News from the front desk, issue 492: Here at The Fifth Estate our heads are spinning after what was an action packed five hours at our Flick the Switch event yesterday about the transition to all electric, net zero buildings and cities.

The subject matter certainly struck a chord – we had record numbers in the virtual “room” and the interest keeps rolling in. People are hungry for information on how to make that final disconnection from the gas line. And now that we’ve had a taste of the scale and complexity of this task, we know why.

Proceedings kicked off with Stephen Bygrave, who is director climate resilience and net zero emissions at the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. He talked about the government’s fairly new net zero strategy for a reliable, affordable and sustainable electricity future.

Like the federal government, NSW is pinning a lot of its hopes on emissions-abating technologies to solve climate change. A combined $2 billion will be spent by the federal and NSW government to fast-track uptake of proven technologies that slash emissions.

Founding partner of Pollination, Martijn Wilder says getting the policy in place is key because it will create desirable investment opportunities.

“Everybody wants to invest in [this area] but they keep asking ‘What can I invest in and how can I do it?’” he says.

The absence of a regulatory environment is one issue but Wilder says another challenge is that on one side of the equation, investments in gas are suggested, and on the other stride, there’s plenty of research to show divestment from carbon.

Mitra Anderson Oliver, head of urban design strategy at Impact Investment Group, agrees there’s plenty of interest in low carbon investments but not enough opportunities.

She told moderator Heidi Lee, interim chief operations officer at Beyond Zero Emissions, that it’s important to communicate that good-willed investments won’t come at the expense of returns.

Green buildings offer strong investment returns, for example, because they attract a higher quality tenant. While still relatively niche, regulation could make green buildings an emissions reduction investment opportunity at scale.

Maria Atkinson, of Maria Atkinson Consulting, a cofounder of the Green Building Council of Australia and former commissioner with the Greater Sydney Commissioner, jumped in with our managing editor Tina Perinotto to talk precincts. 

She says meeting our low carbon targets with a single building is tricky and much easier when you expand to a city block, suburb, catchment or district. The ideal precinct, she said quoting work by the GSC is around four postcodes. 

James Grant, practice leader, design + planning Sydney, AECOM, echoed these statements. He said we need to build precincts in the right places with the right parameters to limit energy use from the outset. 

These aren’t radical ideas – most forward thinking planners are fans of walkability, liveability and affordability. Grant says more green urban space means less hours spent inside with the airconditioning on, and when everything you need is in walking distance, less time is spent in cars.

We also got the chance to meet our artist for the day, Michael Jones from Allen Jack+Cottier Architects, who was there taking visual notes for us to prepare a “prototype” net zero precinct that reflects the best ideas raised throughout the day (wait for this in our eBook). 

After the macro view, we got down in the weeds with Bruce Precious, principal consultant at Six Capitals, to talk about the challenges of creating all-electric, energy efficient buildings run 100 per cent of renewables.

One might wonder why we’re bothering with energy efficiency if we’re planning to run the grid off 100 per cent renewables. Head of School of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW, Alistair Sproul, says that we’re on track to go 90 per cent renewable by 2035, with solar and wind cost effective to the point that this might happen even faster.

But David Palin, sustainability manager at Mirvac, reminded us that even renewable energy isn’t free, so the cost alone is a strong argument for making sure your building is running as efficiently as possible. 

Sian Willmott, principal sustainability consultant, sustainability team lead Victoria, AECOM, also says that an energy efficient building is a comfortable one, and one that is more resilient to something like a blackout where there is no mechanical heating and cooling at all.

For Steve Ford, head of sustainability and energy at GPT, there’s no viable zero emissions gas option on the table at the moment. He also flagged another advantage of electrifying buildings. It allows the built environment to interact with the grid to help keep it flexible and stable – a sentiment that was echoed throughout the day by many speakers. 

It’s clear heat pumps will be going into many of our new and existing buildings (while we recognise they aren’t the only options for heating and cooling). But when it comes to retrofits, size matters. Glenn Day, director national sales & public affairs, STIEBEL ELTRON, said that in a retrofit, you need a roomy and well ventilated plant room to fit a heat pump of the same heating capacity as a gas boiler. 

Adam Murchie from Forza Capital appeared as a cameo guest in this session to discuss his work bringing poorly performing buildings up to top NABERS ratings at very low cost. He said it comes down to managing demand and understanding where the usage comes from.

“It is one thing to demand a fantastically efficient building, another for tenants to plug in very inefficient appliances, so you have to work closely with tenants.”

Professor Caroline Noller from The Footprint Company also dropped in for a cameo appearance to discuss the embodied carbon factor, which she says accounts for half the emissions problem in the built environment over the next 10 years.

Carlos Flores, director of NABERS, took the first question on the next session. It was nicknamed by Bruce Precious, the moderator – alongside our managing editor Tina Perinotto – as the “carrots, sticks and tambourines” panel. 

This session was about the drivers behind our fossil fuel free future, for some of the trickiest players on the chessboard: tenants and occupants. 

Flores discussed some of the changes to NABERS to account for the fast decarbonising grid and other changes to the government program that will help rather than hinder the transition to net zero buildings and cities. 

Tenants have traditionally been seen as a roadblock to sustainability but Kelly Davies, partner, Norton Rose Fulbright Australia, says this is shifting. The big players, such as the major tech companies, have huge power to change the market norms. 

Some even refuse to set up shop in Australia unless they are able to procure 100 per cent renewables renewable energy supply.

Precious asked panelists whether big tenants are aware that they can demand office space that’s “net zero”.

Emma McMahon, national director sustainability, CBRE, said that sustainability officers don’t make decisions about leases (it’s usually the C-suite that does), which means this golden opportunity is rarely taken up. 

Craig Roussac, chief executive officer, Buildings Alive, is looking to the future when tenants will be able to take advantage of plentiful cheap energy and save energy during peak periods, such as late afternoons, for financial gain. This will be triggered by a rule change in October 2021, which will allow any commercial entity to adjust their demand and sell it as it is generating into the electricity market.

“You pay 10 cents a kilowatt-hour to use power but suddenly someone will pay you $15 a kilowatt-hour not to use energy –  you will do that.”

Up next was residential. Once in the too-hard-basket, decarbonising the resi market is suddenly a hotbed of activity.

Elham Monavari, senior manager strategic projects, Green Building Council of Australia, spoke about the organisation’s standards for healthy, resilient  net zero energy homes, which are in pilot form. 

She said the response to the testing phase has been positive, and that there’s been a real shift in thinking in the resi market – volume builders included – since the bush fires brought climate change front of mind.

Rory Martin, sustainability manager, Frasers Property Australia, said that residential is so different from the rest of the industry because it’s “very emotionally driven”. He said that customers are values driven and imagines that the people who care will be signing up to his company’s interesting pilot program in Queensland where  people can offset the carbon released in constructing their home.

Clare Parry, director, Grun Consulting, stirred up serious envy when she talked about how comfortable she’s been during lockdown in her new ultra-low energy Passive House home. For her, the unbeatable thermal comfort makes Passive House attractive for consumers that might otherwise be ambivalent about sustainability. 

PC Thomas from Team Catalyst joined us in another cameo to share some of the intricacies of the energy efficiency challenge, and how it differs according to climate. 

Jeremy McLeod from Nightingale Housing also dropped in to talk about one of the core ambitions of the Architects Declare movement: proving that your business operations are carbon neutral. In an extremely generous gesture, McLeod has offered to shout The Fifth Estate’s carbon neutral certification (thank you Jeremy!)

Tim Forcey is one of the administrators of the My Efficient Electric Home Facebook page, which with 18,000 members, is a great way of taking the consumer pulse. He’s noticed a spike in membership after cold snaps, heat waves, the bushfires and Covid, with people feeling uncomfortably cold working in their leaky homes.

This amazing array of views will lay the foundations for what will be a rich and comprehensive industry resource for getting to all electric net zero buildings and cities, in our upcoming ebook.

If you want to be part of this get in touch at

Huge thanks to our sponsors!

Major supporter for this event and coming ebook:

  • Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Our co-lead sponsors

  • Stiebel Eltron, and 

Supporting sponsors:

  • A.G. Coomb
  • Mirvac

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  1. It is so heartening, especially at the moment when all we seem to hear is bad news and negativity, to know that so many people are so active in driving this change. Because of the pandemic, conversation about the challenges of achieving a net-zero carbon future has been shoved off to the sides. Please make sure that governments of all types (local, state & federal) are reminded that a low carbon future is the only future.
    Congratulations to everyone; you give me hope!