Rodger Hills has stepped down as chief executive of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors in a move that coincides with his push to establish a new industry-led body, the Building Verification Council, to address what he and other industry figures see as significant failings of the Nationwide House Energy Ratings Scheme, and its administrator.
Mr Hills told The Fifth Estate he had left ABSA at the end of last week after the board and he could not reconcile “incompatible views” on a number of grounds, including how to deal with issues surrounding NatHERS and residential building sustainability more broadly.
Problems with NatHERS have been bubbling up for months, with many emails to The Fifth Estate concerned about the proliferation of unaccredited assessors performing dodgy assessments; new, expensive training requirements for assessors; the move towards a pay-per-certificate funding arrangement for the CSIRO engine used to perform thermal assessments; and issues with the perceived “arrogance” of the NatHERS administrator, with changes being made with little or no consultation.
According to its mission statement, the Building Verification Council will be set up to tackle a key problem plaguing the residential building sector – the gap between designed and as built performance. It would do this by addressing what it sees as two fundamental problems:
- the market failure and systemic limitations of NatHERS currently
- the endemic occurrence across Australia of building regulation non-compliance and compromised building performance
“It is generally felt that the current NatHERS scheme is not truly realising the potential of encouraging more sustainable building design,” the document states.
A major problem with NatHERS is a lack of consistency in how it is applied across jurisdictions. Several states have not adopted the scheme, or have only partially adopted it. Only in NSW is there a requirement for assessors to be accredited by either ABSA or the Building Designers Association of Victoria in order to put an energy rating into a BASIX report.
According to Mr Hills, the Accredited Assessor Organisations – ABSA and BDAV – have been losing members because accreditation is not mandatory in most places. Accredited assessors, he said, were trying to compete with unaccredited ones, who could, because they were not subject to oversight, provide substandard and even fraudulent assessments.
He said there were instances of builders “gaming the system” by hiring unaccredited assessors to provide NatHERS ratings that stated a building would meet minimum requirements when the end product would be anything but compliant.
The number of unaccredited assessors has been proliferating too, from 500 in 2012 to a projected figure of 1100 in 2015. The BVC statement said the NatHERS administrator had “consistently failed to protect the NatHERS logo and brand from inappropriate and fraudulent use in each Jurisdiction”.
Other major problems with NatHERS, it alleged, included:
- Complex, inefficient and ineffective governance arrangements that divorce the scheme’s decision-makers (state and federal energy/environment departments) from those who are supposed to administer it (building authorities)
- The inability of the scheme to check as-built dwellings and their ongoing performance
- Failure of the scheme to foster rating tool innovation and development
- The focus on regulatory minimum building fabric standards that does not facilitate rating tools and assessors moving to higher standards on a voluntary basis
- Treating a building as constantly conditioned, which discourages or discriminates against designs that are “climate responsive”free-running and/or passively-moderated buildings
- Failure to address energy, water and building sustainability issues other than space heating and cooling loads
The BVC, Mr Hills said, would address these issues. It would be an industry-led “quasi-regulatory” body that would be self-regulated and have no government enforcement. It would provide a means for building performance to be demonstrated through “verification, assurance and testing” rather than prediction alone, as currently exists under NatHERS.
Mr Hills wants the body to be up and running in 22 months to correspond with the gazetting of the 2016 National Construction Code. The BVC would sit within the “Alternative Solutions” compliance pathway of the NCC to meet the performance requirements of the Energy Efficiency sections. The new scheme would cover all phases of building lifecycle – design, construction and operation – in new and existing stock.
Mr Hills said he had faith in his proposal because it would provide “a smarter, easier, cheaper system to use” – an “advanced version of NatHERS”.
Industry is interested
Industry is engaging with Hills’ proposal, and he says there is broad interest and support.
He met in Sydney last week with key property stakeholders to discuss the issues and drum up support for the new body, with attendees including the Department of Industry, the Australian Institute of Architects, the Residential Development Council, CSIRO, Green Building Council of Australia, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, ASBEC, LJ Hooker, Green Strata, City of Sydney, Local Government NSW, the University of Wollongong, CSR, Bluescope and pitt&sherry.
Tomorrow (Friday 3 October) he will meet with stakeholders in Melbourne, including CSIRO, Sustainability Victoria, the Australia Glass and Glazing Association, Victorian Building Authority, BDAV, Master Builders Australia and RMIT.
Concerns about the future of NatHERS
There is concern among some industry players, however, that exposing the issues of NatHERS could see the scheme scrapped.
One source told The Fifth Estate she was concerned broadcasting the problems with NatHERS would lead to it being abandoned, which would be a shame because overall it was doing a good job of raising the standard of residential housing energy efficiency.
“A whole lot of these conservative political parties don’t love sustainability agendas,” she said. “If it looks like there are too many holes… it would be a real shame to get rid of it.”
Mr Hills said he understood the risks.
“A lot of people would love nothing better than to get rid of NatHERS,” he said. “But I’ve tried to be fair and reasonable and highlight the limitations.”
He said for a long time he had been “trying to sound the alarm regarding serious issues that need to be fixed” without making it seem so hopeless that the whole scheme needed to be thrown away.
Scathing report to be released
A report to be released in early November isn’t likely to give much comfort to those who’d prefer to keep NatHERS’ issues under wraps, though.
Consultants pitt&sherry along with Swinburne University was engaged to conduct the National Energy Efficient Building Project, funded by the National Strategy on Energy Efficiency and led by the South Australian Government on behalf of all states and territories.
The report is to respond to the “growing concern that the actual energy efficiency of buildings in Australia – both new builds and renovations/additions – may not always match the energy performance requirements in the National Construction Code”.
The findings are expected to be damning, both for NatHERS and Australia’s building industry in general – so damning, in fact, that there was wide industry speculation the findings, which were completed months ago, had been buried.
But according to Phil Harrington, pitt&sherry principal consultant & manager – carbon & energy team, a decision has been made to release the report in early November, though there is currently no firm date.
While the findings can’t yet be revealed, Mr Hills suspects they will be similar to what was found in the UK-based Zero Carbon Hub’s Closing the Gap Between Design & As-Built Performance report, which recommended the development of “commercially viable methodologies acceptable across industry for demonstrating performance”.
Mr HIlls said the BVC was not trying to undermine NatHERS, but attempting to put in place a system that could work alongside it and also function were NatHERS to fall over. Having an alternative, rather than nothing, would be a better outcome for sustainability in the residential building sector, he said.
It was possible, though, that NatHERS would go in time.
When contacted ABSA chair Sid Thoo said the board was “concerned by and does not agree with a number of the criticisms and statements issued by BVC” and wanted to make very clear that the BVC was in no way associated with ABSA.
“ABSA fully supports the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme,” Mr Thoo told The Fifth Estate. “Whilst we may explore initiatives to expand the opportunities for our members in the building sustainability assessment industry, we are highly cognisant that NatHERS assessments make up the livelihood of the vast majority of our members. We would never take action or endorse anything that would risk jeopardising this key source of income for our members.
“As the most established, member-based organisation that strives for the highest standards of professionalism within the building sustainability assessment industry, ABSA will continue to nurture and support our members, protect their livelihoods and maximise opportunities to improve the sustainability of our built environment.”
However, chair of the BDAV Energy and Sustainability Hub Advisory Board, Tim Adams, said that Mr Hills’ lack of confidence in the NatHERS administrator was shared by BDAV.
He said NatHERS had not done “anything constructive” in a long time, and the issues needed to be addressed.
“Rodger has seen that if someone could get into the space and provide a framework for attending to [NatHERS] deficiencies, then it would be less embarrassing for all concerned,” Mr Adams told The Fifth Estate.
He said the scheme could work, but he would withhold judgment until he attended the meeting in Melbourne on Friday.
The need for a “risk of audit” was palpable, however, as non-compliance was becoming a reputational risk for the assessment industry and a liability issue for consumers.
“We would like to see an understanding that a quality control mechanism is put in place, but keeping in mind affordability of housing,” Mr Adams said.
What was not needed was an additional layer of bureaucracy, he said.