Suzanne Toumbourou

If you’ve ever dabbled in residential property investment, you’ll know that sometimes making improvements can significantly increase the value of a property.

In the same way, some urgently required changes to the way we approach housing sustainability have the potential to add some serious value, both economic and environmental, to Australia’s residential housing stock. The building industry has recognised this, and is calling on governments to work with them to achieve what’s needed.

For starters, ASBEC’s Second Plank report found that buildings are responsible for 23 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, with residential housing contributing around 13 per cent. Improving sustainability in our housing stock therefore has the potential to provide a much needed boost to our capacity to meet our emissions reductions targets.

During 2014, ASBEC ran a series of consultations with industry – and found that industry was clear on the issues limiting the sustainability of Australia’s homes.

Top of the list for improving the sustainability of our homes is a nationally harmonised ratings framework that follows a three-layered approach of setting minimum standards, benchmarking building performance, and communicating the value of sustainability features to renovators and homebuyers.

Currently, there are different programs and requirements in each state and territory, so there’s no clear, agreed way for consumers or building industry professionals to measure one property’s sustainability features against another’s.

A nationally consistent framework would be of huge help to consumers, with information provided at the point that homes are sold or rented. With home owners and investors very interested in resale values, we could also use this data to demonstrate that sustainable features drive increases in sale prices and rental yields.

At the same time, Australia needs a national framework that demonstrates the benefits to be gained from specific choices of design features and materials. We know that Australian homeowners are interested in sustainability measures – witness the boom in rooftop solar panels, with more than a million homes now boasting this feature – but at the moment, consumers and professionals have no centralised, standardised way to compare specific sustainability features.

The Council of Australian Governments recently released a National Energy Productivity Plan, which has the ambitious target of improving Australia’s energy productivity by 40 per cent by 2030. The reason is that doing so would boost economic growth, help Australians manage energy costs and reduce emissions. Unsurprisingly, this plan also advocated improvements to the way we rate and disclose the energy efficiency of residential buildings.

At the same time, the recent release of Phase II report of the National Energy Efficient Buildings Project, in which evidence points to the fact that compliance with existing energy performance requirements in Australia’s National Construction Code is generally poor, underlines the fact that there are improvements to be made. The Phase I report found that Australia suffers from “a culture of sign offs” when it comes to compliance with the energy performance requirements of the code – leading to a nation whose housing stock is performing poorly, leading to increased costs for consumers.

So what can we do to address the needs identified by industry and government? ASBEC, in their Platform on Residential Ratings, came up with three key recommendations for governments and three more for industry.

First, governments need to implement nationally consistent ways to assess the sustainability performance of homes. Second, they need to work with industry to explore new and improved minimum performance standards for new buildings, including energy efficiency, water efficiency and thermal comfort. Third, in partnership with industry, they must improve compliance with energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code, build industry capacity and lower compliance costs.

At the same time, industry has crucial work to do. First, to work together to agree voluntary benchmarks for best practice in the current regulatory environment.

Second, industry needs to work on communicating the benefits of sustainable features to consumers. Demonstrating value to homeowners and investors, in terms of cheaper operating costs and increased sales prices, will be vital in driving the cultural and political climate for sustainable homes.

Lastly, industry needs to create a pathway towards a consistent system of disclosure of sustainability features at the point of sale or lease of homes. This would include a system of storing information of both the features building possess and the performance of these features, allowing long-term analysis to inform the purchase of homes in Australia.

The Turnbull Government has shown that it is committed to the liveability of Australia’s cities, with the first ever appointment of a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment to the federal government. That means there has never been a better time to improve sustainability of our built environment, and homes in particular.

A great first step would be for the minister to convene a meeting of state and territory planning ministers, to come up with a vision for a nationally harmonised sustainability rating framework for houses. That would be a way for the government to demonstrate that it is serious about achieving the ambitions laid out in the National Energy Productivity Plan.

It’s clear that getting our houses in order when it comes to sustainability can deliver massive improvements in cost and quality of living for all Australians. Let’s hope that 2016 is the year we make it happen.

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director at the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

2 replies on “Time to renovate Australia’s housing sustainability policy”

  1. Hi Suzanne – I completely agree with your points here, but let’s not forget about commercial buildings. The evidence (eg from our 2012 Pathways report) is that their energy performance is on average much worse than that of houses, and they are more energy intensive to start with. It’s disappointing that governments continue to ignore the unnecessary cost impacts on households and businesses and the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from low building energy performance standards that are then poorly enforced. We can do better than this.

  2. Well done to ASBEC for focusing on single dwellings. We, at Build The Agenda, believe that the building industry should focus on changing from within and deliver sustainable homes to our community as a matter of course rather than waiting for an increase in demand or waiting to be asked to build sustainably by a client. All of our community deserves to live in healthy sustainable homes. The industry needs to stop passing the buck and just be responsible and get on with it themselves. Those who are barriers to this will see themselves pushed out of the industry as they won’t be welcomed in a truly sustainable building industry. It’s achievable and up to us! Are you IN or are you OUT?

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