Home is where the heart is. It’s also, research tells us, where the health is. Comfortable, appropriate homes help us live longer and enjoy better health. Energy efficient homes are also cheaper to run, more comfortable, lighter, and more pleasant to live in.
So why are so many of Australia’s new homes not achieving the energy efficiency levels that modern technology allows?
While we all know Australia needs to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, some in the building industry have cited costs as a reason not to improve minimum energy efficiency standards, claiming that good energy performance measures can add up to $10,000 to the cost of a home. Many home buyers are price sensitive, goes the logic, so they can’t “afford” energy efficient homes. The fact is that none of the predictions relating to construction costs blow-outs have borne out historically. In reality, we can’t afford not to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock.
First of all, vulnerable people with poorly performing homes might end up paying the ultimate price. There’s actually a close link between energy performance and life itself. A study in the medical journal The Lancet shows that 6.5 percent of all deaths in Australia are attributed to cold and 0.5 percent to heat. Better insulation would help to keep temperatures at comfortable levels during extremes of hot or cold weather, saving lives.
First home owners often live in far flung newly built suburbs, with high transport costs, large mortgages, and young families. Any cost of better energy efficiency can be spread over a 25 or 30-year mortgage, while the lower energy bills kick in straight away, easing day-to-day cost pressures at what is for many the most financially strained stage in their lives.
Growing numbers of Australians live in privately rented accommodation. They don’t have the ability to make substantial changes to their properties, instead finding themselves stuck paying the bills on homes designed and built by others. With rents in many areas at record highs, disposable income also limits the ability of renters to invest in more energy efficient appliances. More energy efficient housing is often the only way that this group (around a third of all Australians) can hope to save money on their power bills.
The same goes for those in government housing and on low incomes, who have the most to gain from a reduction in the cost of their energy bills. That’s why last year, a broad coalition of more than 35 consumer and community groups, including the Australian Council of Social Services, called for carbon ready homes.
This isn’t a case of the building industry versus the bleeding hearts. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has 27 member organisations from across the building sector, covering around 300,000 professionals who spend their working lives on our built environment. ASBEC’s members are clear that improving energy performance on residential buildings can save big money – $20.9 billion by 2050, in fact. Government is on side too, with the Council of Australian Governments Energy Council supporting a Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings.
A startling 51 percent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have yet to be built, so decisions we make now about energy efficiency standards will have enormous ramifications for our built environment in years to come. Australia’s National Construction Code governs the minimum standards for all new buildings, but energy efficiency rules for residential buildings have not been strengthened since 2010. ASBEC’s Built to Perform report has shown that improving the minimum energy performance standards in the Code will save money on bills, reduce stress on the electricity network and get us on the road to a zero carbon built environment.
Electricity bills are not the only cost we face. Our energy infrastructure is ageing, and new infrastructure will require a big spend. The Built to Perform report showed that more energy efficient buildings could ease the strain, helping to save $12.6 billion in infrastructure costs by 2050.
Buildings contribute to almost a quarter of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and consume over half of the country’s electricity, through their operation. The minimum energy efficiency standards for new housing are nearly a decade old and by the time the next iteration of the National Construction Code is released, these standards will be twelve years old. We are well overdue for an upgrade to these standards.
And it’s not as though we don’t have the technology or know-how. Market leaders in Australia are already building entire neighbourhoods which generate up to five times as much energy as they use.
We can build homes that not only incorporate the best technology we now have, but which are ready to update when even better measures come along.
The home truth is that we can’t afford not to build high performance homes. For every year that we fail to do so, we condemn Australians to pay a heavy price, both in monetary terms via their bills and the strain on the grid, and also with their health and comfort.
There is no good reason not to act.
We must demolish the excuses and build energy efficient homes.