National Forum on Low Carbon Housing for Low Income Households speakers
(L-R) Dr Kate Wilson, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage; Dr Matthew Soeberg, Sustainability Victoria; Kellie Caught, Australian Council of Social Services, Professor Paul Cooper, University of Wollongong

Comfortable, affordable and0 low-carbon housing is possible, but according to experts at Wednesday’s National Forum on Low Carbon Housing for Low Income Households, there are multiple challenges that need tackling to get there.

Organised by the CRC for Low Carbon Living, ASBEC and the University of Wollongong (UOW), the forum brought together representatives from the not-for-profit sector, community housing, government agencies, architecture, energy providers, researchers and tenant advocacy groups to unpack barriers to delivering housing that is both affordable and sustainable.

Other sessions explored potential pathways to achieving the goal, including policy approaches, strategies for retrofits, how to improve performanceof new builds, and the challenges of introducing mandatory minimum standards for energy efficiency in rental dwellings.

UOW Sustainable Buildings Research Centre director Professor Paul Cooper told The Fifth Estate that while mandatory minimum standards were needed, there were some potential negatives.

A system that assessed a home’s energy performance in a robust and formal manner would give tenants and owner-occupiers an idea of what energy bills might be, but it could also have an impact on rents, he said.

Homes with good ratings could send rents and purchase prices upwards.

It is a conundrum, Professor Cooper said.

“There are all these complex problems with upsides and downsides.”

The bottom line is, low-income people are “disadvantaged on several fronts”.

Low-income households can’t reduce use more

The CRCLCL has done a lot of work on retrofits for low-income and community housing, he said. As a result, what is clear is that those on low-incomes, especially older people, are “very frugal already”.

“Older low-income people do their best to save every bit of energy they can,” Professor Cooper said.

But it doesn’t matter “how hard they try”; those on low incomes can only reduce their consumption so far.

There are also large families living in “dreadful accommodation” who have enormous power bills. These bills are a cause of anxiety, guilt and stress, and have a genuine mental health impact, he said.

“We see terrible things in terms of the impact of poorly performing buildings.”

A session at the forum examined the impacts of energy performance on health.

Professor Cooper said that while there was currently not a considerable amount of Australian data on the relationship between energy and health, the evidence gathered so far shows that having an energy-efficient, well-insulated and thermally comfortable home leads to better health outcomes.

Monitoring of homes in areas such as the New England Tablelands, Southern Highlands and other places where it gets extremely cold has shown that for long periods of time throughout the year, people are living with indoor temperatures that are well below comfort and also below the World Health Organization recommendations for a healthy indoor environment.

Overall, there is considerable interest in the impact of home performance on people’s health, both in terms of low temperatures in winter and extreme heat in summer, Professor Cooper said.

There is a broader need for health co-benefits to be factored into the cost-benefit analyses that drive government decision-making on energy and housing.

Compulsory blower door testing

Another important area in improving thermal comfort and energy efficiency of low-income housing is performance checks on newly built dwellings.

Professor Cooper said this would include air tightness testing, as a leaky house will let in cold in winter and heat in summer.

While the draft revisions to the NCC 2019 have proposed blower door tests as a voluntary demonstration of as-built performance, Professor Cooper said it should be compulsory.

More broadly, there needs to be greater focus on compliance, Professor Cooper said. This should include checks on the installation on insulation, and photographic evidence of compliance gathered throughout the build. Then, when the occupancy certificate is being produced, the builder can show it was built to the standard it was designed and approved for.

There also needs to be some kind of baseline performance standard that dwellings must conform to, in the same way that the actual performance of commercial buildings is determined using NABERS ratings.

Mandatory disclosure needed

Professor Cooper said mandatory disclosure had been a positive initiative for NABERS and more broadly for the commercial buildings sector, as it is had resulted in building performance improvements.

“Why are we not doing the same thing in residential?”

Another session at the forum focused on energy supply alternatives such as solar. Professor Cooper said rolling solar out was a “complex question” when it came to the low-income housing sector.

Solar PV is popular as a way of reducing household energy bills, but there is not “an unlimited amount of funds” for landlords, governments and community housing providers to spend on providing it for properties.

Also, for low-income households, unless they consume all the energy on-site when it is produced, they won’t reap all the rewards.

“It is not a silver bullet. We should be looking to improve thermal performance of the building first, then optimise the installation of the home solar PV system.”

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