News from the front desk, Issue No 417: We know it’s nearly Christmas but we still can’t seem to shake that annoyance we have with those lobbyists who’ve stifled the move to better energy standards in housing through the National Construction Code.

We know that the Housing Industry Association and the Master Builders Australia have been at the forefront of the lobbying against change but also the Urban Development Institute of Australia.

However, like King Canute found, it’s hard to hold back the tide of history and screaming necessity.

Next week’s meeting of the Council of Australian Government energy ministers will be a chance to reap the huge savings of carbon emissions available in the housing sector, at a very cheap price. All the ministers have to do is approve better energy standards for housing in the next update of the Australian Building Code in 2022.

At the same time this can save ordinary people a load of money on energy bills.

There’s been a huge show of support from community and housing groups with a joint statement issued ahead of next week’s COAG Energy Council meeting sign by the likes of Energy Efficiency Council, Australian Council of Social Service, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, Renew, CHOICE, and National Shelter.

They say 95 per of housing is energy inefficient.

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by LG at the Museum of Modern Art and moderated by Grand Designs’ Peter Maddison, one of the guests said his family’s average electricity bill in Sydney Hills district was $1500 a quarter.

That’s $6000 a year last time we looked.

The UDIA says it will cost an average of an extra $14,000 to implement the improvements in NatHERS energy standards, from 6 stars to 7 stars.

On our calculations that means the Hills district family might take two or three years to reap back that cost at best, depending on how close to net zero energy they can get their house, with solar and batteries.

At a Passive House development in Redfern by architect/developer Oliver Steele, they’re advertising no energy bills at all! (Disclosure: our sister site The Green List directory/magazine features the project).

And that’s just because Passive House standards insist on building housing as it should be, with no random air gaps, proper insulation, a very simple air filtration system (a solar system on the roof).

But no, the most powerful housing developers in the country, who hide behind their industry associations and rarely show who they really are, don’t want to know about better standards.

They are not swayed by the payback period nor the ongoing energy poverty their customers will face after they move in. And they’ve been pushing their agenda as hard as possible.

It’s the equivalent of the car industry refusing to install airbags and disc brakes because they cost a bit more. And we’re not exaggerating. Those big energy bills have health implications which we all end up paying for as a community through the human cost and public purse, our tax dollars.

Last time the industry and government renovated the residential part of the National Construction Code, by a modest bit, this coalition said they couldn’t afford the price hike of around $10,000 for each house, according to our archives 2009

Monica Richter, now with WWF and then with the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the “actual calculations indicate otherwise.”

Architect and commentator Caroline Pidcock said she was suspicious of the MBA claims on costs as “the same spurious arguments were used for 5 star and proved to be totally unfounded”.

Our article mentioned RMIT’s Lifetime Affordable Housing project, which found seven stars to be “significantly more affordable than five-star homes”.

“The best cost outcome is a 7.2-star standard, which provides a simple payback of seven years.” This takes no account of the extra comfort experienced in better homes, the reduction in marginal load on the grid, the fact that the house is cheaper to run than a five or six star variant, nor the higher resale value of the house which are estimated to be around $9000.”

And this is all based on numbers a decade ago.

Plus ça change.

There is hope that energy ministers are more powerful than building ministers

According to our sources the corridors of influence at COAG next week offers some hope. The energy ministers are surrounded by lobbyists from the big end of town – energy companies and corporates. The resi development industry may not be on such tender terms with these COAG members as they are with the planning and building ministers and so their influence on proceedings next week will hopefully be next to zilch.

They’ll have better luck with the building ministers meeting early next year, but we’re guessing that the energy ministers are higher up the pecking order in government these days, given an electorate more worried about energy and climate than anything else.

It’s important to understand how the anti-efficiency front is thinking

We asked the UDIA’s NSW division to help us understand.

It’s a rough time in the property cycle, said chief executive Steve Mann.

And granted it is, but the plan is for the change to come in 2022 so there’s plenty of notice; a full 12 years by our calculations.

How long do his members need?

It’s fair enough that everyone is nervous right now. The banks seem to be punishing the whole economy for the royal commission into their bad behaviour. Clearly, they think they are the uncrowned kings and queens of the world.

And we heard some other numbers this week that will probably upset a lot of people and excite others: a flat in Darlinghurst Sydney (rustic studio with separate kitchen and toilet, bit run down but great building, and lovely original timber windows, sold for $192,000).

Those without a home of their own might be excited but try getting a loan in this climate. In a tight credit market the people who will benefit from cheaper prices are those who have lazy cash on hand –  the rich, in other words.

Mann said the issue of poor affordability and low supply won’t go away so easily, despite the market falls and despite the cuts to immigration mooted by PM Scott Morrison who has shown he’s even more willing to please than his predecessor.

“It’s not as simple as turning off the population tap and everything will be OK, you’ve got to deliver real communities with affordable housing.”

The UDIA, says Mann, is hugely concerned with affordability, especially as our capital cities are “the least affordable in the world”.

“We believe the biggest social challenge is affordability and it comes back to overarching responsibility of the governments and community that people have shelter.”

Right now, he says, what we are delivering, are “wildly changing cycles which is not good for all the stakeholders and it’s failing to deliver sustainable outcomes for communities.

“The industry is facing headwinds, no question and the underlying deeper challenge is the economy and jobs.

“We did work with PwC and found that a 1 per cent decline of housing in NSW, if sustained for five years will cost $25 billion to gross state product, $2 billion to state revenues and 190,000 jobs.”

Urban Task Force chief executive Chris Johnson was overseas and unable to talk for long. But the quick answer to our question of the NCC code was positive but with a caution.

“We do think improvements are good but it has to be balanced with costs.”

But that’s the entire argument isn’t it?

Better quality saves money and emissions.

3 replies on “On 12 years of waiting for a better energy standard in housing”

  1. Agree with you Allan Pears- it is the same for Livable Housing. The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has been lobbying for almost 20 years for some basic tweaking to designs so that they support people to age in their own homes (ageing in place is a government policy). The Building Ministers’ Forum has now agreed to a RIA this year. Industry has pushed back hard and will do again. Cost is not the real issue – it is a smokescreen for other issues. Like the green energy groups, we have presented positive cost arguments (eg no cost if thought of early and many benefits to offset), but no one is listening. Livable Housing Australia was set up to roll out universal design features (voluntarily, so that is a joke), so people think something is already being done. But it is not. Nothing will change without regulation. Our quests are different but our responses from industry and government are the same. You can see Centre for Universal Design Australia response to the ABCB Options paper on the website. https://universaldesignaustralia.net.au/cudas-reponse-to-accessible-housing-options-paper-draft/

  2. It has been the same story since I started working on building energy regulations in 1983. We must ask ‘what is affordability? The HIA/CBA indicator ignores ongoing costs of staying in the home – and lots of other costs. In many cases, most of the cost is NOT the building, but the land and other components. We need the banks or other financiers to allow (or be required to offer) a higher mortgage limit for homes that promise zero net energy bills – they will have a lower risk of default and the occupants will gain health, amenity, and net positive cash flow.

    If governments think something is important they can find ways of making it happen. It’s really about allocation of costs, profits and benefits, and the net outcome is more affordable living, health, comfort and lower emissions. Not rocket science.

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