OPINION: The energy policies and building standards that govern our homes need to keep us comfortable and limit global warming. Passive house, a rigorous building standard for ultra-low energy buildings, ticks these boxes.
The coming months will see a state election in New South Wales, a federal election and a COAG Energy Council Meeting. In the lead up to these events, there will be a number of “hot” items on the agenda, namely the environment and the consequences for our communities living through a time when the climate is warming and is likely to warm ever more rapidly.
Housing, climate, sustainable development and our national policies towards these issues will have significant impact on our communities and environment in the coming decade. These issues are likely to dominate the next two election cycles and this period represents the majority of policy making time that we have left before the 2030 date that was so clearly put on the table by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to reduce the severity of environmental impacts to 1.5 degrees of warming. So, now is the time to get active on these issues to ensure the creation of proactive policy platforms that will guide our country and communities towards addressing these issues and create the impact and change we need.
We have all noticed the rising temperatures and the records that are continually being broken across or country. We have also been told to expect rolling blackouts for our cities during heat waves and that this creates a platform for legitimising the debate for what some call “clean coal”.
Looking deeper into the question of why we have such strong demand for energy leads us to the understanding that Australia has some of the largest and most inefficient houses in the world, that 80 per cent of the floor area built in this country is residential and that approximately 95 per cent of this floor area performs at less than 1.5 stars.
Other questions to ask are: What exactly do our building codes and energy ratings measure, and how do they measure it? Are these measurements and rating tools evidence-based? Do they limit the amount of energy that can be used by a building?
Did you know that more people die in their homes from heat stress than from any other natural disaster in Australia? This little-known fact has led me to ask some other serious questions. How are we protecting the most vulnerable members of our society? How are we addressing this issue for the future? What do our communities know more broadly about building performance, energy usage, the building code, how it preforms and how it can be used to protect us against climatic extremes as they become more frequent? What information is available to the general public that leads to genuine understanding of the importance of energy efficiency, good design and well-built buildings and the very serious impact they can have on their own health and well-being?
My search led me to the Australian Passive House Association and its vision to see “all Australians live and work in healthy, comfortable, low energy, resilient buildings”.
But what exactly is passive house? Passive house is a rigorous building standard for ultra-low energy buildings. The international passive house standard creates clear requirements in several areas of energy efficiency for a structure: annual heating and cooling demand, total primary energy consumption and air flow all must be at a very low level. With an in depth understanding of thermal physics in buildings applied early in the design stage, passive house achieves temperature stability through design, rather than through the use of appliances. This saves money for the residents on energy and air conditioning bills as well as drastically reducing the environmental impact of the building.
In Norfolk, UK, for a small increase in upfront costs to build a home (5 per cent) people have enjoyed 90 per cent savings on their energy bills in subsequent years. In Australia, due to our lower temperature differentials, it is even easier to achieve the passive house standard and the cost premium is between 0-3 per cent.
Changing the way that we construct our living environment is now critical. The interconnected crises of climate, energy affordability, housing affordability and housing supply are becoming increasingly prominent in the public conscience. While significant scientific developments towards energy efficiency and sustainability are appearing in other sectors, building standards remain fairly unchanged.
Accounting for 36 per cent of global final energy use and 39 per cent of energy related carbon dioxide emissions, the building and construction sector is a high impact sector that is ripe for climate mitigation. Rather than focusing on the source of energy without aiming to reduce its usage, passive house design aims to change the way we design buildings from the very beginning. Australia is expected to renew more than 50 per cent of its built environment by 2050, making now the ideal time to reassess our building standards and move away from outdated, inefficient and destructive building methods towards a sustainable, efficient and more comfortable way of living.
Nick Lane is the executive director and founding partner at Passive Place. In partnership with national industry non-profit the Australian Passive House Association, Passive Place is running the IceBox Challenge – a public science experiment which aims to tangibly reveal the benefits of passive house design and construction. The experiment will be run in Melbourne on the 22 February – 3 March at the Queen Victoria Market.
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