While there has been enormous progress and transformation in the Australian construction, design and engineering sectors over the past 20 years, there has equally been a stubborn tendency for many to cling to business as usual.

(image source: School Infrastructure NSW)

This has made progress challenging, even though the concepts of energy savings, material cost reductions and efficiency gains on site, and environmental sustainability are now commonplace and commonsense.

Cundall was one of the early adopters of energy efficiency and rating tools to drive improvements in the quality of buildings. That included technical modelling for the first chilled beam cooling installations, which helped 30 The Bond achieve the first 5 Star ABGR (now NABERS) base building rating in Australia back in 2005. There were naysayers who said it would not deliver the necessary cooling capacity in Australia’s hot, somewhat humid climate. But the modelling stacked up, and the technology was installed, and the result proved the doubts ill-founded.

In many ways that pioneer project demonstrated that, yes, you can do things slightly differently and get a great result, not only for the building owner but also the tenants.

Around the same time the Building Code of Australia transformed into the National Construction Code, and energy efficiency provisions – Section J – became mandatory for all commercial building projects. Many in the industry thought this requirement would shred the project bottom line, but instead what it did was inspire innovation in design and a new wave of manufacturing of high-performance insulation products, LED lighting systems and smart building management systems.

It meant building services engineers needed to integrate sustainability into their thinking, and sustainability experts needed to embed some engineering approaches into their strategies. This has been a positive shift for the whole industry, with environmental responsibility moving from a set of boardroom aspirations to a practical and achievable set of tools and principles for making buildings perform more efficiently.

The cross-disciplinary approach also generates good out-of-the-box style thinking which provides clients with outcomes and responses that really make projects better.

Responding positively to change

There’s something of a cycle in our industry when it comes to progress. An initiative or idea is proposed, the science is solid, and then the Hanrahan factor (“we’ll all be rooned!”) kicks in. It happens each time the NCC proposes an increase in stringency for energy efficiency, and it definitely features in any public discussion about net zero emissions as the goal for the design, delivery and operations of all buildings.

Meanwhile, those who seize the opportunity to invent solutions are thriving!

The providers of digital solutions for modelling building design and operational performance, for example, are going from strength to strength. We’ve seen NABERS progress from a tool generally used only in major capital cities for large commercial office assets to a benchmarking system that now supports improvement in the performance of asset types including retail, data centres, multi-residential common areas, education buildings and hospitality. It has also expanded its reach internationally to the UK where it will help the British property sector make huge gains in saving energy and driving down emissions.

It has also stimulated the professional development of engineers, sustainability experts, facilities managers and others who have become adept at using modelling and analytics to understand building performance in new ways. This capability also has payoffs for investors and asset owners as it enables us to de-risk inventive decisions and new approaches. The physics is solid – and the modelling helps translate the science into the language of the C-suite. This also helps as we shift to a design-led industry, where there is significant investment of time, effort and expertise in developing detailed design through integrated team approaches anchored in Building Information Modelling (BIM).

Digitial is delivering results

I’m not quite old enough to have used a drawing board, but I did grow up in the AutoCAD world and now Revit’s really taken off. It introduces the whole piece around 3D viewing and 3D designing across the whole team. Now we can use BIM 360, with design teams working from anywhere around the country, which has made a huge difference in terms of coordination and developing design outcomes that are a vast improvement on the days of the drawing board.

But this is also another of those things where parts of the industry are willing to be left behind to save on budget allocated to the design stage, even though this is a false economy. We now have over a decade of project examples showing that the smarts put into digital-first design and developing a safe, sound and efficient construction methodology pay off on site in the form of reduced waste, minimisation of clashes (and the subsequent waste of time and materials required for rework) and the quality of the end result (which means fewer callbacks during the Defects Liability Period).

Smarter approaches to design, specification, collaboration, delivery and commissioning are even more important now that we need to pivot away from gas as business-as-usual in building services to all-electric buildings powered by a decarbonised grid and on-site renewables. This is the next bastion for us in terms of net zero.

The modelling really comes to the fore in this approach, because the passive performance of the building envelope, the way space is oriented and understanding how these will influence energy demand are fundamental to optimising the result.

It’s not like the energy-guzzling era when we just bolted on the biggest badass HVAC and didn’t consider the resulting operational energy costs or associated emissions from energy use. Now it’s all about designing for the most energy-efficient, space-efficient and low-emissions option, and this again is going to generate more innovation, more collaboration at the design end and new products emerging in the supply chain.

The future favours the brave

There are already developers taking the lead on the all-electric approach, and regulators will not be far behind. The rating tools including Green Star and NABERS are also changing in ways that will discourage gas, and the new iteration of the NCC with the whole home energy budget is a step towards a future code that will hopefully make all-electric a requirement for Deemed-to-Satisfy solutions.

And, like prior changes that have made our industry better and improved the outcome for clients and end users, there will inevitably be pushback. There has already been pushback on the whole home energy budget and slight increases to the stringency of Section J in NCC 2022.

But here’s the thing – already there’s a rapidly growing share of work for engineers, trades and architects in retrofits, repositioning and upgrading of legacy buildings to bring them up to scratch in a market where tenants and owners expect better buildings. And any leasing agent or due diligence expert can tell you that unless a new project is ready for net zero, it’s going to be a tough sell.

This is an evolutionary moment for our industry, and if we can collectively seize the opportunity to shift from incremental (and contested) progress to instead making net zero the new business as usual, our people, our clients and our bottom lines will thrive.


By Garrit Schot, Managing Director (Australia), Cundall


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