Is ‘sustainability’ important for Australia’s residential buildings?

If you think it is, you’re not alone. Many in the building industry believe sustainability is crucial. Homebuyers and investors agree. But what does ‘sustainability’ actually mean, and how do we measure it?

Unfortunately, right now there’s no consistent, Australia-wide method of specifying exactly what sustainability means in practice and how it can be measured.

We do know that sustainable housing is hugely important in terms of opportunities to save water, waste and energy. For example, ASBEC’s Second Plank Update report found that the building sector contributed over 23 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, with residential buildings responsible for 13 per cent. It’s clear that addressing energy efficiency in our residential sector offers huge opportunities to reduce Australia’s overall emissions.

When it comes to implementing and measuring sustainability, however, the building industry faces regulatory confusion. The National Energy Efficiency Buildings report, released in late 2014, consulted stakeholders and policymakers from across Australia’s building industry about their experience with sustainability.

The report found some very positive trends in energy efficiency in Australia’s building industry. High star rating and zero net energy homes were becoming more available and more affordable. Take-up of rooftop solar installations was increasing among homeowners. Trainees and apprentices were showing more knowledge and interest in sustainable technologies.

Overall, however, the report found that Australia is falling well short of its sustainability potential. Stakeholders were concerned that compliance with the National Construction Code’s energy performance requirements is generally poor, and that the energy performance of our homes is a long way from best practice. Homeowners and occupiers therefore face higher energy use, emissions and overall costs than they need to, with these costs effectively locked in for the life of the building.

So how can this be addressed?

Fortunately, the building sector is largely united about what is needed and how it should be achieved. ASBEC’s Industry Roadmap for Net Zero Emission Homes, and a series of industry roundtables on sustainable housing, found that representatives from across the Australian residential building industry had two very clear asks around sustainability.

The first was the development of a new national home sustainability rating scheme, covering energy, greenhouse and water performance. This would allow the sustainability approach to be broadened beyond ‘low carbon’ homes to ‘low impact’ homes, giving potential buyers a much clearer picture of a building’s environmental performance and lifetime running costs.

The second recommendation made by industry stakeholders was to harmonise requirements across Australia so that assessment, implementation and compliance were uniform across the nation.

A broadened and harmonised national rating scheme for sustainable housing would enable industry to demonstrate the benefits that accrue from different choices in design and material choice and would also help to facilitate consumers to engage with sustainability measures and demand more sustainable housing.

Sustainable technologies are a crucial part of increasing the sustainability of Australia’s housing stock, but without the regulatory framework to underpin them and understand their performance, these developments are not enough.

We need all Australian states to speak the same language when it comes to housing sustainability, and to use the same scheme to determine just how sustainable a home is, with the same measures for ensuring compliance. Only then will we truly agree on what it means to have ‘sustainable’ homes in Australia.

  • Whilst national standards are a starting point there is a real danger of heading to the lowest common denominator – with average outcomes. Frankly any improvement to the current housing stock would be a good move. Innovative ideas need to be encouraged.

    The basic problem is a lack of knowledge amongst the professions and within the wider community even though many of the sustainability concepts are very simple: like facing buildings in the right direction or maximising the amount of thermal mass, insulation, ventilation and natural lighting.

    Another problem occurs with developers. They develop houses and apartments for sale or lease and typically they see no advantage in implementing measures to reduce the running costs or improve the comfort levels. Meantime much of the buying public is not savvy enough to appreciate the real advantages of sustainable buildings.

  • Home purchasers having meaningful and credible information about the quality, environmental impact and operating costs of the houses they are buying is definitely a good starting point. We need both state and federal government to lift the bar in relation to informing consumers of the advantages more sustainable housing delivers to householders, wider society and our environment.

    I see most Australians are left being told that a 'Star' based energy rating is a measure of sustainability performance – allowing them to feel comfortable with their purchasing decision being a responsible environmental choice. The reality is that current energy ratings do nothing more than improve the thermal performance of the building envelope, basically just making sure our houses are insulated to a base level. To create a more informed market, we need to ensuring we can offer, and effectively communicate, a more comprehensive sustainability assessment for house purchasers.

    While our energy rating regulations are an excellent first step in improving the quality of Australian houses, it is time we had some leadership on offering consumers better information on the houses they are buying.

  • Amazing … we still haven't got an agreed definition of what "sustainable" is! We need to get the politics and emotions out of the discussion so that we can agree on a clear set of metrics. All too often what's heard in this space is marketing spin to appease consumerism guilt. Many thanks for posting the article.

    • think most people understand the broader definition of what "sustainable" is and understand that we are living on a planet with finite capacity to deal with our unsustainable actions. The problem comes with people then jump to what a "sustainable" building is.
      That's when you get hundreds of different rating systems and beliefs popping often contradicting and conflicting with each other and more generally missing the end target of looking after the planet.
      Couldn't agree more with Martin that if you take the politics, emotions and vested interests out you can end up with really clear set of metrics and a clear path way of achieving them. Without sorting this first the "green" building space will just keep running around in circles claiming "sustainability" without ever really quantifying it.
      Please have a look at CEN T350 and EN15978 as well as ISO standards on sustainable buildings. I know standards are incredibly dry but it's because they take the fluff and emotion out of it and just lay out a logical and scientific approach to what ultimately is a logical and scientific issue. I should clarify I'm referring to environmental sustainability not social sustainability here but I'm not sure in Australia if we should be worried too much about the built environment and social sustainability.

  • Having read the recent article in The Age about housing options I was struck that no one considered that people sharing houses was a path towards more sustainable housing. More people in each house reduces the amount of infrastructure required, it also has a positive affect on well-being. Rather then reducing welfare payments when people share, we should be considering at least par with singles or even some extra benefit (as in the longer term we will save as a community.

  • I think Alex makes a good basic point. All our housing still has a significant environmental impact and are far from sustainable. As such we are much more on a journey towards sustainability.

    At Habitech, we make a point of using the term 'more sustainable' to acknowledge this. Having developed a modular approach to construction based on a cradle-to cradle structure, we have set ourselves a goal of developing smarter manufactured building components with the ability to one day have a positive environmental impact in their production – at which stage the 'sustainable' might be properly applied.

    If we are going to trade on Australian smarts in future economies, we need to start setting some more visionary stretch targets for ourselves. The way the UK is instigating carbon neutral buildings through it's building codes shows how far ahead the rest of the world is in educating and communicating with their housing markets. Clear graphical and concise, it isn't hard

  • I agree Alex; There are plenty tested standards to work with. In EU, since 2002, the housing energy efficency is measured and rated. Each country uses their own software packages but they use the same core, so a Spanish can understand perfectly a German EEC and viceversa.

    Standards as LEED, BREAM, P.H… are good to mark the path to follow, but in oder to measure the energy efficency and how to rate it, the adoption of proven international standards is a MUST.

  • That's why we follow the international passive house standard in our Superpod building designs. There is nothing better as a starting point. Get your building envelope modelled using building physics to see how much energy it needs – and design a building that needs near zero energy.

    once you get that right you can of course add other sustainability measures, etc.

    It has been going since 1990 and is extremely clear in terms of results.

    Given that a third of the world's carbon emissions are from our building operations, we just have to get this right. there is no way around it…

    • Hi Fiona; Don't you think that P.H. is a little bit expensive in order to apply it to ALL buildings to be built in the next, let's say, 10 years?

      Here in Spain just a bunch of buildings got the A label (European energy efficency standard labeling), all of them build with German P.H. standard (it is a huge achivement for the creators of this standard) but all these buildings are luxury buildings, their owners can pay what the P.H. design and building cost but most of these 33% of emissions comes from common housing with common owners. Can all the new buildings be rised (public protection, common and luxury) be build with P.H. standard? who will assume the cost?

      European directives mark 2020 as legal deadline to build with carbon net balance, let's assume the whole world takes same direction, can property industry take this rise of prices?

    • Hi Marc
      Yes I think we can deal with price. But I am not meaning all houses must be PH – just that my business will build passive houses. That is what I personally believe in and I think that energy efficiency must be the starting point for sustainable building.

      Another thought I have is that all buildings should be modelled using PH program so you can see how much energy they will use and what their efficiency will be.

      Cost should not be an issue if more people do it or govt mandates it – or subsidises it.

      But when it is mandated maybe prices come down, or industries rise up (benefit to economy) or houses get smaller, etc.

      Eg in Australia we build the biggest houses in the world. If we built smaller houses we could get better quality! Same price. Different lifestyle.

      Anyway we (Superpod) are offering a fast panel system which should at least for multi level buildings actually be cheaper because we have been innovative re materials.

      Worth batting on!!!

    • Hi again Fiona;

      With my experience as engineering consultant and energy efficency auditor, I've seen 80's apartments (90 m^2 average) that can save up to 73% of energy with proper isolation, thermal bridge broking window frames, good double glazing and aerothermal A++ air conditioning/heat. But an investment of 17000€ aprox. is not afordable for all pockets. All EU governments have subside programs to help people with this issues but with the present WFC is hard to handle them.

      Of course, reworking projects are a bussines cluster that can help to rise the economy, but by now it has a very low effect.

  • The topic of sustainable housing seems to be gaining profile amongst builders and buyers. Exactly what the term means, I think, is still fluid in many people's minds. Is it because of the building materials? Is it due to the low energy demand due to efficient devices being used? Jenni raises a good point about the occupancy density. It would seem logical to think that if two similar houses were compared, the one with the higher number of occupants could score higher on a sustainability index. I'm curious to see where the discussion about a national code of sustainable housing might lead due a personal project that has just started. My goal is to build 3 cutting edge, sustainable homes for couples (like my wife and I) that are downsizing from a traditional family home. Since the homes will be built on a suburban block, creating a sense of community with shared spaces and resources is an integral part of the design.

  • Helping new home buyers save time, money and make the right decisions.

    No wonder regular home buyers are confused and find it all a bit too hard. No disrespect intended but after reading these comments my brain almost exploded and I'm in the industry.

    This is a challenge for us as a nation to get our heads around how we should be building for the 21st century.

    • Good point Jennifer!

      I'm keen on passive house for that reason too.

      How warm/cool will my house/apartment be?
      How much power will it use?

      The beauty is you will get simple answers…

  • I would hate to see a completely homogonised National scheme for sustainability that prescribed a single approach! That is essentially the actual problem! A house designed for Melbourne will be inadequate in North Queensland and vice versa … the only way that you can achieve a design like that is to deliver to the client a house that is an esky and is climate-controlled through indoor temperature with air-con and this is essentially also not sustainable! So, if the goal is for energy-efficient, lifestyle-friendly, climate-friendly buildings, regional variations will need to be understood and implemented and essentially every building will need to be designed with a scheme that is not homogoneous and will need site-specific information, material rating systems that include recyclability , flexibility, adaptability and DESIGN! Now that would be good!

  • We actually all do know what sustainability means in real practical terms. My work on getting stakeholder groups together to weight the relative importance of different sustainability impact categories proves it again and again – the weightings are astonishingly consistent between stakeholders, over time (first survey 1997 UK) regardless of demographic (age, sex, income), between countries, (UK, US, NZ 5 Cities, Au 11 Cities, 8 Climate Zones, evert State and Territory). The only thing I haven't done is developing countries and there I would expect some major differences.

    Second, sustainable design done properly is devilishly complex because everything is interelated and even the best design teams are nothing like as good at it as they think they are. My own work on developing the ENVEST LCA design tool (will I ever finish it) has gone on (and off) for 20 years and it throws up astonishing insights and surprises every time I use it. The key thing that makes it different is how comprehensively linked up it is, so that all the consequences of every decision get revealed.