Photo © Michael Kai

ANALYSIS: Australia, for all its bravado about being among the best in the world on some metrics of sustainability in buildings, is still failing to implement basic principles of good building design and efficient housing. The announcement on Thursday that Victoria will delay the implementation of the new energy efficiency standards in the National Construction Code until May next year adds to the three-year delay from several of the non-eastern states. But it shouldn’t matter. We should be well beyond code compliance by now.

It was Darren O’Dea stirring the pot on a certain social media outlet that got our attention – and that of a few others, it turns out. O’Dea is co-founder and director of Speckle and self-confessed building physics nerd consulting to a range of bigger engineering outfits and keen to push for stronger sustainability ambitions.

He’d heard that Victoria looked like delaying the energy efficiency provisions in the National Construction Code updates that the industry celebrated so enthusiastically nearly a year ago in August. Even though the new standard was to raise the energy efficiency level to just seven star NatHERS – a level some observers said was pretty well insulting and alarming in the face of the climate onslaught that’s on the way and that we seem incapable of significantly tackling.

“Esteemed Victorians,” O’Dea started. “After countless rounds of bureaucratic industry engagement, your government has made a ground breaking decision…to send building stock back to the 90s era [a time when] energy inefficiency reigns supreme, climate change is just a myth, and durability is but a distant dream.”

It turns out that O’Dea was right. Here’s the story.

By Thursday and after several unanswered inquiries to the government’s media unit the Property Council Victoria issued a statement to say that theminister for planning Sonya Kilkenny had “confirmed an extended transition period in Victoria for some requirements of the National Construction Code (NCC) 2022.

“The energy efficiency, liveable housing and condensation mitigation requirements will now have a mandatory commencement date of 1 May 2024, which is an extension of seven months. The new timeframe will be confirmed through updated building regulations to be made. Transitional arrangements can continue until the new commencement date.”

Other states such as Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia were already at around the three-year delay mark.

According to Gary Rake chief executive officer the Australian Building Codes Board building ministers met earlier this month and strongly encouraged his organisation to keep sharing information and guidance to the industry (about the updates).

The ministers stressed “the importance of supporting adoption, making sure we are doing everything we can to support industry, to educate them to help them understand and adopt the provisions and ultimately to deliver the benefits,” he said.

He didn’t hear any talk of delay, but then he wouldn’t.

Pressure to delay reforms, especially around energy efficiency in the built environment is generally conducted behind closed doors. They come from the usual building lobby quarters and from what we understand with not much more pressure than a wink and a nod to the huge part the building and construction sector plays in the state’s economy.

Unfortunately, the assumption is that the health of the economy is aligned precisely and inversely with bad environmental practice.

It’s not the case. Good planning, design and delivery is a cost saving over the bigger picture and the longer term – that is a term that extends a bit beyond the next budget and for more people that builders and developers.

What are the barriers to better building outcomes?

In some ways Gary Rake’s focus on education and information is still correct – decades after the green building revolution got underway.

The constant refrain is that sustainability costs more.

Even if the margin increase in costs is minimal though, how would you know?

According to Chris Buntine, who is an engineer with urban planning qualifications, and associate, sustainability group manager at Northrop Consulting Engineers getting a solid costing for sustainability uplift is very difficult.

Chris Buntine

He says quantity surveyors are not very good at this. But it’s not entirely their fault.

Well, they’ve been struggling with rising costs, for a start, he points out.

When you need to step up from seven stars to eight stars, the “cost delta” is a big question. For instance, with stepping up on the level of insulation, the QS might not understand the nuances involved. Generally, they’re focused on a whole of project cost, at various points in the project.

He adds that he’s fascinated by the construction industry’s purposed focus on cost. “They’re not. They pretty much ignore the incremental cost for improving performance. They don’t do life cycle costs”.

And it’s not usually in their scope to assess the life cycle impact of projects either. Although some are now embarking on embodied carbon measurement, he notes.

Whose scope of work is it to work out the incremental costs, or costs delta?

“Often doesn’t fit into anyone’s scope,” Buntine says.

There are exceptions. On one project Buntine says he sat down with the QS and collaborated “absolutely” on costing.  

But it’s hard. For instance, say you need to install airtight membranes (instead of the usual leaky ones) ­­you need to know the precise cost of the product plus the cost of proper installation and additional time it might take.

“You need to engage a specialty supplier in the market. We have several but you need to bring those suppliers in early,” Buntine says.

Buntine is frustrated at the delays in the NCC. His team does a lot of consulting work to big outfits like Development Victoria, Homes Victoria, and with volume builders. And they generally aspire to above-code results.

Delaying the new code doesn’t make sense, he says. “We know how to do this”.

Delaying also makes it harder to persuade clients to raise their ambitions. It’s a much bigger leap to take to go from six star to eight star NatHERS than it is to go up half a star from seven star, he says.

Buntine, though, is encouraged by the rise in influence and leadership of people like Clare Parry who is director, sustainability at Development Victoria and a committed fan of Passive House systems and Sam Peart in a senior role at the development agency before her (and now global head of sustainability for Hassell) and ambitious for better outcomes.

The kind of commitment by these people is making it easier to join the dots on why stronger ambition makes sense, Buntine says.

Another big fan of Passive House is Jeff Robinson Global Sustainable Design Expertise Leader at Aurecon.

Jeff Robinson

Like Buntine he notes that PH standards in commercial buildings, as well as residential, means you can achieve your net zero ambitions much more quickly.

If architects and engineers can work together and collaborate and do windows that are properly glazed and shaded we are way ahead, he says. 

“And if you can get that right you can make the services smaller which means having healthier air and airtight buildings.

“We are all really interested in delivering on the net zero promise and the way we get there is to rethink the way we design and construct buildings – fabric insulation, air tightness. All the things the industry skipped over when we started on the green journey and got swayed by tri generation and black water plants.

“So now we’re going back and addressing the fundamentals of design – having a high-performance envelope.”

Passive House delivers this in abundance, he notes. And even if you don’t quite achieve the certification attempting to get as close as possible to this is a huge improvement on generic outcomes.

Either way a good façade and airtight construction greatly reduces the size of the kit you need to install to condition the indoor air, and greatly reduces the energy you need. The result is a faster track to net zero.

But what about retrofitting?

Facades are very difficult components of a building and contain huge embodied carbon.

But as buildings start to come up for refurbishment it’s a good opportunity to upgrade the façade to better performance.

The retrofitting tool EnerPHit, part of PH certification, is a great tool that assists in this, Robinson says.

“Facades are the hardest thing. They talk about the upgrade of the chiller but if you think about it if you can upgrade the façade system at scale the same logic applies. You can put in more efficient service because you’re controlling the heat gain and heat loss.”

And not only is that a carbon reduction play, it’s also about addressing indoor air quality and good air filtration – and noise control, he adds.

The scepticism around Passive House

There are sceptics around PH who say the additional embodied carbon needed for PH certification is hardly justified in Australia’s supposedly milder climate. (It’s worth noting however that a recent study found Australian housing woefully underperforming in terms of heating.)

For instance, do we really need triple glazing? the sceptics ask.

Well not really. Chris Buntine notes that the Woodside building at Monash University achieved PH without triple glazing.

It’s all a question in the end of working to a common outcome.

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  1. The delay in implementing 7 star NatHERS is frustrating and you have to wonder whether the people who make such decisions have any genuine understanding of the science and what is happening to the planet. Australia has a legacy of delay, obfuscation and procrastination when it comes to action on upgrading building codes and performance standards in buildings.

    7 stars is a move in the right direction, but it is not going to achieve zero emissions and healthy, comfortable buildings. Australia is falling further behind the world leaders. Belgium adopted PassivHaus as its national standard for new buildings and retrofits in 2014 with a consequent significant reduction in GHG emissions. Scotland has decided to do the same.

    And in New York the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) offers incentives aimed at supporting the construction of highly efficient and carbon-neutral buildings, including those which adopt Passive House standards. For example, 18 of the 28 low-carbon and carbon-neutral multifamily building projects recognized in the first round of NYSERDA’s Buildings of Excellence Design support committed to achieving passive house certification.

    New York City policy makers have also revised the city’s energy code to require the largest buildings to adopt aggressive new emission reduction standards, which has lead to the adoption of the PassivHaus standard for retrofit and new projects. As the adoption of 7 star NatHERS has been delayed why not turn this into an opportunity to embrace the inevitable and leapfrog to 8 stars or better?

    1. Passivhaus makes so much sense… thanks so much for showing again how other countries can show how it’s done.

  2. Totally agree with the author’s disappointment with the delays. When looking at the costs, building groups look at the cost difference between an existing design and the same design with higher performance components to achieve the standards. However the right approach is to design the building from scratch targeting 7star. If you can accept unconventional approaches in many cases I can design a 7star home at less cost than a conventional 6star home