Tom Grosskopf, director metropolitan branch NSW Office of Environment and Heritage is playing it down. The work that OEH has embarked on towards sustainable housing is in its early days. It’s highly focused on a collaborative approach, with industry, real estate, academia, and anyone else who feels it’s part of their patch. But it all depends on where people want to take it, Grosskopf says. The OEH isn’t telling people anything, merely facilitating.

Among the tools is the relatively new “collective impact” process , which is exactly what it sounds like – using the collective will of many to create momentum for change.

So far there have been four workshops and collaboration with the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council. A final fifth workshop in November will decide what actions to take forward.

It sounds like small and early stuff. Talkfests, workshops and collaboration.

But add this to a range of other related programs and statements on sustainability, energy efficiency and related issues coming from the new line up in the NSW government and you see a lovely pattern emerging – upwards. NSW, alone, amidst other major Australian governments right now is looking like leadership material in the areas that really matter to our future.

Perhaps NSW has got its mojo back. After a long time in the wilderness it’s been declared leader of the economic pack again and maybe it’s just doing what confident leaders do, leading.

In housing there is no greater need.

The sector is a mess. The outfits trying to drive change, such as ASBEC, which brings together most of the relative industry associations is struggling against bad politics in this sector, like everybody else. The sustainable housing lobby has been slapped back on mandatory disclosure for housing, which was poised at the Council of Australian Governments to roll-out nationally, but then in came the tidal wave of fossil fuel governments.

We’ve got a few minimum regulated standards – such as NatHERS that predicts thermal performance, but takes no account of  water or materials or other sustainability metrics, and in NSW there is the slightly more ambitious BASIX that requires lower energy and water consumption.

But both are riven with cheats who rort the tick-a-box honour system. We hear up to 50 per cent of houses ticked off as complying with BASIX are just that, ticked off. It’s a wink and a nod with the owner when the budget starts to run close to the edges.

Who’s to check if the houses is built the way the design specifies. Who’s going to pay for the audit?

Without performance ratings and not even random audits the system is effectively voluntary.

Let’s trial that with taxation: a year of voluntary or even mandatory performance standards but no audits. Let’s see how that goes.

The housing mess has now spawned a new Building Verification Council that wants to tackle the “key problem plaguing the residential building sector – the gap between designed and as built performance,” Cameron found in his special report on 2 October.

This includes the “market failure and systemic limitations of NatHERS” and “endemic” non compliance with building regulations.

Who exactly do builders think they are to make up their own minds about what regulations they do and don’t comply with?

Would this have anything to do with their rouge industry associations, who fight fiercely for no change at all? Ever.

What if we had the same regime for electrical equipment or cars?

In housing, the most expensive and most enduring of all consumer investments, we have a laissez faire hands off approach – let the markets rule and work it out.

The trouble is there are no drivers for voluntary market transformation that come anywhere near what’s happened at the commercial level.

There are a few lone stars and maverick green developers who are doing great work, but it will take the climate equivalent of a few centuries for them to shift the part of the bell curve that makes a difference.

The Vics heading to a showdown

The Victorian government exemplifies so much wrong thinking in this area.

It’s heading to an election on 29 November and is in panic mode, dropping the King Kong shirt-front style of government and trying to show a softer, slightly flirtatious underbelly. Too late. Its onslaught on the Greener Government Buildings Program and the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target in particular has carved deep scars.

Here’s its latest attempt at dealing with the fury that met its axing of the VEET: a voluntary scheme called My Star that speaks up for free will and self determination.

The government should “encourage people to make the right choices for themselves, not subsidise activities and drive up energy prices in the process”, says energy minister Russell Northe, like a kid in a year 3 ethics class.

The minister is not revealing the full audited picture.

If houses are not well insulated the state pays for the hospitals when people are admitted with heat stress. And taxpayers have to pay financially and health wise when the multitude of cheap airconditoners bring down the grid during heat waves.

In Victoria 1.9 million homes have a NatHERS ratings of two stars or less, “with poor housing sometimes impossible to cool” Cameron found in his story this week. A report by Victoria’s Auditor General that found Victoria needs a comprehensive heatwave plan.

The point is that home owners don’t do much home designing and buying, so it’s not their core game to understand how houses should be built, or renovated, or what they should ask for.

Maybe the only time consumers get it is when they can’t pay the energy bills. In NSW the number of people disconnected from the grid is in the tens of thousands and the Ombudsman received a record 37,485 complaints in 2013-14.


In a phone chat on Thursday afternoon Grosskopf said he hadn’t heard about the dismal state of poor compliance and outright cheating on environmental standards for housing. But then NSW OEH is not trying to catch anyone for doing the wrong thing. (We live in hope.)

He’s concentrating on the positives.

“We’ve started something that we call the collaborative sustainable housing initiative and it’s basically bringing together from across the sector people from business, real estate, academia, and government in the residential sector to see if there is an opportunity to improve the sustainability of housing in the residential sector, looking not just at new builds but retrofits,” Grosskopf said.

First job has been a stocktake on what programs are already out there. It turns out there are “hundreds”, ranging from the LJ Hooker’s Liveability program to those OEH runs on behaviour change such as for low income householders and energy savings schemes. “There are lots of different pieces out there,” he says.

Budgetary commitment is still very small and there’s no time frame as yet, but already four workshops have been held (the fourth on Wednesday) with a fifth final workshop to be held in November, which will shape the future plans for the program.

“Our desire out of this is very much to explore the opportunities together and see whether we can co-create a program of ways to work together and ways of aligning efforts so we can make further progress.”

“The role of OEH is to provide the support and backbone. We’re not trying to tell people what to do. We’re taking a collective and somewhat innovative approach to what is a complex problem,” he says.

Complex is a good word in relation to the resi sector. Another one is intractable.


Along with everyone else in the sector ASBEC’s work has been hit by bad politics. In addition it’s had a round robin of chairs in its sustainable housing task group.

Suzanne Toumbourou, ASBEC executive officer, says the task group right now is focused on trying to find how to be complementary to the OEH work.

“We’re recalibrating the purposes of the task group, given that there have been a lot of progressive dialogues being held in this space and noting the OEH work shaking out some of the key themes,” Toumbourou says.

“With the turnover of chair and noticing that there were evolving pieces of work in the field that were relevant to this concern, the decision was made to hit the pause button, until the landscape could be reappraised.”

The final workshop in the OEH program should provide a much clearer picture, she says.

In the past the focus for ASBEC had been on “building a roadmap” for sustainable housing. The group has also in the past been focused on zero emissions and was then known as the Zero Emissions Residential Task Force.

It produced some good work on what would be the drivers to retrofits and leading practices that could push towards zero emissions housing, Toumbourou says.

One blow to the group was Adam Beck from the GBCA who came in as chair with “great enthusiasm” to broaden the scope of ambitions but then unfortunately left shortly after to move to Portland in the US.

Another blow would have been the loss of the highly energetic Caryn Kakas as chair earlier this year after she shifted roles from executive director of the Residential Development Council, managed by the Property Council to become its head of external and government relations. Kakas recently left that position after a restructuring by new chief executive Ken Morrison but with any luck she will end up in another role where she can again help push the agenda on a more sustainable built environment.

In October last year Kakas told The Fifth Estate there was a strong case for national harmonised sustainability standards under a single rating tool.

Not only can we expect to soon have minimum national sustainability standards, she said, but a “pathway” to delivering mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency in houses as well, she said at the time.

That vision could be a lot further away now. On Thursday she said, “I’m a huge believer that a performance based tool leads to better outcomes.”

Equally important was mandatory disclosure, but she admits there is a “huge issue” around compliance and  “huge problems”.

“It will have to be state driven. State governments will be the driving force of change in that space.”

The big question, she says, is to look at what drives sustainability outcomes and for a few priorities to be identified.

For instance, was it healthy homes, or materials or types of construction such as pre-fabrication?

“Change can only happen on the back of a consolidated approach,” she says. “ASBEC is in a good position [to achieve some outcomes]; it’s maintained a strong membership.”

Compliance- who’s job? who cares?

Toumbourou says compliance is an issue with members, “There are murmurings on the compliance as an issue.”

Yet in a recent survey of members on what the most important industry issues faced in Australia the compliance did not surface at the top of priorities.

One possibility is it’s not the role that members see as key for ASBEC; it was possible that the cities agenda and issues such as energy efficiency were perceived as more core to the ASBEC work, Toumbourou says.

Well, if the biggest associations in the housing and property industry don’t rate compliance as top of the agenda then, who will?

Consumers it seems don’t really get it – until the big power bills come in and they watch their energy be disconnected because they can’t keep up with the payments.

This means we will probably have to put aside our love of the market as the answer to all our woes. It might have to mean taking a stand for something just because it’s the right thing.

It might mean it’s time for some true leadership from governments, like NSW.

On the real legacy of Gough Whitlam

And on leadership, a small note on the passing of a great leader, Edward Gough Whitlam.

Watching the retrospectives on his political times in government it was hard to again watch the dismissal of an elected government by the will of the opposition. But what was that annoying feeling that these images stirred and why did they seem to have such a strong present day corollary? A sense of theft. That was it. In 1975 it was theft of something you might have thought was a democratic right, that an elected government would rule until booted out by the people. Today it’s theft of another thing that’s our collective right – the climate. And a decent planet to live on.

Whitlam indeed made one fatal mistake. He should have torn up the letter of dismissal from the Governor General.

We need to learn from the great leader’s mistake. There’s no greater legacy he could leave us.

2 replies on “News from the front desk: Issue No 214 – NSW gets its mojo back, housing and the real Whitlam legacy”

  1. Does NatHERS ‘measure’ thermal performance (as stated in this article), or attempt to predict it, by way of thermal simulation? I, and those who established it, say predict. You would ‘measure’ thermal performance with energy meters and thermometers.

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