Tony O’Connell used to build what­ev­er was put in front of him. The 53-year-old from Won­thag­gi, a coastal town in Gipp­s­land, Vic­to­ria, has been in con­struc­tion for 34 years. What was on the plan was what was on the plan,” he says. I wouldn’t ques­tion it.”

That is, until he attend­ed a meet­ing for a pro­posed devel­op­ment in the area – one of a num­ber of locals gear­ing up to run the inter­lop­ers out of town.

We all went along think­ing, yep, it’s going to be a green­wash and just some­one else doing a cook­ie-cut­ter devel­op­ment to cut our love­ly lit­tle town up,” O’Connell says.

But he left think­ing they might have a point. More than a decade on, that devel­op­ment is The Cape, one of Australia’s lead­ing eco-vil­lages, in the near­by town of Cape Pater­son. And O’Connell is one of a grow­ing num­ber of builders try­ing to improve Aus­tralian houses.

Accord­ing to Trivess Moore, a senior lec­tur­er and researcher into sus­tain­able hous­ing at RMIT, builders – and plumbers, elec­tri­cians, peo­ple who sell appli­ances and oth­ers – are crit­i­cal inter­me­di­aries” in deliv­er­ing sus­tain­able housing.

Busi­ness, unions and green groups call for sus­tain­able Covid-19 recov­ery with clean ener­gy transition

Most peo­ple build new homes or do ren­o­va­tions rarely, Moore says, which leaves them reliant on tradies for information.

Quite often it might be that some­one is rec­om­mend­ed to you, Oh, my friend used that builder, I’ll trust what­ev­er they say,’” he says. “[The ide­al is] when you do have builders who are going the extra mile, and also going If this was my house, this is what I’d want for a bet­ter outcome.’”

But green builders have a lot of work ahead of them. Build­ing bet­ter hous­es from scratch is one thing. Improv­ing Australia’s dis­mal exist­ing hous­ing is another.

The nation­al build­ing code cur­rent­ly requires new hous­es to have a six-star ener­gy-effi­cien­cy rat­ing. The major­i­ty of hous­es built before 2005 have rat­ings between 1.5 and two.

They’re pret­ty shock­ing,” says Alan Pears, a senior indus­try fel­low at RMIT who has been work­ing in hous­ing pol­i­cy since the ear­ly 1980s. “[Prob­lems with] win­dows, the build­ing fab­ric, poor­ly insu­lat­ed, poor­ly shad­ed and the hous­es leak like sieves.”

O’Connell says many old­er homes are so leaky, the air in the house changes over about 15 times each hour. As well, they are full of inef­fi­cient appli­ances, span­ning from hot water sys­tems to fridges to light­bulbs to televisions.

It all adds up – and exac­er­bates inequal­i­ty. Peo­ple on low­er incomes are more like­ly to be liv­ing in old­er and poor­er qual­i­ty homes, and then either can­not afford or are not in con­trol of upgrades.

Peo­ple are start­ing to see sus­tain­abil­i­ty as a long-term ben­e­fit instead of a drain on their bank accounts, Tony O’Connell says. Pho­to­graph: Alana Holmberg/​Oculi for The Guardian

Accord­ing to Kel­lie Caught, senior advi­sor on cli­mate and ener­gy at the Aus­tralian Coun­cil of Social Ser­vices, low-income house­holds spend 6.4% of their income on ener­gy bills, against a nation­al aver­age of 2.4% and just 1.5% for high-income households.

Poor qual­i­ty hous­ing is also detri­men­tal to people’s health, a fac­tor like­ly to wors­en as the cli­mate cri­sis unfolds.

We’ve got a lot of peo­ple who in win­ter are suf­fer­ing from cold,” O’Connell says. And in sum­mer, we have a high­er death toll from peo­ple liv­ing in heat who can’t afford air con­di­tion­ing than we do out of bushfires.”

There are ways to make old­er homes more effi­cient, but some are hard­er than others.

It’s easy enough to put insu­la­tion in ceil­ings and some­times under floors, to replace light­bulbs with LEDs, and to plug gaps to keep out the cold and heat. Oth­er changes, like upgrad­ing to dou­ble-glazed win­dows, putting insu­la­tion into the walls, and buy­ing bet­ter appli­ances can be cost­ly, dif­fi­cult or both.

The poor stan­dard of Aus­tralian build­ings has prompt­ed calls for a nation­wide effi­cien­cy dri­ve as part of fed­er­al and state coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus spend­ing, which would also help tack­le the cli­mate cri­sis. About a quar­ter of nation­al emis­sions are from buildings.

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The Aus­tralian Coun­cil of Social Ser­vice and the Aus­tralian Indus­try Group are among those to have urged the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment to sup­port an effi­cien­cy and solar pow­er pack­age for low-income and social hous­ing, find­ing it could cre­ate 60,000 jobs.

The chief sci­en­tist, Alan Finkel, has also high­light­ed the ben­e­fits of fix­ing the country’s leaky build­ings, as have groups rep­re­sent­ing busi­ness, the ener­gy indus­try, the prop­er­ty sec­tor, unions and major investors.

Beyond Zero Emis­sions, a cli­mate change think­tank, analysed what it would take to trans­form Australia’s build­ing sec­tor as part of what it calls a mil­lion jobs plan”. It found there would be about 200,000 jobs in a five-year pro­gram to per­form 2.5m deep ener­gy retro­fits” on exist­ing homes and con­struct 150,000 7.5 star-rat­ed social houses.


Tony O’Connell at The Cape. He says many old­er homes are so leaky the air in the house changes over about 15 times each hour. Pho­to­graph: Alana Holmberg/​Oculi for The Guardian

You can just get the dol­lars out the door and into the com­mu­ni­ty real­ly quick­ly,” says Prof Frank Jot­zo, direc­tor of ANU’s Cen­tre for Cli­mate and Ener­gy Pol­i­cy. It would be a much bet­ter invest­ment eco­nom­i­cal­ly, social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly than the Home­builder pro­gram, which is pay­ing mon­ey to peo­ple who already have a project under way.”

Advo­cates are clear that a nation­wide hous­ing over­haul is need­ed. But it just hasn’t happened.

We’ve been talk­ing about reg­u­lat­ing upgrad­ing of old­er build­ings since the 1980s,” Pears says, break­ing into resigned laugh­ter, and we haven’t done it.

I think it’s fair to say there is a lack of will and lead­er­ship to dri­ve this because it is tricky.”

In the ear­ly 2010s, Hei­di Lee was the project man­ag­er of Beyond Zero Emis­sions’ ambi­tious plan to retro­fit every sin­gle build­ing in Australia.

If you com­mit­ted to doing it whole­sale, it’s much cheap­er,” Lee, now the project lead on BZE’s mil­lion jobs plan”, explains. But when it comes to upgrad­ing inef­fi­cient homes, you have to spend mon­ey to save it, and lots of Aus­tralians don’t have the cash sit­ting around.

Anoth­er big weak point is the rental mar­ket. The land­lord would have to spend the mon­ey to upgrade the build­ing and the ten­ant is the one get­ting com­fort­able and hav­ing low­er bills,” Pears says. Why would a land­lord do that?”

One way around this, and a major solu­tion to unlock­ing mass retro­fits, Lee says, is the expan­sion of envi­ron­men­tal upgrade agree­ments across Aus­tralia. Under these agree­ments, own­ers can get low-inter­est loans that cov­er the upfront cost of ener­gy retro­fits and are paid back through coun­cil rates.

If you get the design right, it doesn’t cost a lot of mon­ey to build sustainable

Tony O’Connell

Such schemes are cur­rent­ly avail­able in Vic­to­ria, New South Wales and South Aus­tralia, but only for com­mer­cial build­ings. Vic­to­ria recent­ly passed leg­is­la­tion to extend the schemes to homes. The space is still devel­op­ing, Lee says, but could be extend­ed to social housing.

We see upgrade agree­ments as a key plan for a green recov­ery, par­tic­u­lar­ly com­ing out of Covid,” says Scott Boc­skay, CEO of Sus­tain­able Fund Australia.

Boc­skay says there are a num­ber of oth­er ener­gy-sav­ing schemes and incen­tives out there – for instance, Solar Vic­to­ria offers inter­est free loans for solar pan­els – but gen­er­al­ly the approach is frag­ment­ed”.

Anoth­er option for prompt­ing retro­fits, Moore and Pears sug­gest, is putting a min­i­mum ener­gy-effi­cien­cy stan­dard on hous­es that are put up for lease or sale. The Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­to­ry intends to intro­duce such a law for rental prop­er­ties in 2021.

That’s a way of using the mar­ket to lift the bot­tom, but it also means if you choose not to sell your house for 10 or 15 years or what­ev­er it might be, you don’t have to wor­ry about that,” Moore says. It doesn’t force every­one to make the change right now but it ensures that over time there is that lift­ing of standards.”

There’s also the ques­tion of how to gain pub­lic momen­tum. Peo­ple build­ing new homes are often push­ing for sus­tain­abil­i­ty in the long term, but deci­sion-mak­ing for renters tends to be more mul­ti­fac­eted. Plus, a house’s ener­gy per­for­mance isn’t exact­ly visible.

It’s pret­ty hard to tell if there’s insu­la­tion in the walls. A lot of peo­ple don’t even know which way the house is fac­ing,” Pears says.

And look, to be hon­est, most Aus­tralians have nev­er lived in a decent house in terms of ener­gy per­for­mance. We’ve all grown up in 50- or 20-year-old build­ings that are pret­ty awful, and we don’t even know what a good build­ing is until we live in it.”

There’s no doubt homes being built in Aus­tralia today are bet­ter than those con­struct­ed last cen­tu­ry. But experts and builders say the six-star require­ment is already out of date, and leaves Aus­tralia in Europe’s dust.

While that may have been a big step 10 years ago, now six stars is so easy to achieve for a builder,” O’Connell says. We’re build­ing a lot of homes at the moment that peo­ple can’t afford to live in through extremes of tem­per­a­ture. We’re not plan­ning for the future.”

If you design a house well enough, O’Connell says, you can get to six stars with sin­gle-glaze win­dows and no insu­la­tion. Add a bit of insu­la­tion, and it ris­es to sev­en or eight. These are the kinds of dwellings he is work­ing on at Cape Pater­son, which he sees as a bench­mark for bet­ter hous­ing in Australia.

There are hopes the 2022 revi­sions to the Nation­al Con­struc­tion Code will see the min­i­mum stan­dard for new homes and sig­nif­i­cant ren­o­va­tions lift­ed to sev­en stars.

O’Connell deliv­ers talks to oth­er builders and to coun­cils about build­ing more sus­tain­able homes. Change is slow, he says, but happening.

I think if you went back 10 years ago and talked about sus­tain­able con­struc­tion, peo­ple would think you were propos­ing to build an igloo some­where,” he says.

Now, peo­ple are start­ing to see sus­tain­abil­i­ty as a long-term ben­e­fit instead of a drain on their bank accounts.

It’s hip pock­et. They get their quar­ter­ly pow­er bill, they know how much it’s cost­ing, you demon­strate how lit­tle it can cost,” he says. I think the think­ing has changed now, where peo­ple are con­sid­er­ing a lot of these things to be a ben­e­fit rather than a cost.”

Source: https://​www​.the​guardian​.com/