Socratic debate – an important tradition

There’s a lot of concern that recent articles in The Fifth Estate could provide ammunition to do absolutely nothing on raising minimum standards on buildings, or worse, see things go backwards.

It’s a concern we take very seriously, particularly considering we’ve been heavily promoting the case for increased standards recently.

The first issue was regarding an article on a report detailing how we could get to net zero high-rise resi (exciting, no?). It contained a section, however, calling out NSW’s BASIX system for poor energy performance.

Apartments were regularly being constructed in the state that didn’t meet the national NatHERS six-star minimum, the report found.

It was a big concern, especially since certain property lobbies seem to have been successful in stopping planned increases to BASIX which we thought were a shoo-in, particularly on the back of impressive cost-benefit analysis stats.

(There’s been plenty of opposition to raising energy standards elsewhere too.)

Water experts, however, were concerned this was an attack on BASIX’s existence, and rushed to its defence.

It shows, perhaps, a tendency in the sustainability industry, so scarred by the baseless cuts of the Abbott era, to fear critique as an existential threat. But in our mind the critique on BASIX was ammunition to raise its standards, not throw it in the bin. The report even suggested raising these standards.

A similar response occurred to an article on how NatHERS ratings don’t necessarily translate into better environmental outcomes when embodied energy is taken into account.

It stated that just using materials (instead of design techniques or a combination of design and materials) could lead to higher energy use over the life of a house.

It said the entire life cycle of a building needed to be considered rather than just heating and cooling.

“Rather than focusing on material and technological improvements, energy efficiency regulations should actively promote better building design as a means to achieve performance.”

A fair point to make regarding the promotion of better design, we thought.

The article, however, has elicited some strong replies, mainly questioning the methodology of the results.

The contention, too, relates to an opening statement that said: “We found that further increasing the energy efficiency level of houses beyond the current minimum requirement does not result in significant energy savings and can even lead to greater energy demands.”

This is a bow too far for many in the industry.

Howard’s argument is that a hybrid system tries to encapsulate the entire life cycle carbon of materials including even the banking and finance sector that supports materials processing but that the operational side of energy consumption – the actual energy used in a building – is restricted to measuring just the energy used, not the cost of emissions in mining the coal, transmitting the energy and the losses as it moves along the wires in transmission. It’s not comparing like with like.

The author of the net-zero resi report pitt&sherry’s Phil Harrington says that while there were “legitimate issues around embodied energy or carbon”, it should not be used as an excuse to argue against raising minimum standards.

“Embodied energy is not a reason to hold back operational energy performance standards,” he said. “The two issues are almost entirely independent.”

The focus on operational greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs for users was the primary focus of the net-zero resi report, Harrington says. It was in the interests of consumers to raise minimum standards, he said.

“Once we have that under control, let’s think about low carbon materials.”

These series of articles, however, show the importance of having frank debates on our current systems, so we can learn how to defend them, or improve them when they’re failing.

As Crawford told The Fifth Estate in discussions this week, he was not advocating lower standards, far from it. But being silent on the matter of embodied energy was not wise. Rather than being a threat to the current system, he said it “should be seen as an incentive for people to improve their product”.

He also sees it as an issue gaining more attention globally, and one that “won’t go away”.

“It will become more prevalent in the future.”

Though it’s no surprise embodied energy raises red flags for those in the sustainability arena.

Even today there are still (erroneous) claims from climate change deniers (they’re not sceptics) that the manufacture of wind turbines or solar panels uses more energy than they’ll ever generate.

While this may have perhaps been true in the ’70s, thankfully we’ve come a long way and this kind of talk has declined, though not ceased.

Work published by Crawford in 2008, Life cycle energy and greenhouse emissions analysis of wind turbines and the effect of size on energy yield, show that energy payback for wind turbines is about 12 months.

Talk of challenges with NaTHERS has always caused consternation, too.

When we published stories in 2014 about frustrations with the house rating system’s governance, we received more than a few emails concerned that the system was too vulnerable to any criticisms (this was during the hyper-sensitive Abbott government anti-sustainability era.)

“A whole lot of these conservative political parties don’t love sustainability agendas,” our source at the time said. “If it looks like there are too many holes… it would be a real shame to get rid of it.”

The key thing to remember is that we are all treading new territory. There are no road rules. We’re trying to work out the best way to go and quite often sustainability initiatives need refinement to get right.

If we don’t deal with the perceived failing of our systems, put them up to scrutiny, openly, honestly, fearlessly then we will leave them vulnerable to attack.

It’s the transparency and the open dialogue that will protect this path we’re on to sustainability.

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  1. We need to consider the context of the entire system or some of our sustainability measures will be counter-productive. Thus agreeing with Ian Cleland. Thus the excellent summary by Fifth Estate above missed the key point that a NatHERS six star building in Melbourne uses 2-3 times the energy as a six star building in Sydney. This indicates the basis of original story may be questionable. Are we really making valid comparisons and are these “values” hampering our progress. Perhaps arguments about real values will assist us to improve our common goal to improve the dominant emissions impacts of our buildings. We were not necessarily “rushing to defend BASIX” rather responding to questionable information which in our experience always hampers progress. Similarly, we are mindful that one of the largest sources of emissions in each state are from grid water supplies. So it is important to consider the entire system to truly understand our impacts and opportunities

  2. Let us aim for best practice and excellence. We set a new standard where we build islands of the possible in every major and provincial city across Australia.

    Look to a standard like the Living Building Challenge 3.1 which goes a lot further than just buildings and energy. Until we are committed to building vibrant, resilient, healthy, safe and sustainable communities it will always be second best.

    It is all about people and our connections to a sustainable planet not just bums on seats