Wind back to 2010 and Grocon’s Pixel Building in Melbourne went beyond requirements of what was then the Building Code of Australia (now called the National Construction Code (NCC)).

Located on the former CUB Brewery site in Melbourne, the project scored 105 points for both Green Star and LEED and became Australia’s first carbon neutral office building as it generated its own energy and water.

Developments like this, however, are the exception. Whilst premium stock often goes beyond NCC requirements, lower and middle grade stock is often typically built to Code and no more. Accordingly, the importance of the Code in driving building energy performance should not be underestimated.

That presents challenges. For starters, the last substantial upgrade to the stringency requirements of the Code were introduced in 2010 (upgraded standards are expected for commercial buildings in 2019 and residential buildings in 2022). Thus, buildings of today are still being constructed to standards set in 2010 as far as energy efficiency is concerned.

More importantly, concern is growing that the role of the NCC in driving improved energy performance in buildings is not clear. Under Operative Provision 4 of the intergovernmental agreement under which the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) operates, the mission of the ABCB revolves around addressing critical issues in terms of (a) safety and health, and (b) amenity and sustainability in building construction and performance through the NCC and other appropriate solutions. Whilst the agreement does define the term ‘sustainability’ (an element of new building work that delivers effective outcomes), there is little more than this in the way of guidance about the role of the Code in respect to driving environmental performance.

Eli Court, an implementation manager at ClimateWorks Australia, said neither the NCC itself nor the policy surrounding it provides adequate guidance to the ABCB which is necessary to ensure that the Code delivers maximum value and contributions to energy efficiency reductions.

“What I would say is that both the Building Code itself and the policy and regulation surrounding the Building Code is not currently providing the policy guidance and policy direction that an organisation like the Australian Building Codes Board requires in order to deliver the full potential energy efficiency improvement and emissions reduction that we know can be achieved in the building sector,” Court said.

Court said guidance is missing in several areas.

First, there is a lack of clarity about objectives of the energy reduction requirements associated with the Code. In respect of safety, he says the NCC’s goals are clear – buildings should not unduly burn down or fall down. With energy efficiency, he says it is not clear what the objectives of the Code in fact are.

Court said clearer statements about the Code’s objectives regarding energy efficiency requirements would help the ABCB in setting standards. These objectives could include, for example, delivering reductions in energy consumption which were suitable and appropriate in a future net-zero emissions economy, co-optimising occupant comfort and cost/benefits associated with running the building and minimising peak demand on the electricity grid.

Second, Court talks of a lack of clear guidance for the ABCB in terms of the magnitude of carbon emission reductions which the building sector needs to deliver over the long term and the time frame over which these need to be delivered.

If instead the Board was told that the industry needed to deliver net-zero emissions by a specified future date, Court said it would be able to work back and determine the magnitude of reductions needed with each update of the Code in line with that trajectory. To ensure goals were realistic, he said objectives could include ‘opt-out’ clauses where, for example, technology progressed less quickly than hoped or the industry ran into unexpected technical challenges in delivering emission reductions.

Third, Court talks of a lack of guidance for the ABCB in terms of processes for updating the energy efficiency requirements of the Code or how often updates need to occur.

Because of all this, Court says stakeholders approach the NCC updating process with varying objectives in mind and little in agreed common ground about what needs to be achieved in terms of energy efficiency reductions. Not only is this creating difficulty for the Board in terms of mediating competing interests, it also creates a danger of individual state and territories moving ahead with their own special energy efficiency requirements for the Code in a non-harmonised manner, he said.

Suzanne Toumbourou, executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) agrees.

As a result of the relatively loose reference to sustainability in the intergovernmental agreement, Toumbourou says there are no clear targets and objectives for the Code in terms of energy reduction requirements. Whilst there are energy efficiency standards within the Code, she says what these are trying to achieve over the longer term remains unclear.

This, Toumbourou says, not only dictates a need to begin from scratch and rebuild the rationale for energy efficiency requirements each time the Code is updated but also means that updating is not occurring within the framework or context of a long-term objective.

In addition, clearer objectives and a longer-term trajectory would provide greater market certainty along with an opportunity for manufacturers to understand where their products fit within the market, Toumbourou said. This would help to spur innovation as manufacturers would have greater visibility surrounding likely demand patterns for products which help to deliver lower emissions, she said. Building owners and developers, as well, would have greater visibility about likely increases in energy efficiency requirements and the effect this might have in terms of time frames for upgrades of their stock.

The above comments come as ASBEC and ClimateWorks are working together to develop an industry-led forward trajectory which aims to support governments and the Building Ministers Forum to establish long-term targets and trajectories for NCC energy requirements and to consider appropriate support measures.

An issues paper published by the two organisations on July 11 seeks feedback about what the objectives of the Code should be in terms of improving energy performance and how any long-term target for energy reductions through the Code should apply in practice.

The comments also come in light of a 34-point National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP) adopted by state and federal governments in late 2015, which aims to improve national energy productivity by 40 per cent over the 15 years to 2030.

Overseas, target reductions in carbon emissions for the built environment are reasonably common notwithstanding the United Kingdom’s abandonment in 2015 of a previous ten-year target for zero carbon (from energy use) by 2016 which was originally set in 2006. Japan, for instance, has a net zero target for all new commercial buildings by 2030 whilst Canada has a net zero target for all new buildings by 2050. In the US, where building codes and energy targets are set independently by each state, California wants all residential and commercial buildings to be net zero by 2020 and 2030 respectively whilst Washington is aiming for 70 per cent annual reductions in net annual energy consumption by 2030.

Not all agree with the aforementioned sentiments. Indeed, the ABCB itself denies any suggestion that it lacks an understanding of what is required by it in terms of energy efficiency requirements.

Over the longer term, ABCB general manager Neil Savery says the aforementioned trajectory currently being prepared will inform both future increments of change within the NCC and the work of the ACBC in pursuing those changes – though he notes that the trajectory will need to be agreed by national governments through policy advice provided by the Department of Energy and Environment, which has carriage of the NEPP. This, he says, will deliver clear guidance to the ABCB, the industry and the broader community about how many increments of change are needed and over what time frame – guidance he says will enable all interests to familiarise themselves with the anticipated timing of change and allow for effective transition.

More immediately, Savery says the ABCB is working on a scope of works with regard to economically feasible measures to drive greater energy efficiency through the NCC 2019 updating process – a process he says was requested by the chairperson of the COAG Energy Ministers and was supported by the Building Ministers’ Forum. A number of changes arising out of this will likely be incorporated into the 2019 updating process for commercial buildings (including a stringency increase) whilst a new platform will be in place for considering a stringency increase with regard to residential buildings in 2022.

As a result, Savery says things are progressing ‘as they need to.’

Savery said it was not fair to say the ABCB was being hampered in its work during the updating processes because of a current lack of a long-term trajectory for emissions reductions.

“The ABCB knows what it needs to in order to deliver changes for NCC 2019, noting that these will be subject to a Regulatory Impact Statement and ultimately endorsement for inclusion in the NCC,” he said.

“In terms of the longer-term reductions, this will be resolved through the consideration by governments of a trajectory, which it is anticipated will inform possible changes for NCC 2022 and beyond.  It will also provide industry with a roadmap for transition and therefore establish the ‘goal posts’ beyond NCC 2019.”

At a practical level, Toumbourou says there is opportunity for the provision of concrete targets and objectives through COAG Energy Council around the long-term trajectory of the Code and for the Council to help inform the priorities. This, she would like to see included within the NEPP.

More broadly, she says, it is important for ministers to appreciate the potential of our built environment to deliver energy emission reductions. At the moment, she says, a predominate focus around energy costs and provision has resulted in inadequate attention to how demand for energy can be reduced through better building strategies.

From an energy efficiency perspective, many buildings around Australia are built to Code and only to Code.

If the potential of buildings to contribute to a low-carbon economy is to be realised, the objectives and trajectory of the Code in reducing emissions must be clear.