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.