Cool builds

By Carmela Ferraro

Camela Ferraro is an independent journalist, who has written extensively about social issues, Indigenous Australians, the environment and sustainable architecture. Her work has appeared in a number of Australian publications, including The Age, Insight, Sunday Life; the Herald Sun; G magazine; and Inside Story and also overseas newspapers such as the Weekend Financial Times, the Guardian Weekly, the Sunday Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post. 

Apart from looking like it’s been bitten by a monster-sized, slimy-toothed passerby, you may not notice anything unusual about the 41X building among the forest of high rises in Melbourne’s CBD.

But this new kid on the block has cutting-edge pedigree.  It was opened in March this year by none other than the then Governor General Quentin Bryce, and is a Five Star Green Star commercial tower designed by Lyons Architecture for the Architects Institute of Australia (AIA). 

energy efficiency building

41X’s major features are that it’s the first strata title building in Australia to include carbon neutrality as part of its 30- year operational cycle, and it has a charter compelling owners and tenants to commit to this carbon neutral goal.

Residential builds are also pushing boundaries around energy efficiency. In Perth, for example, celebrity gardener Josh Byrne built in 2013 a family home using readily available materials and technologies.  However it has a Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) of 10 - the highest on a scale that starts at zero- and it uses no auxiliary heating or cooling throughout the year.

Energy efficiency in Australia

Undoubtedly, energy efficiency in Australia has become a buzzword. HIA spokesperson Kristin Brookfield, says she has noticed conversations with consumers are becoming greener, while actual demand for such products is growing year by year.

This demand is mainly driven by rising power bills as well as greater awareness about our need to reduce our carbon footprint to future proof the planet.  

In fact, according to Romilly Madew, Chief Executive of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), the built environment has a vital role to play in reducing emissions.  She says residential and commercial buildings account for 23 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse gases. 

Australia has laid the foundations toward energy efficient buildings. We have a minimum six star national program that was introduced in 2009 for all new homes and renovations (except for NSW which uses an equivalent but different measuring program).  In the commercial sector, the 2010 Building Energy Efficiency Disclosure legislation requires most sellers or lessors of office space of 2,000 sqm or over to disclose an up-to-date Building Energy Efficiency Certificate whenever the building changes hands. 

Furthermore Madew says that in the commercial office sector, energy-efficient design is now the norm and 20 per cent of the commercial office space in Sydney’s CBD is Green Star-rated.  

How do we compare to the rest of the world?
Professor Ralph Horne, the Head of Research for the Centre of Design and Social Context at RMIT University, says Australia is at the leading edge of energy efficient design. However Horne says we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to our building regulations, and more needs to be done, especially in the residential sector. 

Xavier Cadorel from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at Melbourne University is conducting research to look at the energy requirements for buildings in Europe.  He says if Australians are wowed by our six star minimum, they should “put the ‘wow’ in their pocket”.    

Cadorel says that Europe’s average is already the equivalent of our eight stars and Europe is pushing for more stringent regulations.  In the UK, for example, all new houses are to have zero emissions by 2016 while France plans to do the same by 2020.  

While the laws are different in each state, if we use Victoria as an example we can see Australian housing is considerably less energy efficient than that of developed countries in Europe: “In Victoria a new house built today consumes about 50% more energy than one in France,” says Cadorel. “This is not sustainable now and certainly won’t be in 20 years time."

A big factor is that Australian homes are the largest in the world. HIA figures, in fact, show new homes have grown from 236 sqm in 2002 to 245 sqm in 2012. Another contributor is the rise of the number of homes with energy guzzling technologies such as air-conditioning. 

According to Tim Adams, principal of F2 Design and former president of the Building Designers Association of Victoria (BDAV), however, Australians can also do a lot with existing standards.

 “The building industry needs to better understand sustainable design and materials, and users need to know how their home works,” says Adams.  “They need to know when to open or close windows, when to draw the blinds, how to shade living areas, rather than just switching on the central heating.”


Future proofing

Despite the criticisms, industry experts are confident that as the pressure to adapt to climate change mounts, Australians are likely to see energy efficiency, especially in the case of sustainable housing, take centre stage in the not-too-distant future.  There is a growing interest in energy efficiency, which experts such as Kristin Brookfield say will continue to grow as the problems posed by climate change become better known and accepted. This means that although it isn’t presently, energy efficient housing will soon be top-of-mind for those purchasing or building property. 

Some of the features that will become commonplace include:  commercial buildings and homes with passive design; a move towards greater consideration of the relationships between buildings and infrastructure including public transport, amenities and services; on-site electricity generation systems using solar, wind and geothermal resources to power our homes and buildings, while also feeding surplus energy into the grid; and battery storage technology.

Given this scenario, it may well be that today’s head-turners like 41X and Josh Byrne’s house could well be the reality for all of us in the near future. 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not  necessarily state or reflect those of Lumo Energy.

Date: 25 July 2014
Category: Energy Facts

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