While the introduction of electronic building passports could go a long way toward improving the sustainability of Australia’s stock of built assets, a number of factors could impede the establishment of an effective nationwide data collection system.

According to Dr. Wendy Miller from the Science and Engineering Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology, the lack of clear demarcation or assignment of responsibility with respect to data collation is one of the biggest hurdles to the establishment of an electronic building passport system by the government for housing.

“The main barrier that we’ve found within Australia is a lack of understanding of whose goal and responsibility it is to hold or manage information about houses,” said Miller, who alongside pitt&sherry led the Pilot Electronic Building Passport project that was part of Phase 2 of the National Energy Efficient Building Project (NEEBP).

“The building regulations provide no clarity as to who should be collecting documents and then what the content of those documents should be, and who should see them.

“The state governments have the regulatory responsibility for building regulations, and the federal government and the building codes board set the regulations, but there’s still confusion as to whose responsibility it is for what.

“In Australia local government bears the responsibility for receiving housing documents like building approvals, so they’re the largest repository of building information. But they don’t use the information, or have any responsibility other than to provide approval to build.”

Another major impediment is a lack of clarity with respect to who may reap the benefits of an electronic building passport system.

“One of the big barriers to moving actually moving forward is being able to quantify what all the benefits actually are, because the benefits accrue to different people,” Miller said. “That means it’s hard to say that it’s worth investing X million dollars in setting up this system. For this reason, we’re continuing work into trying to show what the range of benefits might be.”

A key advantage of an electronic building passport system would be the economisation of data collection, and the removal of the need for multiple redundant assessments of the same property by numerous parties.

“One of the main benefits would be money cost spent on obtaining the data,” said Miller. “A lot of the data is being paid for and generated multiple times – if I’m designing a new house for example, I have to pay for an energy certificate for the performance of that house, and a lot of other information.

“When my financier decides whether to give me a loan for the house, they will have someone else to go create some information, and then when the insurer comes they go and pay for someone else to find that same information

“A lot of the information is being paid for two, three, four or even five times, or every time that a house is sold or leased again.”

Another major benefit would be the streamlining of information flows and data access, permitting both consumers and regulators to be better informed about the condition and qualities of available housing stock.

“There should be a more rapid lodgement and processing time, as well as retrieval of information time, if it were a well-designed electronic system,” said Miller. “This should improve the documentation of housing to give the end consumer better access to information about houses to inform their buying or renting options that would have impacts on their daily running costs.

“It should also lower the cost of any inspections or audits for council or state government that are meant to be ensuring houses are built according to design – if the information about the design is not easily accessible, then it’s harder and more time-consuming for an auditor to say whether or not something does or does not comply.”

Another advantage would be providing a trove of data for enhancing policy decisions with respect to housing by government at various levels.

“We’ve been working with Townsville city council to get a lot of their housing data into an electronic building passport, and then seeing if we can use those data sets to create spatial maps for the council that show in colour the different energy ratings of all the different houses in a given suburb,” said Miller.

“If a council or state government wanted to have an energy efficiency drive rather than a general target market, they can actually have a targeted market of just those houses that are underneath a particular level for example.

“[Electronic building passports] could also be used to know what materials are used in houses, so if there’s an asbestos scare, or a scare over wiring or other building products – all things which have occurred in recent years, you can actually try to find specifically where those places are.”

Miller points to local governments as the best launching point for an electronic building passport system in Australia, given that the remit of their current duties encompasses data collection.

“I think it makes sense that it starts at a local government level, because they’re the ones who have the biggest pieces of information about individual dwellings,” she said. “It makes sense that whatever system is put in place actually utilises that data as a starting point.

“One potential solution I see is that local governments used to and still to some extent do collect information on housing for the Australian Bureau of Statistics – that system could be expanded so that we also capture sustainability related things, like energy efficiency, energy usage, whether they have solar panels, what sort of building materials they’re using.”

When it comes to centralised management of the data, Miller points to the possibility of establishing a federal-level body beneath a Commonwealth department.

“It needs to be something electronic, something that different parties can contribute their databases towards, something that can allow different levels of access to the data for different types of uses,” she said.

“Who would actually own or manage that system would be a little difficult to determine. I think ideally that would be a federal initiative, perhaps not a government department, but something under the auspices of a government department.”