Helen Lochhead

Australian architects have a central role to play in reducing the emissions of the built environment, which means a key role in reducing Australia’s emissions overall. 

“With the built environment accounting for nearly 40 per cent of emissions globally, architects have a pivotal role to play in the race to net zero,” National president of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), professor Helen Lochhead said. 

The good news is that the industry is well on its way already and pushing harder than ever for better standards and regulation. This was the message of a recent AIA webinar regarding where the industry stands on emissions reductions targets and its international responsibilities, with a focus on the upcoming COP26 and recent IPCC “Code Red” report. 

Ms Lochhead said many architects were already ahead of the curve, but collectively could do much more. 

Tasked with developing a national strategy, the Institute’s Climate Action and Sustainability Taskforce (CAST) identified three priority areas:

-Education and research, with the goal of creating better prepared graduates, informed professionals and educated clients. 

-Tools and benchmarks, to identify best practice for architecture practitioners to follow and develop a new Australian standard for zero carbon buildings 

-Policy and advocacy, to map out the roles of government, suppliers and architects and strengthen standards for energy efficiency in the NCC

CAST member Caroline Piddock told The Fifth Estate that regulating net zero into building codes was the only option that made sense in light of the enormous threat climate change presents. 

“The IPCC report has come down and said every single tonne of carbon counts. So rather than mandating houses that produce five tonnes of carbon a year, we can mandate right now for houses to produce none,” Ms Piddock said. 

Ms Piddock said some segments of the industry were undermining efforts to introduce better standards, namely the Housing Industry Association (HIA) and Master Builders Association (MBA).

She said concerns over the expense and the practicality of implementing better standards had been shown to be surmountable, with regulators now needing to step up.

Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen told the webinar a sector-specific policy roadmap with a target of net zero by 2050, would be part of Labor’s climate plan to take to the next election. 

“We need to have a big national effort on energy efficiency, both at the industrial level and at the household level. This is a matter of social justice, lower income people tend to live in less energy efficient houses which leads them to have higher energy bills and leads to poorer health outcomes,” Mr Bowen said. 

Keynote speaker Professor Deo Prasad from the University of New South Wales, who is also a member of CAST, got down to the science and numbers of reaching net zero by 2030. 

“We put the case, and the institute has an agenda on this, that 2030 should be our goal.”

Taking lessons from the many design practitioners who were doing well in this area and sharing them with those that aren’t is crucial to making progress.

Professor Prasad said, based on current best practice and high performance standards, there was a clear pathway for achieving net zero for much of the built environment well before 2050.

“Looking at the current average practice in buildings out there [energy efficiency] is about 138 kilowatt hours per metre squared per annum. NABERS is going for more like 100, so it’s improving in the short term,” he said. 

“And we put forward that if we went for 66-70 as the average for a commercial building then your pathway to net zero by 2030 is very good.” 

“The short answer is we can do it by 2030 for all operational carbon. Embedded carbon, for new buildings largely we can do it cost effectively, and for existing buildings it may run over past 2030 a bit till.

It won’t be a perfect transition, with offsets being a less than ideal solution to some, but Professor Prasad says we shouldn’t make perfect the enemy of the good in getting there. 

Ms Piddock said CAST and the AIA would lobby for the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) to adopt net zero emissions and failing that focus on the states doing it themselves. 

“If the ABCB are going to not realise their role here, they’ll just become irrelevant. Which is not a good outcome, but guess what — it’s a climate emergency.”

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  1. Well done to the AIA lobbying the cause. The HIA and MBA need to get their heads around the fact that there are two components to cost in building a house – construction of it and running it.