Building passports could help repair Australia’s energy efficiency bane
The National Energy Efficient Building Project report recently blew the lid on Australia’s culture of poor energy performance across the entire building industry.
There was a raft of suggestions made, with Phase 2 of the project now getting into swing to delve deeper into the issues.
One area standing out as lacking, and to be tackled in Phase 2, is building documentation, with the report finding a high degree of knowledge gaps, rework and unnecessary cost associated with poor access to building documentation through time – particularly around energy performance disclosure – as well as user information not being made available to consumers.
What is needed (aside from accurate and sufficient documentation being created in the first place), the report found, is an efficient, low-cost and secure system for managing access to documentation – an electronic building passport – which will be tackled in Phase 2.
Dr Wendy Miller
Dr Wendy Miller, a senior research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology specialising in built environment sustainability, has performed prior research into the benefits of building passports.
Dr Miller’s research into the Australian building industry’s problems with sustainability has been going on well before the NEEBP report was released, so the results aren’t anything shocking to her. Nor is it a surprise to her that some of the major peak bodies – the Property Council of Australia, Master Builders Australia, Housing Industry Association and Australian Institute of Building Surveyors – have ignored requests for comment from The Fifth Estate.
“For me the biggest problem is that we don’t have a whole of building, whole systems approach,” Dr Miller told The Fifth Estate.
The fact the issue requires a systems approach, she says, might explain why industry is so hesitant to admit to problems or failures in their patch. No one wants to be the first to accept blame because the problems are widespread across the supply chain.
Similar results to the NEEBP project, she said, are found across the industry even when homebuyers are actively looking to create sustainable homes.
“As part of my research I started looking to see if when consumers ask for sustainable housing, will they get what they ask for?”
The results weren’t good.
“Even if consumers demand it there are a lot of holes the industry,” Miller says.
As described in NEEBP results, Miller found product substitution, builders talking clients out of sustainability features and even designers doing the same thing.
“For example, if a homeowner asks for tinted glass in a Queensland climate [a sensible decision, she says] both the builder and designer might say, ‘That’s too expensive.’ It’s shut down. End of conversation. They’re not even giving customers a choice.”
A building passport
While these issues still need to be resolved through whole of system and cultural change, one area Miller is working on that could assist Australia’s building energy efficiency – through increasing product information and accountability – is with building passports.
Whereas a citizen passport records who you are and where you’ve been, and electronic health records allow your information to be brought up regardless of your location, an electronic building passport would allow all the information from a building’s design and construction phases to be made easily available.
When a building is designed and created, information related to it needs to be lodged with a local council, Miller says, with around 150 bits of information that describe how the occupant can live sustainably.
“Most of that information created about a house is not collated in one place,” she says.
In fact, her research mapped how information flowed through the system between designers, builders, councils, regulators and assessors.
None of the information went from the beginning to the end of the supply chain, some stayed within particular relationships, and some of it needed to be created two or three times. It doesn’t sound very efficient.
And end users end up with pretty much none of it.
“My view is that we have all the information people need [to gauge sustainability],” Miller says, “but when you go to the real estate website all you get is the address – that it’s three bedroom, two bathroom, and maybe that it has a northerly aspect.
“Wouldn’t it be great to also be able to log onto the passport of that building and find out, does it have asbestos? Is it insulated?”
The success of such a project would obviously rest on documentation being complete and accurate but Miller’s guess is that 90 per cent of information that would be needed for a building passport already exists, and would be accurate at the time it’s submitted to council.
“It just requires a process whereby the applicant or local council makes sure that information is captured,” she says.
Working with councils
Miller currently has funding to research innovation in sustainable housing and, as part of that, she is working with Townsville Council trialling the adoption of building passports.
“One of the potential advantages for them is they’re leading at spatial mapping, digital mapping,” she says.
So there is great potential for Townsville to use individual building information for smart planning purposes. If they transferred their individual building planning documents over to their spatial mapping, they could see measures of building performance and efficiency across the city, Miller says. This could be overlaid with other demographic data to produce some powerful insights for government bodies and even infrastructure providers.
For example, if energy efficiency data is overlaid with socioeconomic data, targeted sustainability programs could be rolled out for, say, insulation or appliance replacement in low-income households.
The same could be done for electricity distributors. Instead of costly network upgrades, these utilities could look at where the constraints are and maybe see that it overlaps with poor household thermal efficiency in an area. Upgrading building stock here might be a more cost-effective option than network upgrades.
Miller says there are many opportunities for federal, state and local governments, as well as infrastructure providers.
Finance, insurance and valuation sectors could benefit too
The benefits go even wider when taking into account finance, insurance and valuation.
For instance, when a valuer goes to value a property, they’re often making their own assessment from the front driveway rather than looking at existing documentation, Miller says.
“They’ll say ‘three beds, two baths’ rather than from a loan perspective saying, ‘It’s a nine star house, it has low energy costs, and thus better capacity for the applicant to service loan repayments, and the potential resale value is better,’ leading to a better interest rate given.”
For the insurance industry, building insurance products are often based on a postcode rather than a property-specific risk.
“There’s no reason why a policy can’t be created specific to a property,” Miller says, including such information as airtightness and flood proneness.
She says the Insurance Council of Australia is doing work in this area currently. Its Resilience Taskforce is now working on a second beta version of the Building Resilience Rating Tool, which maps how materials and homes respond under extreme weather events, allowing for more targeted insurance policies.
An important benefit of having a building passport would be increased consumer knowledge and protection.
Miller says the end user generally carries all of the risk and blame of a purchasing decision.
“The lack of information about the system means that consumers are making decisions that aren’t based on all of the information that could be provided,” she says.
“You get more information for your iPhone and car than you get for houses.”
Miller says this information is crucial in a market where very little legislative or legal protection exists, particularly around energy performance. For example, it would be very difficult for a person to argue they paid for a six star house but only got a three star one, as state regulators generally only go after structural issues.
It’s another problem for the insurance industry, too. She says she knows of a high-rise on the Gold Coast where all the windows leak and there are expensive claims coming through on wind-driven rain.
Additional documentation could help to resolve these issues.
“We should be having at least air infiltration tests, and thermal imaging as part of the building process, just like you need a structural engineering report, pest control report and glazing safety report.
“I don’t see how hard it would be for the builder to provide a thermal imaging report and an invoice showing things like the classification of insulation and details of the energy efficiency of glass.
“I don’t see why there’s a big industry problem.”
Change in this industry doesn’t come easy, and the usual howls of cost increases and green tape burdens to such a scheme is almost a given.
To those people decrying the cost of improving building energy performance Miller says, “Show me the data that doing sustainability costs more.
“It’s a common excuse across the world, but there’s no data to support it.”
Often what people mean when they talk about cost imposts of sustainability is doing business as usual and tacking it onto the end, which invariably costs more, she says.
“But if they change things at the front it doesn’t have to cost more; in fact it can cost less.”
Miller does admit, however, there will be costs involved in cultural change, and that research was going into how significant these costs could be and how they can be ameliorated and managed over a broad scale.
Privacy is another issue that will need to be teased out with building passport – who should get access to what data.
Research similar to what Miller is doing in Townsville could be rolled out to urban councils like the City of Sydney in Phase 2 of the NEEBP.
Winners of the tender for Phase 2 projects are expected soon