If Australia is serious about improving its energy productivity, it needs to look at ways to create more energy efficient buildings. Luckily, efforts are already underway to do just that.
Australia’s pleasant climate and relatively cheap energy has meant that energy efficient buildings have not historically been high on the list of priorities. However, in 2015 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council released a plan to improve Australia’s energy productivity by 40 per cent by 2030.
This plan included 34 measures to help meet this target, one of which was to “facilitate engagement with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) and Building Ministers Forum to consider changes to the Code so as to achieve better energy efficiency outcomes for Australia’s buildings within the next cycle of revision of the National Construction Code”.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) is a peak body for construction companies, architects and related organisations. Together with independent advisory ClimateWorks, they are leading a push to develop a long-term industry-led vision for how the National Construction Code can promote energy efficient buildings, as well as financial and other benefits for building owners and occupants. They had already identified a suite of policies that ASBEC members had agreed would help to deliver zero carbon buildings by 2050.
“At the same time that the COAG Energy Council was coming to the view that minimum standards needed to be raised, so was ASBEC and our 25-odd industry and professional association members,” said ASBEC Executive Officer Suzanne Toumbourou.
“Our report identified that the building sector is very well placed to deliver on those objectives at very minimal costs with technology that exists right now. For example, if you compare us to the aviation or steel making industries, technology literally does not exist to bring them to zero carbon.”
What’s more, Toumbourou said Australia’s property sector is already a world leader in global sustainability, having topped the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark for the past seven years.
“What that shows is that, at the highest end, we have really demonstrated the capacity to deliver low carbon high-performance buildings,” she said.
“Across the whole sector though we have only seen very small gains. For example, over the past decade the commercial sector more broadly has only made a 2 per cent improvement and residential 5 per cent.
“So our rationale is that we can do this. We have the technology to create more energy efficient buildings. If we delay implementing a proper suite of energy efficiency opportunities, we’d be wasting about $24 billion over the next five years in energy costs and over 170 Mt of lost emissions reduction opportunities.”
Nuts and bolts
Eli Court is the implementation manager for ClimateWorks and said their role is project managing all aspects of the project, working with technical experts such as the University of Wollongong, Energy Action, CSIRO and Strategy Policy Research.
He feels they should be able to build a strong technical case on what you can and can’t do for energy efficient buildings.
“What we will have at the end is a really practical policy recommendation underpinned by strong evidence with very deep engagement from industry, which is effectively partnering with us and steering the work,” he said.
“It’s a very challenging space. There have been efforts to improve building energy regulations over a period of a decade or more that have run into real roadblocks and we think that a highly technically robust piece of work that has industry support is a big part of what’s needed to overcome those roadblocks.”
Part of the process is building up a series of case studies of energy efficient buildings that have achieved high ratings.
“We want to illustrate that higher energy performance is feasible, it’s technically possible,” Court said.
“We already have buildings that are being built to net zero energy standards, net zero carbon standards, so we know that they’re out there, and we’ll be able to find examples that demonstrate that it’s technically feasible. We also want to use case studies to highlight some of the challenges that practitioners have encountered in trying to deliver buildings that meet those higher energy performance levels.”
Dr Paul Bannister is the Innovation and Sustainability Director at Energy Action and developer of the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), which measures energy, water, waste and indoor environment quality of a building.
He’s looking at different technologies and economic parameters with a view to how buildings in the future could perform better than the proposed 2019 code levels. He said they’re still in the early stages of their work, setting the ground rules.
“A lot of the ground rules have already been established for commercial because of the work that we did for the ABCB,” Bannister said.
“In residential, the University of Wollongong is doing a whole bunch of computer simulation work currently looking at the same sort of questions like what’s currently cost effective for residential buildings. In phase two, both the commercial and residential sides will look at this trajectory component that projects into the future to ask what can we do as a series of steps to an optimal outcome.”
When it comes to commercial buildings, he said one of the biggest questions is how much renewable energy should we be looking at?
“The current code doesn’t look at renewable energy explicitly at all. It’s an option, but it’s not mandatory,” he said.
One of the questions is, given that solar now is cost beneficial to the point that makes it more attractive to the many investments in energy efficiency, to what extent would that drive parts of the building sector towards something that looks like net zero?”
Alan Obrart is a consulting engineer and author. He is the national deputy vice chair of the Society for Building Services Engineering and was Engineers Australia’s representative on the ABCB for 10 years. He said the government directives mean that commercial buildings that comply with the building code have to be more energy efficient as we go forward.
“They gave the Building Code some criteria as to what that increase should be, for instance, more insulation to the façade, and increased efficiency from the services,” he said.
“The board of the ABCB are very senior bureaucrats and senior people from the construction industry. They’ve got to make the political decision of how high the bar has to be raised.”
Obrart said there is a lot of pressure coming from what he calls the green sustainability lobby, saying they are building 5- or 6-star buildings while the ABCB standards are only about a 3-star rating.
“It’s the minimum standard of good practice, mainly because of costs, and because the NCC/BCA has the goal of providing a national minimum standard of sustainability,” he said.
“Everything in the ABCB has to go to a regulatory impact statement (RIS), which is cost effectiveness. Everything we do has to have a cost effective basis.”
Toumbourou agreed that cost has to be taken into consideration for encouraging energy efficient buildings, particularly given current concerns regarding housing affordability.
“Really what is required is for the builders to approach building differently,” Toumbourou said.
“The CRC for Low Carbon Living has undertaken demonstration projects in this space. It’s now proof positive that this can be done and it doesn’t cost more. Josh’s House over in Western Australia is one example of that.”
Josh Byrne is a research fellow at Curtin University and a presenter on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia. One of his projects was the construction of two energy efficient homes that achieved a 10-star rating according to the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS), which operates on a different scale to the Green Star scheme.
They were built using conventional materials and methods, generate net electricity, and harvest and recycle water. Byrne said he has demonstrated, through extensive monitoring, the homes are thermally comfortable year round, without needing air conditioning or additional heating.