Are Australian Building Codes Ready for Climate Change?

Thursday, August 6th, 2015
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According to critics, the Abbott government’s indifference to climate change issues has already had a pronounced impact on sustainability and adaptability initiatives throughout Australia, with the renewable energy sector left particularly hard hit since the Coalition took office.

When it comes to changes to building standards since the last election, members of industry have already levelled complaints at revisions to the National Construction Code (NCC), and the loosening of requirements with respect to energy performance.

These concerns would lead to the question of whether existing building codes are ensuring that the country’s built assets are adequately prepared for the challenges that global climate change is expected to bring in future.

This issue is particularly relevant given efforts by other Commonwealth countries to change their own building and construction codes in anticipation of changes to weather patterns wrought by global warming.

In Canada, for example, building codes have traditionally been devised using historic climate data as the chief criteria for building performance. Many are now calling for this method to be overhauled in order to address potentially dramatic shifts in regional weather patterns over upcoming decades.

According to John Thwaites, chairman of the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), while Australia also relies on historic data for the development of its own building resilience criteria, the board is nonetheless striving to remain fully apprised of the latest research and information on the potential impacts of climate change.

“The focus of the ABCB is to continue to monitor extreme natural hazard events and trends to ensure that the NCC remain adequate,” Thwaites said. “The ABCB is also monitoring any new information/data/research on changing climate and impacts on extreme weather events to determine whether the NCC remains appropriate.”

Despite the attention given by the ABCB to extreme weather events, Thwaites acknowledged that the NCC does not yet contain provisions on such issues, although changes may soon be on their way.

“The NCC currently does not cover hail, storm tide or have specific requirements relating to heat stress,” he said. “However…an investigation of hail and heat stress is currently included on the ABCB work program.

“For heat stress, the NCC energy efficiency requirements would moderate the impacts of extreme heat within buildings that have been built to contemporary energy efficiency standards, resulting in reduced risk of heat stress for building occupants.”

Thwaites pointed out that protecting built assets from certain extreme weather events, such as bushfires and storm surges, should involve planning and zoning policy just as much as building criteria.

“An important consideration is the link between building standards and planning controls,” he said.

“The 2012 Productivity Commission Report Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaption identified that in some cases, the vulnerability of people and buildings to climate change impacts will depend on how well building standards (which generally control how to build) and planning regulations (which generally control where to build) are integrated.

“For example, where planning schemes can identify areas that are bushfire prone and the level of bushfire hazard, building regulation can then specify a construction standard for a building in a given area to better manage bushfire risk. The ABCB is working closely with State and Territory planning agencies to improve this relationship.”

Thwaites further noted that improved planning may be the best means of preserving built assets from climate change-related hazards, given the difficulty of installing physical safeguards to protect buildings from more destructive weather events.

“As for storm surge, the Productivity Commission Report states ‘it is appropriate that the NCC does not contain standards to manage some natural hazards where it would be better managed by the planning system,’” he said. “To develop a standard for storm surge would almost invariably make it impractical to build, and therefore the more important consideration is not locating buildings in such areas.”

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