Speaking to The Fifth Estate for the How to Build a Better World podcast, Dr Paul Bannister offered a sneak peek into the 2025 Section J update and explained why Australia is so far ahead on energy efficient buildings.

Few people know more about energy efficient buildings than Dr Paul Bannister, who was one of the original architects behind the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS).

A talented physicist, Dr Bannister was seduced by the unusual and mysterious world of air conditioning, which he calls the “Cinderella” of engineering.

Because, he says, all other engineering is about “dominating the planet and building bridges and roads and all that big, exciting stuff”.

Air conditioning is an introverted exercise. If you do your job well, nobody notices it at all.

For someone who has spent his life in an introverted world, Paul Bannister certainly knows how to make a splash.

Last year, the physicist was awarded the James Harrison Medal, which is the highest honour bestowed by AIRAH, Australia’s body for the HVAC industry.

Dr Bannister, director of innovation at DeltaQ, has recently been involved in the next revision to the energy efficiency section of the commercial building code, which is known as Section J.

He told The Fifth Estate on the How to Build a Better World podcast there had been a lot of research going on behind the scenes to inform the next revision in 2025.

While there weren’t many changes in the 2022 edition, Dr Bannister expected the 2025 version would be more ambitious.

The viability of net zero commercial buildings was under investigation, he said, but the reality is net zero is probably not going to be possible for all commercial building types.

In the residential sector, it’s much simpler to achieve net zero.

“It’s somewhat harder, particularly for multi-story buildings in the commercial sector, to talk about onsite net zero.”

NABERS in the UK

Bannister spearheaded the development of NABERS in the UK, which meant commercial building owners in the country were now able to measure the energy performance of their building compared to other buildings like it.

A base building rating, which rates landlord services in offices, was launched in the UK last year, with a rating for whole buildings and tenancies in the works.

Compared to the rest of the world, Australian commercial buildings are way ahead on operational energy, Bannister explained. He said most of the world, including the UK until recently, had managed energy efficiency entirely via building codes.

The problem with relying on design to generate energy efficient buildings is that there’s actually a loose relationship between the equipment, features of a building. and how well it performs.

“How they’re operated can be a factor of two or three on energy consumption over and above what the building is theoretically capable of doing,” Dr Bannister said.

Dr Bannister said buildings in the UK came with a unique set of challenges regarding energy efficiency.

In Australia, in an office building, the building owner typically manages all the services, such as air conditioning, throughout the entire building.

But in the UK, the way buildings are designed means tenants often manage and control their air conditioning within their own spaces.

“So the building is nowhere near as well integrated as it is in Australia at a management level, and that can result in some terrible efficiency outcomes, basically,” Dr Bannister said.

With a tool like NABERS, UK buildings can now be pitted against similar buildings to see how much energy they use comparatively.

Dr Bannister said these rating tools crucially allow people to understand if a building is performing well or poorly.

“One of the things that we learnt before we started NABERS was that people, even those who were specialists in the field, didn’t have a good idea of what was good, bad or indifferent, in terms of energy consumption for a particular building type,” he said.

“That’s because they didn’t have those comparisons.”

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