23 January 2014 — Housing experts have attacked negative media spin on NSW’s Building Sustainability Index rule revisions for housing standards. The article, published by Fairfax, argued that increases in capital expenditure caused by strengthening energy, water and thermal comfort targets would outweigh benefits. This is in direct opposition to a government cost–benefit analysis finding the move would add over half a billion dollars to the NSW economy and also create utility bill savings for householders, especially in the area of energy.
The article, Cost increases as BASIX rule revisions hit homes, published in hard copy on 21 January in Fairfax Media, stated that homeowners would have to pay up to $8000 more “in a further blow to home affordability”.
The Allen Consulting Group was commissioned by the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure to do a cost–benefit analysis of the proposed changes to BASIX, with net benefits found to total $511.7 million dollars.
Aggregate lifetime savings were estimated at 328 gigalitres of water, 7763 gigawatt-hours of electricity and 25,908 petajoules of gas.
Aside from energy and water savings for homes, other indirect benefits included:
- indirect benefits of potable water savings, including offsetting infrastructure upgrades
- reduced peak load infrastructure demands
- abatement of greenhouse gas emissions
- health improvements
- improved amenity values
- noise reductions
- environmental benefits including increase in water catchment flows
Benefits would also flow to those in the industry providing energy efficiency and water saving technology.
The report found that increases in capital expenditure on properties would in most cases be “more than offset” by lower utility bills, and taking into account increased mortgage payments, a net saving of $32 a year was still found (using a standard variable rate of 6.45 per cent a year), with increased savings as utility costs increased.
However, the media article stated that, taking into account the “current record low standard variable rate of 5.88 per cent”, homes would be on average $8 a year worse off in order to increase water and energy efficiency by an average 10 per cent.
The article then documented the increased capital costs of meeting this standard without mention of associated savings.
- See our article Getting the BASIX right in NSW will bring economic rewards
Newly appointed chair of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors Sid Thoo said opposition to minimum standards for sustainability was a national phenomenon that could be seen in newspapers around the country, and that the housing affordability angle, couched in terms of increased capital expenditure, was routinely seen when increased standards were sought.
He said, however, that numbers and data could always be manipulated to get the answers you wanted.
“I can show you there is a very small cost increase to get some big outcomes,” he told The Fifth Estate.
“Often when we talk about housing affordability, we fall into the trap of looking at capital expenditure, not realising you’ll end up with a house that can’t be cooled or has huge heating bills in winter.
“This creates cost of living stress, and this financial stress can lead to missed mortgage repayments.
“You need to look at the big picture to get the full story.”
Leading sustainable architect Caroline Pidcock agreed.
“I don’t see there’s a problem,” she said. “If you are designing good houses, the cost impact is pretty minimal, because it’s only a cost impact if you’re turning a really bad design that’s inappropriate for its environment into something liveable.”
The bare minimum, she said, was providing liveable houses, and that it was “beyond belief” in this day and age that anyone thought it was acceptable to build something that required excessive amounts of heating and cooling to make it liveable.
With the issue of changing climates now a lived experience for many, and predicted to get worse, people arguing against sustainability measures was tantamount to people arguing against making a building waterproof or structurally sound, she said.
“They really can’t argue the numbers, either,” she said, stating that these arguments were being put forward by people looking backwards not forward.
“Climate change is going to create much more intense weather conditions and we need to draw a line in the sand,” Ms Pidcock said. And base levels of comfort were crucial to providing resilience to climate change.
Ms Pidcock noted that compared with Europe, the standards proposed were much less stringent and it was simply not acceptable to be arguing against these standards, which she said might explain why no person was quoted in support of the assertions in the Fairfax Media article.
Some concerns around water
The changes to BASIX, however, do have critics within the sustainability arena, with concerns that some proposed measures are impractical.
Dr Shaila Divakarla, who is a Greensmart advisor for energy efficient housing company Ichijo Australia, said that although she strongly supported the higher energy standards in the new BASIX rules, she was very concerned about the increases to the BASIX water targets, and the cost burden for house buyers of this change.
For the average new dwelling to go from a BASIX 40 to a BASIX 50 target, instead of a 2000-litre water tank, an 8000L water tank may be required, according to the target review overview.
Dr Divakarla said most new buildings could accommodate around a 3000-3500L water tank, but that an 8000L tank was too large.
“It’s both an issue of cost and space,” Dr Divakarla told The Fifth Estate.
Planning subdivisions were getting smaller and an 8000L tank would take up a huge chunk of space in the back yard. If you decided to install the tanks underground, this would “easily” be a minimum of $7000 extra.
For Ichijo, she said two of their 4000L slimline tanks could be installed (slimline tanks come in capacities up to 5000L), but that would add at least another $2000-$3000.
It would also necessitate a long wall for them to be put against. But with people wanting more windows and an indoor–outdoor connection, this would not be ideal, she said.
Dr Divakarla said she was surprised that the cost–benefit information she saw “lumped water, energy and thermal comfort together”.
Were there a breakdown, she said, it would most likely be seen that water tanks were not a cost-effective addition to a house, particularly since the cost of mains water was so low.
She said this was the experience with her work on the Ecoliving display village project with Landcom and Clarendon Homes.
While water saving and management were obviously important, Dr Divakarla said residential water recycling schemes such as the Rouse Hill Recycled Water Plant would be a preferable solution, rather than requiring individual houses to install tanks.
“Most builders would be of the same opinion,” Dr Divakarla said. “[Ichijo] build efficient homes and we have issues [with the proposal].”
She said she has provided her critique to the Housing Industry Association for a submission to be made regarding the increased water requirements.
She said she was happy with the energy and thermal comfort requirements being raised, and that if the water requirement was reduced the energy performance could potentially be raised further.
Submissions to the BASIX target review are open until February 14.