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The Need for Energy-Efficient Housing


Australian households are paying the highest electricity prices in the world, according to Markintell, the US Energy Information Administration, with South Australia taking out the dubious top spot paying 47.13 cents per kWh. NSW (39.10 cent), Queensland (35.69 cents) and Victoria (34.66 cents) also make the top ten. It is little wonder that rising electricity prices, their possible regulation, and the Finkel Report are currently dominating the political agenda.

Running in parallel is an increased focus on affordable housing and around 18,000 new dwellings being approved each month. Newly build homes need to comply with Australia’s National Construction Code (NCC) which contains the technical design and construction requirements for all new buildings in Australia, including requirements for energy efficiency. At the moment, the minimum rating set for new buildings is six stars. Effectively, the higher the star rating, the more energy-efficient it is, and the less home owners have to pay for electrical heating and cooling. A 10 star home should require no heating or cooling whatsoever.

The first 10 star home
to be built in Victoria has been recently achieved by Clare Cousins Architects with The Sociable Weaver. It was built in Cape Paterson, featuring thermal mass industrial concrete flooring, under slab insulation, FSC hardwood double glazed windows, Phase Change Material insulation (new technology), photovoltaic solar and LED lighting. The home is estimated to cost a mere $3 per year to run.  

The first 10 star home to be built in Victoria is estimated to cost a mere $3 per year to run.   

The Australian Government’s Sustainable Building Guide entitled Your Home estimates heating and cooling accounts for 40 per cent of household energy use, making it the largest energy user in the average Australian home. It goes on to suggest “very little energy is required to make a well-designed house comfortable, and mechanical heating and cooling should never be used as a substitute for good design.”

When viewed holistically, these statistics point to a compelling case for increasing the energy efficiency rating in new-build Australian homes, but there would seem to be little appetite within the industry to move to a higher rating. Is there an increased cost to the construction industry to achieve a higher rating, which would thus reduce housing affordability even further in Australia?  

According to Tim Adams, Principal of F2 Design, building designer and former president of the Building Designers Association of Victoria (BDAV), there is a premium cost to achieving a 10 star rating. However, a slightly lower rating can be achieved for a cost comparable to current new home builds: “I don’t think we need to all go to a 10 star rating as there is a cost to that in terms of housing affordability for volume building. On the other hand, in order to  achieve a slightly lower energy efficiency rating of 8.5 stars, it all comes down to design elements, such as orientation, window placement, passive solar capability, and airflow, for warmer climates.

“It is relatively easy to pitch a bit below 10 stars, and with the current price of photovoltaic panels, households can harness solar power to run good quality ducted air for heating and cooling,” he says.

As the President of BDAV, Adams was instrumental in launching the 10 star challenge, a contest to get building designers and energy raters to go through the process of designing a 10 star house to gain an understanding of what it takes to create it, with the view that designing a 8 or 9 star home would be much easier in the future. He believes the lack of higher rated energy-efficient homes is due to the current lack of industry knowledge on the subject. The 10 star challenge was BDAV’s effort to deliver that knowledge.

“There is still huge inertia within the Industry, but some volume builders, such as Henley Homes in Victoria, are already incorporating energy-efficient design,” says Adams.

The Housing Industry Association refuses to be drawn on the likelihood of increasing the energy efficiency of volume built homes or to comment on whether there is a cost implication in terms of housing affordability, preferring instead to couch its position in more general terms.

“It is overly simplistic in our view to link the rising household energy bills to just the heating and cooling of the house, where power usage is influenced to a larger extent by the use of appliances within the houses including computers, tvs, fridges, dryers, and other,” say Simon Croft, Executive Director, Building Ppolicy at HIA. “A newly built home to these (current) standards provides a significantly better performing and more comfortable home to live in than the large majority of existing housing stock, even houses built just 10 years ago.

“It is overly simplistic in our view to link the rising household energy bills to just the heating and cooling of the house" 

“The current minimum standard provides for a sound basis for the delivery of good performing energy-efficient home. Home owners always have the ability to choose a design of a home that goes beyond the minimum standard, and builders can provide it,” he continues.

With the public appetite to reduce the power bills and a simple cost-effective design solution available, there is a good opportunity for the building industry to deliver and market to those customers. Tim Adams of F2 explains: “The demand for higher-rated energy-efficient house can be driven from both ends. The public needs to demand it, and builders need to have the knowledge to deliver it.”

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