Australia has a hodgepodge of rating tools for the built environment. What effect are they having on the sustainability of the built environment they’re supposed to improve?

According to the National Energy Efficiency Building Project report, published November 2014 by South Australia’s Department of State Development on behalf of the Australian Government and all States and Territories, their impact is minimal.

For the report, the government commissioned a study to determine “key systemic or process weaknesses or points of non‐compliance with the energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code (‘the Code’) and related issues.”

The project involved consulting with key building industry policy makers, stakeholders and regulators through workshops, meetings, a survey, and submissions to an issues paper. More than 270 people participated in the workshops, and the surveys generated 571 responses. The project was not specific to residential building, but the majority of workshop participants and survey responses were aimed at residential building.

Their responses indicate that the current collection of rating tools is having a negligible effect in improving the sustainability of the built environment.

“Few stakeholders offered the view that no (major) reforms were needed,” the report states. “Many stakeholders believe that Code compliance is poor and, further, that Australia’s building energy performance falls a long way short of best practice. This implies higher energy use, higher emissions and higher overall costs for building owners and occupants.”

This view held across the country, with a “remarkable degree of consistency in the views expressed and issues raised in all states and territories, despite widely varying building markets and conditions.”

Why are the the current rating tools having so little effect? The report highlights a variety of factors, including:

  • Homebuyer ignorance: key energy-efficiency features are difficult for non-professionals to discern, e.g. adequate insulation, solar orientation, etc.
  • Homebuyer preference: homebuyers want the largest home they can afford, and “are largely uninterested in energy efficiency outcomes.” Many would trade energy-efficiency measures for other amenities, such as more space.

“Many industry professionals noted that this routinely translates into energy efficient designs or inclusions being ‘traded away’ during the design process, or not being specified in the first place,” the report states.

Regarding the regulatory side, participants noted the following:

  • Lack of oversight, and lack of consequences, for cutting corners on energy performance.
  • Funding shortages that preclude “key enforcement activities, such as audits, which might potentially lead to enforcement action for non‐compliant buildings.”
  • The view of energy efficiency “as the lowest of their priorities behind issues such as health, amenity, structural integrity and bushfire safety.”

Other systemic factors include:

  • “Skill and knowledge gaps throughout the chain. No mandatory accreditation or CPD in most jurisdictions.
  • Designs not optimised for energy performance or low running costs. Issues with rating schemes and rater errors. Low detail in plans.”

Overall, the parties involved all contribute to the lackluster performance.

“The review team formed the view that regulator, industry, consumer and government views appear to be reinforcing each other and contributing to an overall culture of low energy performance: no one party can be singled out as particularly or solely responsible for this situation,” the review stated.

Strategies for improvement are numerous and include:

  • “Delivering quality outcomes; Increase training and knowledge – mandatory accreditation and CPD. Product register, labelling and testing.
  • Empowering the community; Strengthening and widening awareness of consumer protection frameworks. Information campaigns on all aspects of building energy performance.”

A better system may be available soon. According to Suzanne Toumbourou, executive officer of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), that group’s framework for a national home sustainability rating system will be released in the next few months. ASBEC is a body of professional and industry organizations, government observers, and non-government organizations that work in multiple facets of the built environment, including operation, delivery, planning, and design.