As awareness about the need to deliver buildings and cities which meet high standards of sustainability in design and construction grows, it is important to think about whether or some of the commonly held perceptions or assumptions about green building are in fact accurate.
Unfortunately, however, leaders within the industry suggest that the debate surrounding environmental considerations within the built environment is in fact being impacted to a degree by a number of misconceptions.
First, there is cost. Speaking predominantly about the residential sector, CSIRO Energy for Buildings manager Dr. Stephen White says traditional notions associating environmentally friendly attributes of new houses with higher levels of cost than less eco-friendly options are erroneous. Indeed, a study White led which looked at the floor plans of 414 houses across different cities and climate zones which was published in 2014 found that the average cost to build a new house to five star NatHERS standards today came in lower than those constructed to earlier 3.5 and 4-star ratings by a factor of $7,500, $5,500 and $5,000 in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne respectively. Energy use, too, came in lower in 5-star rated houses by 50 per cent in Melbourne and 19 per cent in Adelaide, though the difference was negligible in Brisbane.
Stressing that there was no suggestion of any causal relationship between the higher rating and the actual reduction in costs shown in the above data, White nevertheless insists that there are now a range of designs available which are inexpensive yet deliver good environmental performance. He says the study demonstrated that sustainability could be delivered through smarter measures rather than necessarily more costly ones.
“I think the idea that it costs a huge amount (sustainability) is not borne out by the evidence,” he said. “Through good design practices, you can get cheap houses to build and that was borne out by the evidence.”
Beyond cost, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) executive director Suzanne Toumbourou says there are also misconceptions around the idea that public policy will necessarily be sufficient to drive ongoing improvement in practices. Again speaking predominantly about housing, Toumbourou acknowledges that regulation and green building ratings have their place, but says more significant gains would come from promoting the benefits of sustainability in a way which aligns with broader values and priorities of home owners such as price, location, amenity, comfort and natural light.
“With regard to sustainable buildings, one of the myths that I guess might not really come to the fore is the idea that if you improve regulation and if you improve star ratings for example for buildings, then you come across a solution to the sustainable building stock - particularly the residential building stock,” she said.
“I think what we have discovered through the work of ASBEC’s housing task force is that yes, definitely, regulatory performance standards such as star ratings are important for identifying best practice and benchmarking against this. But unless you are able to effectively deliver a message explaining the value of sustainability to home owners, tenants and renovators, you are missing out on an essential pillar to deliver on a proper sustainability framework in the real-estate market.
“We say yes, voluntary measures are important in terms of disclosure, but you really need to communicate about the value of sustainability to the home owner, who has a slightly different value framework, in order to make sure that the market appetite (for green building) is effectively built.”
White agrees, adding that a link must be made between sustainability and lifestyle factors. This could include, for example, the benefits of having amenities and parks nearby through sustainably designed communities, or remaining warmer in winter and cooler during summer as a result of energy efficiency measures.
On a broader scale, Green Building Council of Australia executive director Jorge Chapa says there are misconceptions not only in terms of the aforementioned cost factors, but also surrounding ideas that achieving sustainability in design and construction takes too long and is difficult when it comes to barriers in areas such as planning. He added that there is also a misconception that client demand for environmentally friendly attributes in buildings is not actually that strong.
Chapa says part of the problem regarding the cost and effort issue stems from what he says were initial efforts to aim for targets which in hindsight were actually beyond what was realistically achievable given the knowledge and technology available at the time. Because of this, he says, some of the earlier efforts with regard to sustainability did actually cost more than they should have.
As for ideas about demand, he says sustainability has become something which is now largely expected, and anyone who does not strive to deliver environmentally friendly outcomes for premises which they either design, build or own will find themselves left behind.
“I think what we have seen in the commercial space is that it’s not that they don’t want (environmental attributes to be included) but rather understanding that they expect it and they are surprised when they don’t see it,” Chapa said.
“I tell people when building new residential apartments that just like people expect their building to not burn down or fall to the ground, they now expect their buildings to be energy and water efficient.
"We here in Australia expect to have clean water because we are a heavily regulated and advanced economy – you expect these things to be taken care of when you make these purchases.
“I think people expect the same thing of their apartments and their house.”
Beyond buildings, Toumbourou says it is important when thinking about sustainable infrastructure and cities to afford sufficient levels of weight to the broader economic, social and environmental picture when conducting cost benefit analysis. She says ASBEC is concerned not so much with the notion of the benefits of sustainable buildings being weighed up against the cost but rather that the parameters being adopted when evaluating these benefits might be too narrow.
As Australia attempts to respond to climate change, the built environment will play a key role in our success or lack thereof.
If we are to achieve maximum results in this area, it will first be important to challenge any assumptions or perceptions which may not indeed hold true when placed under scrutiny.