The high performance facade of the Nishi building, Canberra. Image: Carl Drury.

Last year the sustainable built environment industry united against and derailed proposed changes to the National Construction Code it said would undermine energy efficiency outcomes. The update was also a missed opportunity to improve stringency, it was argued. Here Australian Building Codes Board general manager Neil Savery explains the rationale behind the proposed changes.

The draft energy efficiency verification methods that were proposed for inclusion in the National Construction Code 2016 generated an impassioned response, with some using it as an opportunity to call for a significant increase in the energy efficiency requirements for buildings.

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While the board, having regard to the submissions received, decided not to proceed with the majority of changes for NCC 2016, the responses received highlighted the need to clarify some key points:

  • The performance requirements are the mandatory requirements of the NCC
  • Six-star NatHERS ratings for residential buildings is not a performance requirement (that is, mandatory requirement) – it forms part of one option for meeting the performance requirements
  • The energy efficiency changes proposed in NCC 2016 involved no change to the level of stringency (they were policy neutral)
  • The NCC specifies the minimum technical requirements and does not include administrative requirements, which are the domain of state and territory regulations

The NCC has been a performance-based code since 1996 and provides the minimum mandatory technical requirements – as opposed to best practice – for the design, construction and performance of buildings. It is a technical document that the states and territories reference in their relevant legislation.

The states and territories are responsible for the administration of, and ensuring compliance with, the NCC. While the code sets the regulatory floor below which anything is considered unacceptable practice, it is designed also to help facilitate best practice through the use of performance solutions.

What were the proposed 2016 changes all about?

In a word, the changes for 2016 were about performance. The performance-based nature of the code has delivered around 70 per cent of the productivity gains realised through past building regulatory reform. According to the Centre for International Economics, additional gains in the order of $1.1 billion a year are achievable, and the increased use of performance will have a significant role to play in realising these additional gains.

Increasing the use of performance involves a number of elements, including:

  • Quantifying performance requirements
  • Changing the mindset of practitioners by encouraging and highlighting the benefits of the performance-based code
  • Building industry capacity through education and guidance on how to achieve performance solutions

One of the changes to the energy efficiency measures proposed for NCC 2016 was aimed at providing greater flexibility to practitioners through offering additional and updated verification methods.

Verification methods can be used to assist in the development of a performance solution, and are one of four options in the NCC for determining compliance with the performance requirements. The four options are:

  • Evidence to support that the use of a material, form of construction or design meets a performance requirement or a deemed to satisfy provision
  • Verification methods – either within the BCA or other verification methods accepted by the appropriate authority for determining compliance with the performance requirements
  • Comparison with the deemed to satisfy provisions
  • Expert judgement

The use of verification methods has proved to be popular within industry. Providing more opportunities for achieving performance solutions was seen to offer additional benefits to the sector.

For example, the use of JV3 has been widely adopted by industry. However, this verification method does not presently apply to apartments and multi-residential buildings. This means that designers of these buildings are given less options for meeting the performance requirements.

Offering additional avenues for achieving performance solutions – including through additional verification methods –has the potential to facilitate improved design and creativity within the Australian building industry. Shifting focus from the prescriptive aspects of the NCC will promote further innovation and lead to better, more efficient buildings throughout Australia.

Where to next?

The NCC is just one tool that can aid in achieving better outcomes for the energy efficiency of buildings. This has already been demonstrated through the widespread use of JV3 – a verification method that has resulted in bespoke building performance solutions. The NCC has the ability to further contribute to unlocking this potential through:

  • Offering more options for achieving performance solutions, for example, quantifying performance requirements, and the inclusion of additional verification methods
  • Providing additional guidance materials for achieving performance solutions

The changes proposed for NCC 2016 were never about stringency changes to the energy efficiency requirements. Rather, the proposed changes were all about quantifying the performance requirements and encouraging the use of performance solutions.

Having met with a cross-section of those who made submissions to the proposed changes, the ABCB will review the verification methods to address any of the potential short-comings that were identified and improve its level of communication about their purpose and how they are to be applied as part of amending the NCC for 2019.

In terms of any stringency increases, this will be a matter for governments to decide having regard to the measures contained in the National Energy Productivity Plan, to which any proposed verification methods would also have to respond.

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  1. The ABCB continues to confuse the setting of minimum energy efficiency requirements as setting minimal requirements in line with the desires of lobbyists from certain segments of the building industry. It is time for the publicly-elected State, Territory and Commonwealth governments to oversee a change to this misquided view at the ABCB. We now live in a world heading for dangerous levels of climate change.

  2. What an opportunity missed…..

    The current Performance Requirements of Section J in the NCC are poor when compared to other developed countries.

    They are also overly complex and convoluted. They are referred to as “Performance Targets” although in reality they are very prescriptive.

    We need the ABCB to be brave (or, just not stupid) and properly raise the bar in line with the rest of the world.

    We need simple performance targets for buildings…

    We should be setting challenging carbon targets for buildings and allowing the industry to do what it does best and innovate to provide solutions.

    Setting operationa kgCO2/m2 targets for buildings and allowing the design and construction team the flexibility to achieve these is the only way forward. The next logical step would be to have annual checks of the kgCO2/m2 and the onus is passed onto the owner/operator….

  3. The BCA is the minimum standard of performance required for a building. There is nothing preventing developers or the sustainability consults from going above and beyond the minimum requirement.

  4. “Shifting focus from the prescriptive aspects of the NCC will promote further innovation and lead to better, more efficient buildings throughout Australia.”
    Only if the proposed ‘performance’ solutions have sufficient integrity that they do not open up pathways for poor performing buildings to show compliance. The problem with the proposed changes is that they potentially allow less efficient buildings to be built.

  5. And, as was clearly demonstrated by the industry group ( the changes were very much NOT “policy neutral”. The results of close to zero star NatHERS multi-resi buildings in some climates was a horrendous outcome for progressing performance. If these changes were intended to simply offer more pathways to demonstrate minimum compliance, they were very poorly tested.

  6. I would disagree with the notion that Section J of the NCC is a ‘performance’ requirement given compliance is demonstrated during design and involves no testing of the operational building.

    A performance requirement would include air tightness testing like in the UK regulations and Passivhaus.

    NABERS is a performance measure also as it uses actual energy, water, waste or IEQ data.

    The NCC Section J is a minimum design standard and still has various fundamental issues that need to be fixed for the next update.