Carrum - suburb in Melbourne, Australia. Aerial view

A natHERS energy rating assessor who claims her company has done more assessments for the rating tool than any other company in Australia has launched a powerful critique of the proposed reforms to the National Construction Code. It included an observation that level of knowledge, workmanship and execution of sustainability outcomes would “shock” observers.

 The latest International Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that the world urgently needs to reduce carbon emissions to avoid a catastrophic future. Yet the proposed reforms to the National Construction Code in 2022 would see new houses built to a very modest if not completely inadequate 7-star rating by 2030, Efficient Living founder Tracey Cools told a recent CSIRO Australian Residential Energy Rating Conference.

It’s a continuation of the undermining of energy efficiency goals by housing lobbyists keen to see business as usual, Ms Cools said.

“Nationally, energy efficiency in the construction code was watered down in 2016 and 2019 due to industry lobbying.

“The NSW BASIX team has not increased targets since 2017, they missed NCC 2019, will miss NCC 2022 and are now aiming to align with New South Wales State Environmental Planning Policy in late 2022.

“Zero progress in five years is not acceptable, NSW.”

Ms Cools voiced the concerns heard in a growing chorus industry experts  – many published in The Fifth Estate –  frustrated by the apparently effective pushback from vested interests to prevent meaningful improvements in energy efficiency, despite costs to consumers.

Ms Cools singled out Western Australia for among the worst outcomes, where “less regulation does not result in better built outcomes”.

In fact the rise of Verification Using a Reference Building method of meeting the NCC guidelines was “opening a door to significant gaming of results and countless families living in very poor-quality homes”, Ms Cools said.

What exactly is this method, known as VURB. Here’s how one “helpful” website puts it:

“If you want to minimise construction costs related to energy efficiency, that is, glazing or slab insulation costs, the best approach for NCC energy compliance is called Verification Using a Reference Building (VURB) method. This method allows for a more realistic building modelling and takes everything into account. This is where an assessor can optimize the shading, introduce shading devices, trade-off insulation and SHGC of the windows to conduct the best low-cost solution possible for your building.”

The VURB, Ms Cools said, resulted in 4- to 4.5-star homes deemed to comply with the building code, but which were well below the minimum legal standard.

Neither of the two window manufacturers in WA produce double-glazed windows, Ms Cools noted, presumably, she said, because with policy as it stands, “there’s no need”.

And this despite double-glazed windows being 30 per cent more energy efficient. In NSW 81 per cent of new homes still have single glazing.

Industry lobbyists repeatedly claim higher sustainability ratings for new buildings will increase costs. They do this to engender fear in politicians and the public that changes to the NCC will be unaffordable.

Ms Cools showed in her address this doesn’t add up.

“I reviewed CoreLogic data published in August 2021. This data shows that average property prices nationally rose by 18.4 per cent in the last 12 months, while in the same period the cost of construction rose by 3.9 per cent.

“This is equal to a further $80,000 in developers” profit on an average Australian home.”

Ms Cools had four messages for policy makers. An edited version follows:

1. Stringency increases need to happen in small incremental changes

Planning policy changing in three-year cycles might be suitable for the plumbing code but it is outrageous to maintain this cycle with sustainability, considering the urgency required to meet Australia’s net-zero emissions goal.  

The NSW BASIX team has not increased targets since 2017; they missed NCC 2019, will miss NCC 2022 and now aim to align with NSW SEPP in late 2022.  

Zero progress in five years is not acceptable, NSW.  

Nationally, energy efficiency in the Construction Code was watered down in 2016 and 2019 due to industry lobbying.

This was to allow time for the industry, in particular, the window industry to prepare the supply chain for the changes.  

Victoria always shows leadership in sustainability while other states have a history of climate inaction.   State policymakers if you have not prepared your local industry for this change, you have failed.  

2. Less regulation does not result in better-built outcomes   

 The building codes are increasingly embracing performance-based solutions.  

As a result of this, we have seen a rise in:

  • Verification Using a Reference Building   
  • Non-accredited assessors   
  • BASIX DIY (do it yourself) designed for mums and dads   

This has opened a door to significant gaming of results and countless families living in very poor quality homes.  

WA has been a classic example of this, where the VURB can result in 4 to 4.5-star homes that comply with the building code.  

NSW also stands out as a huge underperformer with 81 per cent of homes still having single glazing and the vast majority of those with regular frames and no low-E coatings. 

3. Success is measured by the quality of the houses we build   

 All the work produced by our industry is done in the hope that it results in a comfortable and energy-efficient home that will allow a future family to thrive. 

For the NatHERS assessors in this conference and the policymakers that do not spend time on construction sites, it’s critical that you do.  

The level of knowledge, workmanship and execution of sustainability outcomes will absolutely shock you. 

If policy direction is to deliver 7-star homes you need to think about how you are going to manage that execution beyond the development application stage.   

4. Empower Sustainability professionals   

Our universities are producing degree and PDH qualified sustainability professionals in huge volumes.  

These are the professionals trained to understand building thermal physics. Yet we struggle to get recognised as professional engineers by Engineers Australia and we can not gain registration under the buildings practitioners act.  

Policy-makers, you would get a huge improvement in the built quality of homes if you mandated certification of plans for all assessment methods, including NatHERS and VURB.  

With Tina Perinotto

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.