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    Australian sustainable building movement hindered by government inaction and profit motive

    Nathan Johnson

    A cultural shift for Australia towards sustainable building practices would be quickened by government subsidies, more international environmental building products in the market and a Belgium-like building and products standards system.

    This is the opinion of German-born Australian builder, Bernward Buchler, who believes Australians have developed a dangerous belief that their building and product manufacturing processes always follow best practice.

    “The biggest problem in Australia is a cultural one,” he said.

    “Australians think that everything they do is best practice and this is fed to them by politicians as well, but when you look into the details you begin to realise that this is definitely not the case.”

    Buchler designs his projects according to PassivHaus standards, a German-born building performance standard which ensures a tightly sealed, insulated building envelope through use of heavily glazed windows (double or triple) and insulation products.

    According Buchler, the PassivHaus standard is made more difficult to achieve in Australia by a shortage of appropriate Australian made products as well as the unwillingness from some building certifiers to recognise European product certification.

    Monopolies and encouraging new discourse

    Camden Passivhaus in London used triple glazing wood cassette windows from Bayer, similar products aren't as readily available to the Australian market. Image: Bere:Architects, UK

    While Buchler admits to using Australian products where possible, he almost always imports glass windows and doors for his projects from European manufacturers. 

    “When I last checked, all the glass manufacturing plants in Australia are owned by CSR (CSR Viridian Limited) who have a monopoly on the glass market,” he explained.

    “So why should CSR reinvest its money in new plants and producing better quality glass when they own all of the market and have no competition?

    “This problem can only be addressed by bringing in products that have better value for quality so that Australian manufacturers will have no choice but to compete against them.”

    Buchler uses Pural 090 ES from German company Mestre Raposa. They can achieve Uw 0.67 W/(m²K) EC standard.

    But CSR Viridian marketing manager Lachlan Austin rejects the notion that Australian glass manufacturers are to blame for the shortage of affordable double glazing units on the market. His company makes them, he says, but they just aren’t as popular with builders and developers.

    “We’re are a long way from being a monopoly in the market, yes we are the only manufacturing company that creates glass from sand in Australia but we only have a 30 per cent market share of processed glass in the country,” he said.

    “We sell our glass to a window maker who sells it to a builder who ultimately sells it to a consumer. So even if the consumer wants our double glazing units, they can’t get access to it unless the window makers pick it up.”

    "And on the issue of product innovations, we're continuously releasing new products, like SmartGlass and LightBridge with the express purpose of lifting the standard of glazing in Australia."

    Viridian’s LightBridge double glazing cassettes rival European products in terms of U-Values, but are also manufactured in Australia and for our climate. Image: Viridian website.

    But Buchler doesn’t blame the manufacturers who he says are just operating on the principles of supply and demand.

    “The other thing is that the Australian sustainable market is so miniscule that it’s not worthwhile for manufacturers to invest in it,” he said.

    “They would just say, ‘there’s no market so what’s the incentive?’”

    In a way Austin agrees with this:

    “Over 85 per cent of windows going into Australian homes at the moment are single glazing so window fabricators view double glazing as a premium product and market it as a Lexus even though on a global standard it might be a Camry at best,” he explained. 

    Key problems for Buchler are that our standards for new buildings aren’t weighted towards sustainable practices enough and that government subsidies to encourage green building construction are too few.

    “This all stems from government attitudes towards subsidies and making sustainability a bigger part of our construction standards and culture,” he explained.

    “In Belgium all new houses must be designed to PassivHaus standards and in Germany it’s getting very close as well.

    “These places can create affordable sustainable buildings because people are given the subsidies needed to achieve that standard and there is a competitive market for the products.

    “Especially with the government at the moment, it is going to take a long time before we get close to developing an Australian building standard with good sustainability measures.”

    Buchler highlighted how 20 years ago the German government offered subsidies to people who double glazed their homes, and more recently to people who set up solar power.

    He said these subsidies had a widespread cultural effect from which the subsidies have now grown to incorporate rental property owners and developers.

    Building Certifiers

    Another issue that Buchler touched on is the unwillingness from Australian building certifiers to recognise the performance standards of imported products.

    “European countries and Australia do have a relationship that recognises each other’s testing authorities for product performance,” he said. 

    “But there is a small print that says Australian building certifiers don’t have to accept the European testing results—they’re allowed to but it doesn’t mean they have to.

    “This means that you have to spend a lot of money, sometimes up to $20,000, to have them come and test your European product according to Australian standards.”

    He also said our Australian testing authorities aren’t up to scratch either.

    “Out of my own experience, Australian testing authorities are very slack,” he continued.

    “For example we had our windows tested and I wondered why we had very bad air infiltration values according to Australian tests but not with German ones.”

    “I asked the testing authorities how often they calibrated their tools and they said ‘once a year’. In Germany we do that once a week.”

    Aesthetics and profit over comfort:

    EntreEncinas Passivhaus by DUQUEYZAMORA arquitectos proves that aesthetics needn’t be sacrificed for comfort and vice versa. Image: Web

    Buchler says that Australians design for aesthetics and with a five year investment in mind rather than for a lifetime of comfortable living.

    “All my clients would rather spend their money on aesthetics rather than something useful because hardly any Australians have actually lived in a comfortable house; they don’t know what they are missing out on,” he said.

    “They grew up in drafty houses with no insulation and when winter comes they just turn on the bar heater and put on an electric blanket and think that’s life.”

    Whereas in Europe they design for sustainability, longevity and a healthy internal living space:

    “Europeans spend more money for extra comfort and for a healthier house, they are less toxic, have cleaner air and no mould,” he explained.

    “In Europe people build their homes with plans to live in it their whole life while in Australia everything is done with four or five year plans.

    “Like Australian politicians who get nothing done in their four year term, five years is too short to measure an investment for your house.”

    Austin differs slightly in his reasoning for why Australia isn’t seeing the consumer uptake of environmental products that European countries are.

    He says that there is a countervailing force within the building market that runs contrary to the Australian consumer’s desire to live in open, airy, sunlit spaces. He pointed to a joint study by BIS Shrapnel and the Australian Window Association in Victoria which showed that even though people are willing to pay premium for a house with more and better windows, construction trends show a dangerous drop in the percentage of glazing used in Victorian homes.

    “In Victoria for example, the glazed areas of homes have dropped 16 per cent in terms of window to floor area ratio,” he said.

    “If builders and developers continue to use less and less glazing in their buildings then the scale efficiency of producing good products for us is threatened. This is the countervailing force. ”

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