Nishi, New Acton precinct, Canberra

21 September 2011 – News today (Wednesday) that one of Australia’s most highly rated green buildings under construction in Canberra for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency will use high greenhouse gas emission aluminium from China raises one of the biggest elephants in the room for green buildings.

At issue is about $5 million of aluminium extrusions that will be imported from China, which typically produces 50 per cent more GHG emissions in aluminium manufacture than in Australia, unions say.

According to an article in Fairfax newspapers, national secretary of the Workers Union Paul Howes raised the issue with the Prime Minister and senior ministers on Tuesday in relation to support for Australian manufacturers.

The Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union says it is considering a ban on the site.

The building under fire this time is Nishi, in the New Acton mixed use precinct. Judging from a site tour taken by The Fifth Estate as part of a  Property Funds Association conference in June, the precinct appears to be an ambitious attempt to set major new design and sustainability benchmarks.

The DCCEE has pre-leased about half the building , which is expected to be completed in about 12-14 months.

Nektar Efkarpidis, director of Molongolo Group, which is the developer for Nishi, told The Fifth Estate the issue was a matter for the builder, not the developer.

“Unfortunately I’m not in a position to comment. Like most developments of this scale, the construction work is being undertaken by a third party building contractor under a fixed price construction contract. Our contractual arrangements do not extend to the selection of sub-contractors and suppliers for the work.

The issue of where building materials come from is the same for most green buildings in Australia.

While earning five and six star Green Star ratings and now up to six stars in NABERS energy ratings, the reality is that many materials used in construction are imported, often from China, where it is unclear how products are manufactured, both in environmental terms and socially and ethically.

A Green Building Council of Australia spokeswoman said she had “no comment to make on this issue”.

However, she said: “While we make every effort to reduce the environmental impact of buildings, there is currently no credit relating to aluminium within Green Star.

“We are looking at the potential for different lifecycle analysis approaches in the future as part of Green Star Revolution.”

Angelo Di Marco principal of Woodhead, which is interior architect for Nishi, said that in general his company tried to source products locally not just for environmental issues but to avoid issues of supply and servicing after completion.

But there was a limit to how much could be sourced locally.

“A lot of product comes from China but it comes from all over the place,” Mr Di Marco said.

“There is a limit to how much we can source locally – about 60 or 70 per cent, on average. The products we source are generally mostly Australian products. That’s our intent purely because of transport miles, and locational issues such as warranties and follow up service.

“If you are going to specify overseas products it becomes more complex.”

However, Mr Di Marco said it was clear that there would be a growing focus on sourcing of products for green buildings with the impending carbon price and as awareness of carbon emissions grew.

Support for local industries was needed.

“If the local product is diminishing and local industry is closing and not being supported then that becomes harder and harder to do.”

The industry needs to focus on how to reinvest in vulnerable industries and make them more competitive, Mr Di Marco said.