NSW’s appalling standards of thermal performance in housing could be about to get a makeover thanks to upgrades in BASIX standards and a new course designed to upskill designers of sustainable housing.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Australian Institute of Architects, Building Designers Association of Australia and Australian Living have teamed up on a sustainable building course that could help to improve the poor thermal performance plaguing NSW’s residential buildings.

According to the creators of the SustainAbility Design Specialist Masterclass, the course has been born out of an urgent need to upskill architects and building designers in sustainable residential design and construction, particularly in light of an increasingly volatile climate leading to extreme temperatures.

NSW is one of the worst states for thermal performance of residential buildings, thanks to BASIX, the code variation of National Construction Code requirements.

The system means buildings can be approved that would not be legally permitted in other states.

While the NCC requirement is to meet six star NatHERS, the average detached residential building in NSW is only around 4.5 stars, according to sustainable design expert Dick Clarke, who has updated the course that was originally penned by the late Chris Reardon and Caitlin McGee.

For medium and high-density product it’s a bit better at around 5.5 stars, Clarke said, and it’s gradually pushing up to the minimum 6 stars, even when including the well-known laggards.

The low performance of the detached sector came down to “the volume housing guys” who were “gaming the system” to get away with doing as little as possible.

“They’ve taken mediocrity to an extraordinary level,” he said.

BASIX upgrades apparently on their way

The course is also timely as the NSW government at the end of last year quietly revealed it was going ahead with long-planned changes to BASIX energy standards, with amendments to be brought in from July this year that will see:

  • 5 to 6 star NatHERS equivalent thermal comfort performance for all building types
  • typically a 10 per cent increase in energy targets for houses and low rise units
  • typically a five per cent increase in energy targets for mid and high rise units

The increase is expected to drive energy savings of about 81 gigawatt-hours a year in 2020, and deliver bill savings to NSW households of about $2.6 billion to 2050.

Phil Harrington, principal and managing director of Strategy. Policy. Research (formerly with pitt&sherry), last year released a report that found BASIX was significantly underperforming and a barrier to getting net zero apartment buildings.

He told The Fifth Estate while any increase to BASIX standards was good news, there was still a long way to go to catch up.

The NatHERS minimums, he said, themselves had not been updated since 2010.

“So it’s a long way behind something that itself is a long way behind.”

The SDS Masterclass course, however, is aiming to do more than just get architects and designers to meet minimum standards.

“The design community must understand that BASIX is only a minimum standard and with the right design, energy and thermal performance can soar to create levels of comfort that everyone deserves,” BDA Australia president Ray Brown said.

“We like to think our SDS Masterclass is the equivalent of a doctor specialising to become a surgeon. We want to see many more building designers and architects turn discomfort into comfort for the long term.

“Let’s cut through the non-sustainable design methodology and confidently apply performance-based designs for the community. It’s just the healthy thing to do.”

So what’s in the course?

Clarke told The Fifth Estate the course was upskilling people to move towards designing and constructing net zero buildings, net zero water where possible, and reducing impacts in regards to waste streams.

He said over four days there would be thousands of pieces of information that would give the tools and strategies to create buildings that vastly exceed minimum performance. Modules include passive design and thermal performance, water management, energy services and systems, and good materials.

“One of the things that links between passive design module and energy services and systems module is how to do highly efficient solar powered cooling in climates where passive cooling no longer cuts it,” Clarke said.

The recent heatwave across much of Australia had put front of mind the notion that this might be the “new normal” and passive cooling as practised today might not cut it in those sorts of conditions.

Clarke said, however, it’s possible to reduce traditional airconditioning loads by 75 per cent by specifying genuine high-rated MEPS airconditioners combined with passive design features, control systems and fans all working in tandem.

He said 20 years ago it was predicted climate zones would shift south, and building design would have to follow them. So in terms of passive design it was about taking techniques from the Top End and adjusting them for application down south.

The course will begin its roll-out on 17 March, starting in Hornsby.

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  1. NSW, the WORST state for thermal building performance. The actual energy use numbers for the star ratings are on the Nathers website.

    Sydney buildings averaging 4.5 stars require 58 MJ/sqm/annum to heat and cool the building
    Melbourne 6 stars require 114 MJ/sqm/annum to heat and cool the building.
    The worst state in Australia uses only half as much energy per square metre as the Victorian standard? Hobart 6 stars require 155 MJ/sqm/annum, close to three times as much as the worst state and Darwin uses 6 times as much energy as the worst state to achieve a 6 star rating.

    If you take the Nathers star rating at face value NSW is the worst performing, if you look at the actual energy used by the buildings NSW is one of the best performing states. That seems worrying.

    BASIX uses a holistic and sophisticated assessment to set performance targets for water and energy use with proven results which are predictable and transparent. I think we need better evidence before we can call it appalling.

  2. The ACT requirement for Energy Efficiency Reports “EER” (and full building reports) would assist MSW buyers in their search for well designed buildings. Along with decent building requirements to maximise aspect, reduce windows to the street, pointless when it’s westerly. At least the conversation has started.

  3. No reference to the fact that NSW split heating and cooling caps in 2004 which resulted in noticeable design improvements. Still waiting for heating and cooling cap splits in other jurisdictions over a decade later. I have not met any tech specialist who does not agree that heating and cooling cap split is a ‘must do’. This may be delivered in NCC by 2019, but is not locked in yet.