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    Australia’s Building Code sub-standard and poorly implemented, says government report

    Nathan Johnson

    A national investigation has concluded the National Construction Code (NCC) is failing to encourage the delivery of energy efficient buildings of an appropriate standard.

    Commissioned by the South Australian Department of State Development on behalf of the federal government, and conducted by Pitt&Sherry and Swinburne University, the National Energy Efficient Building Project review began in light of concerns that compliance with existing energy efficiency requirements in the NCC was poor. 

    The review engaged over 1000 stakeholders across a broad cross section of industry and considers all building types, although the conclusions are heavily weighted towards residential buildings.

    The results have been made public in a 250 page document and conclude that the NCC and its regulatory enforcement  in its current form fails to encourage the delivery of energy efficient buildings up to an appropriate standard.

    The Australian Institute of Architects has welcomed the report and commented on a number of details, for example supporting recommendations to conduct mandatory inspections of a building’s energy efficiency. (Read more below).

    Key findings

    While there were some positives regarding the uptake of solar energy technologies and the increasing availability and affordable prices of high star rating/zero net energy homes, a very large number of stakeholders were concerned about the poor implementation of the NCC energy efficiency requirements, while others thought those requirements were lacking.

    The review says the implementation issue appears systemic and involves a number of parties on the supply chain including enforcement bodies right down to the consumer.

    The report noted that enforcement of the NCC went basically nowhere beyond the design certification stage and that this was due to funding shortages for proper building audits and the low prioritisation of energy efficiency performance  by state building commissions.

    Non-Compliance is too easy, encouraged and mostly after design certification

    The report suggested that slimmer margins were encouraging builders and tradesman to cut corners or use sub-standard products and materials for construction.

    According to the report, costs and a competitive market also affect the role of energy assessors and building surveyors who have to compete against others who will give generous assessments to land jobs and avoid developing a reputation for being “difficult”.

    It also suggested that consumers were either unaware of the basic physics of thermal comfort (and therefore heedless to whether their building was performing as designed) or preferred to pay for a particular “look” rather than an energy efficient design. This makes selling sustainable building measures to a client more difficult for architects and cutting corners (and costs) easier for builders and tradesman.

    Design professionals that were interviewed noted that the implementation of their design was basically out of their control once it was council certified and that they were frequently disregarded:

     “A key view expressed to the review team is that the industry perceives little risk that cutting corners on energy performance will be discovered or, if it is, that there will be any serious consequences,” says the report.

    “…designers were often critical of the attitudes encountered in the supply chain… in particular the frequency with which builders, and/or their clients, remove energy efficiency features or designs either before or after certification of designs. They also reported widespread substitution of efficiency products and features post certification.”

    Other NCC issues

    The NCC itself was expressed as problematic for some stakeholders and the report concluded that:

    • Many state and territory variations and additions to energy performance requirements are viewed as poorly justified, and in particular lack evidence of equivalence with Code provisions;
    • The focus on the energy performance of buildings ‘as designed’ rather than ‘as built’ encourages the regulatory system to focus on documentation rather than actual buildings;
    • Deemed to satisfy and modelled solutions are widely believed to lead to different and non‐equivalent outcomes (with each path having its supporters and detractors);
    • There are many perceived gaps in the Code’s coverage (that are relevant to energy performance) including commissioning, maintenance, building documentation, air tightness/ventilation and coverage of existing buildings;
    • Many find the Code complex and confusing, while its cost (along with that of supporting Australian Standards) is reported to be a significant barrier to access, particularly for smaller companies/tradespeople.

    Related: Australian sustainable building movement hindered by government inaction and profit motive


    Australian Institute of Architects comment

    David Parken, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), believes the report was a timely, thorough and useful document.

    He told The Fifth Estate the issues were complex and interrelated, and that all key stakeholders, including architects, had a responsibility to do better.

    Parken said he supported the review’s recommendations to conduct mandatory inspections of the energy efficiency features and inclusions of buildings in the future as well as the prescribed consumer awareness campaign.

    While not confident it’s all going to change, Parken did mention that striking an even balance between regulation and education would best bring Australia up to the standard of energy efficient buildings that it can afford.

    Within the review, an extensive list of recommendations was constructed in order to address the problems mentioned, including both short-term and long-term measures.

    This included the as-mentioned mandatory inspections and consumer awareness campaigns but also included a more comprehensive documentation of the benefits and costs associated with building energy efficiency regulation.

    Is NSW leading the way with new and improved compliance practices?

    The recent changes to the NSW Home Building Act that came into effect 15 January 2015 might also offer an insight into a potential solution for the issue of cutting corners and poor implementation.

    The new Act requires builders to provide a schedule of progress payments for all contracts over $20,000, and for those payments to be either specifically linked to completion of specific stages of work or for costs already incurred, (and be supported by invoices or receipts).

    Could this be a method for ensuring the right product and its implementation is delivered? If the energy efficiency requirements in the NCC aren’t met as they are scheduled then could a client potentially refuse to pay? Let us know what you think?

    The entire document is available for download here:

     

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