Energy efficient design is often assumed to be a matter of ‘build it and they will come’, but this approach isn’t enough to get us to an energy efficient Australia.

Despite the best efforts of modernist architects, a home is not just ‘a machine for living’, but a place where human behaviour has a constant, measurable effect, and which in turn can significantly affect the health and wealth of the people who reside there.

We already know that energy efficiency measures in our built environment are essential to save our economy money and limit carbon emissions. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), through our work with ClimateWorks Australia on our Low Carbon High Performance report, has calculated that improved energy efficiency in our buildings can help Australia can achieve $20 billion in energy cost savings and provide the easiest way to meet our Paris Climate Agreement obligations. Similarly, our Bottom Line report shows how delaying the implementation of stronger energy performance requirements will result in far more emissions and higher energy costs for Australia’s new homes.

But more than that, building systems need to enable behaviour change, allowing the best effects of energy efficient design to impact on the lives, health and wealth of occupants.

For a start, individual behaviour is an essential part of the germination and spread of new technologies. The Alternative Technology Association found that early adopters of technology are crucial to help drive technological change. Their enthusiasm means they are willing to test products on their own buildings. They then use their own learnings to inform recommendations, share knowledge, and advocate for the technologies to be taken up more widely.

There is some pioneering work being done on how to engage energy consumers in new behaviours. At the recent Energy Consumers Australia foresighting forum, energy retailer Aurora reported that ’pay as you go’ meter technology provided both consumers and the retailer with more information on individual consumption patterns. This in turn helped to change consumer behaviour at both an individual level and at scale. AGL similarly found that information provided to consumers about what appliances they are using and how much energy they use was key to behaviour change. In short, the same technology worked for retailers and consumers.

To engage younger people with a low income, ‘gamification’ of energy consumption could have a strong effect in encouraging take up of energy efficient behaviours and reducing energy consumption. Gamification involves fast feedback, ‘point scoring’ and an element of competition.

Of course, buildings are not just hollow shells, but are filled with appliances. Currently, the federal government is reviewing the way appliances are regulated via the Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards (GEMS). These provide clear standards across Australia and New Zealand for all new appliances. So far, by 2020, it is estimated that these standards will have saved Australian households up to $220 each annually, and reduced emissions by 27 megatonnes. There is the opportunity for GEMS to be more ambitious and deliver bigger energy and emissions savings!

The building industry can obviously help by designing homes that incorporate best practice in energy efficiency and give residents the option of not using appliances where possible; a place to hang out the washing, for example, still beats the most energy efficient tumble drier.

It’s also important to understand the barriers faced by households to taking up energy efficient technologies and behaviours. This includes better information. For example, star ratings for fridges and washing machines have helped consumers make informed choices about their whitegoods investments – it’s high time we had star ratings for homes!

Energy Consumers Australia has also found that the impacts of energy efficiency go far beyond cost savings. Factors as seemingly disparate as obesity levels and household disposable income can all be affected by energy efficient design. Good design, with its natural light and comfortable temperatures, helps ensure good physical and mental health.

Recent work on low income households shows that some of our assumptions about the effect of energy efficient design may not reflect reality. We think of energy efficient design benefiting low income households by lowering energy consumption and in turn saving them money. However, many low income households don’t need to lower their energy consumption, either because their consumption is already low, or because they actually need to increase their consumption in order to achieve the same health and living standards as other Australians. The issue may in fact not be affordability, but quality of life.

Quality of life might be improved by measures that increase energy efficiency, such as natural light, and comfortable temperatures that help maintain health. Cheaper energy may free up more income to buy necessities such as food. Many people with a low income find that their homes are not a sanctuary, but a place which is unsafe, or where lack of resources leads to stress and conflict. Improved design may take some of this pressure off and help with mental health.

If we can design for energy efficient behaviour, there are huge rewards to reap, for people across the wealth spectrum – leading to a better life for all Australians.