Carlos Flores Chloe Shaw NABERS
Carlos Flores, director; Chloe Shaw, acting head of market development, NABERS

NABERS has kicked off the year much like the rest of the sustainability industry – with confidence that demand for its environmental rating tools for buildings is growing strongly.

There’s not only more demand to expand energy ratings to other environmental factors such as water and waste but also in the types of properties it can cover.

Given limited “bandwidth” it’s the latter that the program will focus on.

In conversation with The Fifth Estate on Wednesday near their new digs at Parramatta Square, director Carlos Flores stepped through a brisk agenda to expand into new sectors such as retirement living and residential aged care, schools, warehouses and retail tenancies (as distinct from shopping centres).

A standout source of enthusiasm for a rating tool that proves it’s doing good is coming from the residential aged care and retirement sector.

(And, no surprise given the pressures thrown its way with COVID and poor, sometimes appalling practices, uncovered by the recent royal commission.)

Flores said all three major industry bodies in the sector are keen for action and in fact their chief executives are personally taking part in the development of the tools.

Other sectors set for NABERS rating tools include schools, warehouses, cold stores, retail tenancies and supermarkets. Some of these involve complex work given the disparate nature of the building fabric and huge variation in quality.

During the worst of the pandemic, Flores pointed out the program feared demand for ratings from the office sector in particular would fall away and instituted incentives measures such as lower costs of ratings to counteract the possibility.

The drop off didn’t materialise and in fact there’s growing interest for the tool at home and also from bigger global bodies such GRESB (the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark) keen to integrate with the data.

To facilitate this, NABERS has started on the complex task of moving its data base and resources to the cloud to make access more readily available. Yes, it’s all publicly online but hard for new sectors to find and access, he said.

The growth in interest from overseas is no surprise. Flores reckons Australia’s huge advantage in its energy efficiency is pretty well globally pace setting.

He’s not kidding, he says, when he says about 50 countries have scoped out the NABERS tool, many in person through delegations he’s led. He rattles off a long list, from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to Russia, Israel and South Africa.

In the UK, NABERS has been embraced enthusiastically.

BRE, the scheme administrator for the rating tool in the UK, has been flooded with interest, including around 200 assessors wanting to be certified, Flores says.

He says the Better Buildings Partnership and the work of its CEO Sarah Ratcliffe can claim the lion’s share of credit for the success of the initiative.

Part of the reason for the take up is the lack of a similar tool. Although there is a green design tool available for UK property owners to measure energy there is not much by way of an indicator to say how energy efficiently office buildings might be performing. So, owners can go through years of holding an “in design” certificate of great energy performance intent, but not much by way of results.

It’s in this measure of good performance (or bad, as the case may be) that Australia has racked up some good reputational runs on the board.

In other ways, the UK is ahead of Australia, Flores said – waste, in particular, where the UK has better reporting frameworks, recycling facilities and data.

Of course, things might change now that China has rejected waste imports from Australia and forced it to clean up its own mess.

An encouraging note was struck this week with the announcement from Atlassian cofounder Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson that their investment firm Skip Capital would launch a $100 million fund to invest partly in recycling infrastructure.

The fund is also targeting solar, wind and aged care but from what the industry insiders have been saying it will take a big commitment (perhaps the lion’s share of that initial tranche of funds) to create the critical mass that’s needed to convert rubbish to commercially viable recycled products.

“China has stopped accepting our low grade waste and so I think as a country we need an innovative solution around managing our waste and I think what that’s going to mean is building recycling infrastructure (here) in Australia,” Jackson told The Age.

Next on the agenda, Flores said, is developing a certification for net zero carbon buildings, and there’s a lot of industry engagement to see what that might look like.

“In an early consultation process last year, we found two schools of thought in industry: stakeholders who saw this as an opportunity to drive voluntary purchases of renewables and high quality offsets, and others who thought emphasis should be on going for all electric and/or decarbonised fuels. Feedback flagged that the latter was much easier to do in new buildings than existing buildings, which have existing gas infrastructure for their heating and cooling.

“Research from ClimateWorks from 2020 suggested that for Australia to get to net zero by 2050 and stay within 2 degrees, the building sector would likely need to do so by 2040,” Flores said.

That’s a mammoth project that needs to be tackled “building by building”, each with its own unique set of challenges and parameters.

Of course, the flip side is huge opportunity for the energy efficiency sector with a long tail of work possible over the next few two decades.

The most recent pulse of the market indicated the feelings split 50:50 but there’s a big tranche of public consulting coming soon. Some intermediate solutions may appear, or the balance could tip strongly one way or the other.

Let’s hope it’s the right way.

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