EXCLUSIVE: We should have baked in the highest energy codes into Australia’s building standards from the start instead of the incremental “slow creep” we ended up with, says the man who presided over the Building Codes Board for nine years.

Australia lags the rest of the world in energy efficiency. It needs to stop inching forward to net zero and get serious about resilience as we head to severe climate events, according to Neil Savery, well known for his former role as chief executive office at the Australian Building Codes Board.

Savery, who probably knows the industry dynamics better than most, says Australia is in its infancy when it comes to building energy efficient homes.

After 20 years with the ABCB – including nine at the helm, he’s now gone global in his new role with the International Code Council.

“It’s the ABCB on steroids”, he says.

Savery joined as managing director of ICC at the start of 2022, adding to his role as Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, chair of Interjurisdictional Regulators Collaboration Committee and Board member International Building Quality Centre.

Among many other responsibilities, the ICC writes the model building codes for the United States, which means dealing with “many, many more” jurisdictions than in Australia.

But what distinguishes the ICC from the ABCB and many similar bodies around the world is that the governments in America do not own the code, Savery says.

Our nine governments in Australia own the NCC. And in New Zealand and the UK, the government owns the building code. But in America, the governments neither own nor write them, he says.

Instead, different bodies write the codes and other standards independently, and all vie to have their products used by governments in America. This makes it a very competitive environment.

The construction culture is also very different, with local government and building officials regarding it as their responsibility to protect public health and safety and drive the standards. And because it’s a litigious society, there’s a real risk that if someone uses products that aren’t fit for purpose, or constructs a building that is in poor quality, they’re likely to end up in court, Savery says.

The code system, he says, is “very democratic and very transparent, and it drives this culture and behaviour of wanting to do the right thing.”

And in a remark that should resonate right through the Australian building industry – especially the residential sector – Savery says the quality of building construction in the US is very good, and the industry there doesn’t necessarily experience some of the problems that we have here.

It’s a culture he’d like to see Australia emulate, though where our code is free to practitioners, in America – because the organisations are not funded by government – anyone wanting the US code has to pay for it. For something that is the lifeblood of our industry, making the NCC free in Australia was a remarkable achievement, more than a few observers have noted.

Australia in a global context – on a par with the US but way behind Europe

According to Savery, Australia is “middle of the road” when it comes to energy efficiency provisions, sitting more or less alongside America.

Best practice is in Europe, where most countries are now striving directly to achieve net zero. In some cases, they’re already there.

Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, and Spain top the list, he says. In fact, the Spanish may well be the leaders in this area, partly because of their fairly harsh summer climate, he adds.

“These countries have essentially got to the point where they’ve got the ability to introduce, or they have introduced, energy provisions through their codes [and] we are in our infancy in comparison.

“The NCC is yet to get to net zero or there are different descriptions of what it is.”

Embodied carbon measurement comes after that.

Groups such as the Green Building Council of Australia and other green building advocates have pushed for more stringency in the building codes for energy efficiency.

Now with new groups such as the Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance (MECLA) strongly engaged in the conversation there’s a push to do something similar with embodied carbon.

New Zealand is behind Australia in terms of energy efficiency because it has essentially enjoyed the benefit of renewable energy for years, be it hydro or geothermal, and the government hasn’t really turned its mind to how energy efficiency performs other functions, Savery says.

“New Zealand’s had it relatively easy and hasn’t had to worry about the greenhouse gas emission part of it. They haven’t really focused so much on the other benefits of energy efficiency.”

In Australia, we are obviously committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting our international commitments, including addressing building energy efficiency.

There are also policy issues around building resilience – that is, ensuring that a building can continue to perform basic levels of functionality beyond an extreme weather event. This is to ensure not only the survivability of the occupants of the buildings, but also that communities are able to rebuild themselves relatively quickly, Savery says.

So, after a catastrophic weather event, “you might have some carpet damage, you might have ceiling damage, and so on [but] your frame is still intact, your slab is still intact, and the roof is still intact, because we’ve built in those features of resilience.”

The Global Resilience Guidelines identify 15 principles for how code writing bodies around the globe should go about the task of addressing improved resilience of buildings, which includes energy efficiency.

Heat stress is part of this but is a complex issue.

As the biggest killer out of all natural hazard events, it doesn’t necessarily tangibly damage a building. However, it creates the direct nexus between energy efficiency and resilience because energy efficiency is one of the best ways to improve the resilience of a building and therefore, protect the occupants of a building, Savery notes.

Another document from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction on building resilience looks at addressing how to improve building energy efficiency, decarbonisation and increased building resilience internationally.

What is net zero “ready”?

To get to net zero sooner rather than later, Savery says it would have been quicker and far less costly for Australia to have “baked in” the highest energy code from the start, rather than going up in increments.

Instead of creeping up from four to five to six stars [NatHERS] around 2010, followed by a 10year gap of “nothing happening”, then a reintroduction of a trajectory that foreshadowed getting towards net zero, termed “net zero ready”, Australia should have gone straight to net zero, Savery says.

“‘Net zero ready’ is strange terminology. It’s not actually saying at net zero, it’s saying that a building should ‘get to zero ready’. In my opinion, that means that there are going to be continued increments of change in the code, which has a couple of problems.

“One is you have a fight with industry every time you demonstrate that there’s net societal benefit through regulatory impact statements –  industry has to adjust its construction methodologies, and technologies have to be introduced.

“The reality is, every time you do an increment of change, there’s a transition period. We need to get to net zero quicker. So, let’s just sit down together and work through what it is going to take to get us there.”

Savery says this will need a mature conversation.

“We’re not playing catch up, we’ve actually got to do step change to get to where we have to be. We need to look at what this will involve; what it will look like, what sort of transition period we need.”

But it’s got to happen now, he says. “It’s got to be governments, it’s got to be building practitioners,   it’s got to be the industry associations sitting down in a room together, and the ABCB is the logical organisation to get every everyone together.”

And then there are the banks and the insurance companies – on our side

Another key interest in driving change for energy efficiency in buildings is the financial services sector, in particular general insurers and the banks.

“The motivation is driven by the long-term sustainability of products and security of assets from a quantifiable risk based on the evidence of extreme weather events taking place today and modelling using predictive science. This in turn has an interest to the building sector in respect to the affordability of and access to insurance.

The Insurance Council of Australia has developed a number of significant policy advocacy documents (ICA Climate Change Policy and ICA Resilience Advocacy) and taken these on the road to promote the need for action.

They are not exclusively focused on buildings, but they are promoting the need for net zero energy efficient buildings by 2030 and for buildings to be more resilient to extreme weather events.

Existing buildings need to improve standards

Existing buildings add to the complexity of the discussion, as simply focusing on new buildings will not address the problem of operational energy, Savery says.

Likewise existing buildings are vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events, which will become increasingly obvious if new construction standards by contrast emerge in the coming years to improve building resilience for new buildings.

Land use planning and urban heat island is also critical

Land use planning also has a key role to play reducing the urban heat island and in limiting construction in locations that prone to extreme weather events.

In some vulnerable areas it’s unrealistic to expect that even higher construction standards can guarantee a building will withstand the nature of some of these events, Savery says.

This is not a space the ABCB can be expected to lead.

It amounts to a change in what we expect of a building’s performance. This may include a level of functionality after a severe weather event in order to provide basic shelter and security and enable communities to re-establish themselves more rapidly.

“This is something the ICC is championing through the Global Building Resilience Guidelines not only for countries that have advanced building codes and planning systems, but those that need to rapidly build their capacity to manage these emerging challenges.”

Ultimately, getting to net zero now requires government policy direction. 

“No one is pretending any of this is easy,” says Savery.

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  1. Good article and my UK and US experience matches Neil Savery’s. It’s a shame he didn’t speak up on Net Zero for last September’s NCCV2 update. If we’d adopted Net Zero, this would reduce house emissions 4 times faster than 7*, put sole on every new house from new and make every new home more affordable from day 1 (the energy cost savings are up to 8 times greater than the additional mortgage payments). In short capitulating to the Luddite house building industry was a massive blunder. We need to fix it now, not wait another decade!!

    1. It’s a fair point Nigel and hard to explain the mechanics of working between government, industry and advocacy groups. There is a policy environment within which all public servants operate and whilst there is the opportunity to try and push the envelope, you have to respect where the policy-makers land when they make their decisions, which in the case of the ABCB has to have regard to cost-benefit analysis and what constitutes minimum regulation. It is a very complex arrangement and the work that took NCC 2022 from 6 to 7 stars started almost four years prior, having introduced significant changes for energy efficiency for commercial buildings into NCC 2019. This might sound like I’m trying to have it both ways, being defensive about what we were able to achieve, whilst at the same time advocate for what we need to achieve. However, it reflects the nature of how we progress things through the system, which in this case involves endeavouring to achieve a consensus position amongst nine governments who have responsibility for the code, who are wanting to deliver societal benefits, whilst at the same time maintain the viability of an important industry and during a period where the cost of housing is a hugely difficult policy challenge. I am now in a position where I can argue the importance of the need to move beyond further increments to the end goal, because whilst it was once a reasonable proposition to progress along a linear path of change, the country squandered a significant period of time and we now have the added challenge of extreme heat, for which any house built today will be an important refuge for occupants in 50 years when those temperatures are likely to be more frequent. I also believe that whilst it is a difficult assignment, as there are many technical, supply and capability complexities, it is easier to resolve these once rather than for each increment of change, and settle on what would constitute a reasonable period of time for industry to adjust.

      1. “Instead, different bodies write the codes and other standards independently, and all vie to have their products used by governments in America. This makes it a very competitive environment.”

        I’d be interested in Neil’s opinion as to whether this is a good thing in comparison to the Australian Legislative environment or not?