dissuader.

“The challenge is to maintain the robustness without the cost,” he says.

The Green Building Council executive director advocacy and business services Robin Mellon said the tool is “relevant, robust and cost-effective and supports project teams to achieve more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable outcomes.”

Consumers too, are cost averse, Albin says.

“In tough economic times voters will vote with their wallet, in good times, the environment will be become more important.

“One of the issues now is that when first home buyers are paying $570,000 for a house the last thing on their mind is the environment.”

Well, Albin has a point, but already we’re hearing anecdotal evidence of home buyers starting to ask how much the house will cost to run. Can they afford the electricity running costs, or the car and petrol costs to get around?

Albin agrees this is an issue.

“People are becoming more sophisticated and also looking at NBN [national broadband network] and some developers are marketing in that  way… these are top end developments.”

But at bottom, Albin says, financial fortunes are the driver and right now the industry is in “a bit of a funk… these are hard times.  One month you get enormous great performance and next is the worst,” Albin says.

“In that scenario, it’s hard to make investment decisions.”

But in NSW at least there are “early signs of a turnaround.”