With Australia facing an energy crisis, improving energy efficiency in the built environment could dramatically improve how much Australians pay to run their homes, and how much energy the country uses overall.

According to Daniel Wurm, managing director of the Green Building Institute, energy efficiency has not been a strong factor driving design choices, especially in the residential market, so Australia’s built environment overall uses more energy than necessary.

In addition, builders and trades people currently have insufficient knowledge of how to implement energy efficiency in a cost-effective manner. They may be unaware of building science principles and products for energy efficiency, and how easily they can be incorporated into design elements.

Wurm will be speaking at Green + Build Exhibition 2017, with the aim of helping to educate builders, manufacturers, and designers about energy efficient building materials and design.

Thanks to a benign climate and ample energy resources, energy efficiency has historically been overlooked in Australia. Compared with Canada and Europe, Australia’s built environment has been built to a rather lazy standard. “If you compare the quality of glazing and the tightness of buildings in Australia [with Europe] most buildings,” Wurm said, “particularly the older houses, they’re just leaking heat, they’re not energy efficient at all. Now the chickens have come home to roost and we have a huge inventory of poorly designed, poorly built housing.”

Regulating authorities, Wurm said, have made some efforts to improve the energy efficiency of homes, but the results so far have been lackluster. “A few years ago the government did introduce 6 Star rated homes as mandatory,” he said, “which means that all houses have to reach a minimum benchmark for energy efficiency. However, Six Star requirements have been poorly implemented and not checked on performance.”

Proper installation of materials, for example, should be inspected for compliance, but often isn’t. “In the US and in Canada, when people install insulation, for example, someone comes along and inspects it and makes sure that it’s being installed correctly and to a certain standard. Here in Australia, inspections are not done at all or it’s done by an uneducated builder, who obviously just wants to get the job done,” Wurm said.

According to Wurm, these practices lead to low energy-efficiency performance of homes designed to be 6-Star compliant. “A lot of the houses that are supposed to be 6 Star are actually not performing to that standard,” Wurm said. In addition, there’s a communication gap between designers and builders that can degrade building performance. “What often happens is the builder will take the specifications and they’ll alter them to make the project cheaper, and they don’t explain to the client the consequences of changing the specifications. Of course the clients don’t know any better. They just get a price.”

Another problem in Australia is confusion over the concept of energy efficiency. “People misunderstand energy efficiency and think that the solution is to put more solar panels on people’s houses and/or include solar hot water. That’s not true energy efficiency, which should focus first on conservation, and secondly on resource creation. Photovoltaic systems create energy, and on their own, do not provide the complete solution” Wurm said.

Energy efficiency is focused on reducing the amount of energy needed to run a building. “That’s the thing that we’ve got to get across to the building industry,” Wurm said. “The industry unfortunately does not yet understand the importance of building the envelope with attention to detail. You can actually get far greater value out of simply building better and improving the air tightness of your building, so you wouldn’t need that solar panel.”

The solution, according to Wurm, is to provide current and accredited education to all participants in the building industry. “We’ve got to train the entire building industry, or particularly the housing industry. It’s a huge task and what we’re doing is just the tip of the iceberg. But someone’s got to get it started,” he noted.

The GBI is introducing a series of online courses, according to Wurm, that enable participants to access advanced training without traveling. “There’s no need for people to travel to attend a class,” Wurm said. “They can just log on whenever they want and access these trainings, and it’s high quality, presented in the form of how-to videos.”

The video courses are targeted to all members of the building industry, including builders, trades people, and apprentices. “We’re bringing out some courses for builders, the domestic builders, the commercial builders, for builders who do renovations and retrofits,” he noted. Plumbers, carpenters, plasterers and the like also will need training in energy efficiency, Wurm added. “They need to understand how they need to cooperate with the builder,” Wurm said.

Apprentices also need to receive current training because, obviously, they only learn from whoever is teaching them. In most cases, that’s a supervisor. “We need to get to the apprentices and if the supervisor is not teaching them this then it’s the responsibility of the training provider,” Wurm said.

Australia’s building industry may be at a crossroads with the current energy crisis, but the industry can effectively move forward if it’s willing to change. “It’s not enough just to get people to come along to an event where they can sip wine and nibble on olives,” Wurm said. “What I believe we really need is proper training, accredited training.”