The recent Green Buildings Day in Melbourne, hosted by the Green Building Council of Australia, showed how building with efficiency in mind is taking a larger piece of the construction pie.

The human element has returned to design. In the age of plant and technology, we somehow came to forget what buildings were for in the first place – to serve people. As NABERS national program manager Carlos Flores noted, we’ve forgotten that the point of all this work isn’t just about saving energy, but serving the purpose of the building better.

The general theme of the day centred around the business case for green building in light of recent developments in focusing on occupant comfort, health and well-being (think WELL), with the focus firmly on the carbon constrained world we find ourselves in. With the last few months being the hottest in recorded history, and with the COP21 targets being set at 1.5 degrees, sights were set on how to achieve not just energy efficiency and GHG reductions but the ambitious targets of net zero by mid-century.

“The climate policy window may be opening again,” noted Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute.

And he noted that it really is a positive thing that climate change isn’t a hot election topic. Politicians would get backed into policy corners, removing the opportunities for action post-election. The recent Labor policy announcement on the issue was not trashed by the Business Council of Australia, as normally expected, and this was significant in signalling that, maybe, the BCA is realising the impetus for action.

The building efficiency approach was flagged in the first session of the day by Malin Lindblad from Arup. Directly identifying the “fabric first” approach of Passivhaus as the smart investment, Lindblad noted that big institutions were now playing in the field, setting the building standard for their next big project.

Anna Skarbek (Climate Works Australia) reiterated, from the recent ASBEC report, that we can meet our targets with existing approaches and technology – no reinventing the wheel. The next five years, however, are the most critical.

“We must reverse the trend on emissions”, she said.

The simplest strategy: building efficiency (insulation, air sealing, smart HVAC) plus renewable (otherwise known as Passive House Plus or Premium). An important side note, we at Climate Works agree that we have moved beyond gas as a transition fuel. Let’s go all electric; it’s the only way we’ll decarbonise our grid.

Movers at the big end of town (NAB, EY, CBRE) showed how they are playing in the space, with a focus on investment and finance mechanisms to please the traditional players. The next move? The management of biodiversity risk as part of climate change, particularly across their agribusiness portfolio.

Many lamented the work – or lack thereof – being done across the remainder of the sector; while the market leaders are now well versed in sustainability, progress isn’t trickling through to the remainder. What are the challenges and roadblocks? It’s not to do with setting up the business case, it’s more to do with transaction costs and getting the motivation.

There are also big moves being made toward social sustainability and human rights, as noted in particular by the panel of Richard Boele (KPMG Banarra), Margot Black (Charter Hall) and Ramana James from IAG. We can’t, and shouldn’t, decouple action on climate change from human rights advancements. It’s interesting to note that the most significant challenges being faced currently in the world may be derived partly by climate change, including population displacement and flow-on effects including conflict.

The future of Green Star? The big notes were on the same social impact and human rights issues that are currently playing out amongst the big investors and main players in the sector. Partly forced by the UK’s legislation surrounding modern slavery, there is now a greater groundswell to know where our money is going and where things come from. The building sector is definitely not immune. As well, as noted by the UN-ECE at the recent International Passive House Conference, the provision of healthy environments and the abatement of carbon emissions was an issue for humanity.

Healthy buildings (not just energy efficient buildings) was a pervasive topic, and panels returned to the topic again and again. Whilst absenteeism costs businesses up to $7 billion per annum, presenteeism is responsible for almost four times that at $26 billion, so healthy environments are critical to businesses. There are plenty of tools around to help us achieve healthy spaces, including WELL and Passivhaus.

Kingspan managing director Scott Gibson spoke of the work the company is doing in building efficiency, recently achieving a net-zero energy head office in Somerton with the company’s own fabric first (near Passivhaus) approach and their own products and technology. Trademarked EnvelopeFirst, they have gone a long way toward targeting operational energy consumption and emissions.

The CEFC identified social housing as a gap in the market. This is the sector where those who can least afford it are spending the most on energy, and the impacts to our society are huge. Working with St Heorge Community Housing, they are investing tens of millions in the provision of good quality housing (minimum 7 Star NatHERS) and tenant education to achieve real results.

On an international scale, it’s been tried and tested extensively using the Passivhaus standard; the provision of healthy homes has the potential to make significant social change. In Australia, social housing is often of the poorest standard and sees very little investment. Any funding is often directed at plugging holes in a broken system than necessary overhaul. Social housing tenants often experience fuel poverty, which can lock them into poor health outcomes and/or the poverty cycle. This important work from these partnerships will set a new standard in the industry.

Many agreed that the market leaders are world-leading, as they have been for many years, but that our minimum standards are lagging the world.

The key message: the time for incremental change is over. It’s time to take on the big challenges and be courageous.