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    Is it time we tackled under-compliance in the residential building industry?

    Nicholas Rider

    It is no secret that Australia’s residential building industry is under-complying. This is backed by industry leaders and a spectrum of reports, programs and initiatives.  

    Australian Living’s marketing and communications manager, Anthony Lieberman, believes that “the Australian homebuilding industry is realistically being let down”.

    “There’s a lot of silos. It’s very fragmented. It’s quite uneducated around compliance levels: in New South Wales, to BASIX, and across Australia, to NatHERS,” he says.

    Doctor Trivess Moore, research fellow at RMIT University, agrees.

    “I think there is a case to be made that there is a significant under-compliance problem across the residential sector, particularly when it comes to meeting minimum NatHERS requirements,” he says.

    “It is too easy for people to game the system and then not deliver on what is required.”

    In terms of initiatives, the National Energy Efficient Building Project (NEEBP) commenced in 2012 with the aim of supporting consumers, government and industry to achieve better energy efficiency in new buildings, renovations and additions. Led by South Australia’s Department of State Development, NEEBP is co-funded by all Australian states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council.

    “I think [the NEEBP] really ignited the conversation about the issue of performance and compliance well before it became a headline sort of thing,” says Suzanne Toumbourou, executive director at Australian Sustainable Built Environment (ASBEC).

    Phase One of the NEEBP involved a national review of key process weaknesses and points of non-compliance with the energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code (NCC). On the other hand, Phase Two aimed to develop and pilot a practical ‘as built’ inspection process to validate compliance with the energy efficiency provisions of the NCC.

    A further initiative is the National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP) from the COAG Energy Council. The plan was established in 2015 to improve Australia’s energy productivity by 40 percent over the next 15 years. While COAG’s plan is broader than just the built environment, one of its measures covers improving residential building energy ratings and disclosure. Another measure identifies improving compliance with building energy efficiency regulation.

    While governments can implement legislation and penalties to address this, Lieberman says the industry should be complying without these set guidelines. It is then an educated workforce that will reap the benefits and create a well-informed culture in the long-term.

    An educated workforce will ensure that everyone in the industry is aware of the whole homebuilding process, and the collaborative role each individual plays in achieving a compliant build or one that goes beyond.

    According to Lieberman, Australian Living believes there’s around 10 percent of the industry already “getting this and doing this really well”.

    “We need to spread what they’re doing out to the 90 percent where there’s question marks,” he says.

    “We need to get designers, builders, tradesman and installers on the same page in terms of what we need to do as a country to meet our targets. They don’t need to be overly passionate about sustainability. They just need to do their job, and do it well.”

    “It’s also important to educate and empower the homeowner.”

    The need for an educated and collaborative workforce is emphasised in the findings of NEEBP’s Phase One. For example, among the stakeholders consulted in the study, designers noted that builders and/or their clients frequently remove energy efficiency features either prior or after certification of designs. Builders and energy assessors also often criticised designers for preparing plans and specifications with a lack of detail.

    Furthermore, the stakeholders explained that residential consumers – particularly first home buyers – lacked an understanding of the basic physics of thermal comfort. This means “they have limited ability to discern sound from unsound advice and limited willingness to pay for energy efficient designs and inclusions”. 

    One such initiative taking on this issue is Australian Living’s Educate 1000 Campaign. As part of the campaign, seminars will be held around Australia until November 2018, aiming to educate 1,000 people about quality high performing homes. The campaign started in September 2017.

    These seminars will bring everyone involved in the building process together, including architects, building designers, builders, trades, consultants and home owners – emphasising the importance of collaboration.

    “We’re focusing on three pillars – performance, collaboration and compliance – in the homebuilding industry,” says Lieberman.

    “What we’re trying to say through this campaign is: if, as a country, we need get to net zero emissions by 2050, let’s upskill everyone in the value chain to ensure they can meet the requirements.” 

    Experts in the field will present to the attendees, talking openly about how performance can be optimised and how the industry can go beyond.

    While Australian Living is the only company providing these types of seminars, Lieberman assures that the beliefs behind the campaign is not “[an] Australian Living way by any means”. 

    “[From our building experience] we know where the problems are. Let’s just get out there and start [fixing] it.” 

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