Hey home builders, would you like half a billion dollars?

This isn’t an offer to you personally – you’ll have to share it with the rest of the sector – but it’s still worth having. And if it comes with a side order of increased health and happiness for home occupants, who in their right minds is going to turn it down?

As building professionals, you’ll be familiar with broad concepts for sustainable homes, including high energy efficiency, low environmental impact, low-energy, zero-energy and zero-carbon ready. You’ll know that a sustainable home is one that requires less energy to heat and cool, and so is cheaper to run. And you’d be aware that a sustainable home also enhances occupant comfort, health and is resilient to climate and weather extremes.

If Australia’s current population trends continue, by 2050 there will be up to 37.6 million of us. All these people need to live somewhere, so we’ll be building homes like it’s going out of fashion: around 197,000 per year to keep up with demand.  There’s a good business case for both the industry and the community to build them sustainably.

CSIRO modelling has found that $612 million of extra investment could be delivered to the construction industry, along with 7,000 new jobs, if we were to follow a Roadmap of voluntary measures to accelerate Australia’s transition to sustainable homes by 2030.

And then there’s the additional money to be saved on energy bills by householders – estimated by CSIRO at $600 million by 2030 – on top of findings that sustainable homes also make us happier and healthier.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) worked with Climateworks Australia to produce Built to Perform: An Industry Led Pathway to a Zero Carbon Ready Building Code. This report outlines how strengthening the minimum energy performance required by National Construction Code, will reduce stress on our electricity network and provide the cheapest pathway to lowering emissions, while also delivering cost savings to households and businesses.

Governments are now on board. Early this year, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council agreed to a Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings, a national strategy that maps the way towards a low energy residential sector. The ‘trajectory’ concept is important; if industry players know the future policy direction for improved energy efficiency standards, they can prepare for change more rapidly and with more confidence. In other words, we can have tomorrow’s houses today.

Volume builders are best placed to tap into the ready market for sustainable homes if they establish supply chains and via the low energy pathway. A standardised home package with embedded sustainability attributes, delivered at scale, could start the trend that shifts the rest of the housing market!

In the past, some in the building industry have suggested that sustainability measures are too expensive and not desired by home buyers. But research with Australian home buyers shows there is an increasing market demand and willingness to pay for sustainable homes. Consumers value what sustainability measures deliver, such as comfort, health, and lower bills.

So, if we can see a future of bright, energy efficient homes on the horizon, how do we get from here to there? ASBEC and the CRC for Low Carbon Living have released a Roadmap entitled Growing the market for sustainable homes that outlines the elements required to transition the housing market.

First, we must differentiate sustainable housing in the market. That means explaining the benefits in user friendly terminology that people can actually understand. Physical demonstrations, like show homes, help to make the difference real to homebuyers. When it comes to purchasing a home, sustainable features need to be incorporated into standard whole-house package options that buyers can easily choose, rather than treat it as an upgrade competing with granite benchtops.

We also need to train and reward our construction industry. This involves certificates of competency in areas like installing insulation or confirming adequate air sealing. In turn, we should reward owners and builders who use tradespeople with these qualifications, so that they become synonymous with quality.

Building awareness of sustainable features is also crucial. This means not just talking about the technology, but about using role models who help us to identify with these attributes, whether via traditional broadcast media or online. This kind of ‘social validation’ by celebrities makes these technologies and processes the norm. Similarly, on social media, peer to peer support will help to create a climate where sustainable building features are desirable. (Zero Carbon Homes of Instagram, anyone?)

The valuation and finance sector has a role to play here too, ensuring sustainable homes are appropriately embedded into property valuation methods and lending limits.  Specifically targeted financial incentives for home builders, including low-interest loans, are also important to recognise and reward higher performing homes. ANZ has already launched a ‘Healthy Home Loan Package’ in New Zealand – with waived fees and interest rate discounts – and the Australian finance sector is exploring what can be done here.

Sustainable homes are no longer a niche concern for wealthy environmentalists, but a potential goldmine for our building industry and our wider economy. Those in the industry who start off down the path to sustainable homes will surely reap the rewards – as will the people who call them home.