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Esther Bailey on the role of NABERS in the climate emergency

Esther Bailey. Photo by Jamie Williams/City of Sydney)
Esther Bailey.Photo: Jamie Williams

The relentlessly optimistic Esther Bailey started a new role at NABERS in September after eight years at the City of Sydney working on the Better Building Partnership and CitySwitch.

There’s no doubt she’s up for the new challenge. “This is still the best time to be in this job, in this place, in this country,” she told The Fifth Estate.

As head of market development, Bailey will help the organisation achieve its core strategic goals, which include doubling the number of NABERS ratings and making sure every large building type can be rated using NABERS tools by 2023. The tool does not currently cover major building types such as schools, industrial buildings, universities, retail stores, healthcare buildings and others.

The organisation is currently putting the untapped sectors “through the sieve” to target those that will have the most impact, with new sector tools expected to be launched next year.

Bailey’s role involves making sure the technical experience matches the customer experience.

“It’s not just about the rating and the number. It’s about getting you from nowhere to super sustainable high performance.”

She says the first rating is always hideous because it’s tricky to track down the paperwork and locate the wiring. “It’s important to support people through that.”

NABERS for Apartments

Apartment buildings are one set of customers that are “still in that hard place” despite an overall positive response to the new NABERS for Apartments tool launched last year.

“Strata schemes are incredibly complex, and there’s very diffuse control and influence structure with committees and strata, so there’s some big governance challenges.”

Bailey says the leaders like the tool, and are now pivoting towards Green Power, “which we never thought would happen 12 to 18 months ago, because it’s all about price.”

She says City of Sydney is doing some interesting work helping strata buildings communicate a vison and value proposition. “When you work for an organisation there’s a set of values and that’s clear.”

Strata buildings, by contrast, are just made up of people who have chosen to live in the same spot.

“So when you have to make a decision about installing LED lighting, there’s no framework defining ‘who we want to be’.”

A clear value proposition can help steer a strata organisation towards consensus.

She says the focus on residential is growing as some of the easier sectors like commercial are now on track. “But the beauty is we can learn from the sectors we’ve already done.”

One of the things she really wants to achieve in the next few years is helping different sectors learn from each other and recognise that they are “more similar than different” when it comes to upgrading environmental performance.

“We’re in a really good place to be able to draw analogies across different sectors.”

All eyes on waste

The waste tool is another NABERS newbie and although it’s doing well it comes with its challenges. For one, there’s “no energy bill for waste” – that is, no reliable unit of measure that everyone agrees on.

But she says monitoring waste better will be the necessary building blocks to instrument an effective circular economy. 

“So if you want to connect a high level circular economy and transform from linear to something that retains value in the system, you need to know where those materials are. And at the moment, we don’t.”

She says collecting waste from commercial buildings is the best time to be collecting materials because it’s been indoors, in a conditioned space, separated, and professionally managed and governed.

“If you can then measure it, it’s got a fighting chance of getting where it needs to go to get the most use out of it.”

Don’t underestimate people’s interest in waste

Bailey has just come from CitySwitch, a free program run by the City of Sydney for office-based businesses to improve their energy and waste efficiency, where she waded into the behavioural science influencing office workers on environmental issues.

She says many people who are incredibly engaged and passionate about the waste issue, but that there’s huge opportunity to unlock interest in the bulk of the population.

“We’re just not doing it right.”

She thinks there’s an overlooked opportunity in gamification by making fun and interactive ways of communicating what waste gets turned into.

“If it was clear that collecting bottle tops would make your next pair of glasses, that if you separated your food waste then you could get free compost from the loading dock, you would completely change that conversation.”

She imagines a waste-to-item version of the spiral wishing well coin funnels you see outside supermarkets.

This sort of activity might not shift everyone’s behaviour but it has a good chance of activating the significant amount of people in the “nudge zone.”

“It’s incumbent on us to find the creative ways to maximise those people who do care and can be contributing to that.”

Overcoming the luxury versus environment mentality

Although waste is an incredibly mobilising issue there’s a conflicting phenomenon at play where people are great at managing their three bins at home, but proceed to throw their takeaway lunch containers in the general waste every day at the office.

Bailey says part of the problem is that people have come to expect a certain level of service in premium office buildings. It’s much the same as five star hotels, where it’s all about the “luxe experience” where people want high water pressure in the shower and churn through multiple towels they don’t need to wash.

With great cafes, gymnasiums, and end of trip facilities with fluffy towels, it’s no wonder people have come to expect the same level of luxury in premium offices.

Bailey says there’s no need for luxury to sit in opposition with sustainability though.

A simple sign that asks you to keep your towel for tomorrow can be “pretty effective”. Well-designed showerheads can also provide a great shower experience without using massive amounts of water, and often without the hotel patron even noticing.

Bailey’s understanding is that there’s more to be done to overcome the perceived dichotomy between luxury and sustainability but it’s certainly possible to “reconcile those two things”.

“Sustainability shouldn’t be really austere; we have to find a way to bring prosperity into the sustainability narrative.”

CitySwitch and Better Building Partnerships going from strength to strength

She’s spent eight years at the City of Sydney working on the Better Building Partnership and CitySwitch, which are both large scale collaboration programs bringing industry leaders together who are already taking voluntary action and “catalysing them to moving quicker by moving together.”

At the heart of these programs is businesses learning from one another and de-risking change by “sharing war stories about what works and what doesn’t”.

They’ve both been powerful programs. BBP members recently announced a 53 per cent emission reduction off their 2006 baseline. She says nearly all members have net zero commitments, even if it’s an internal taregt, and are aiming for well before 2050.

The CitySwitch program is now covering 4.5 million square metres of office space – close to 20 per cent of the national office market.

But this still leaves a whole bunch of offices that “may or may not be taking action”.

NABERS has a big role to play

NABERS is a national rating system that denotes progress towards excellence, on single individual units: energy, emissions, water, waste and indoor environment.

“Our goal is to boil it down to the simplest possible atomic units so that those units can be plugged into other schemes.”

What excites Bailey about the new role is that NABERS “really sits on the most compelling data set” to be able to inform government at all levels about how to deploy resources effectively and responsibly.

“If we are going to get to that shared place that we’ve all committed to, we need to be able to measure it because otherwise, we won’t know if we’re there or not.”

NABERS is not a leadership program

What NABERS is not, Bailey points out, is a leadership program. Green Star and WELL denote leadership because as well as accounting for energy, water and the other core modules, they also measure biophilia and other attributes you’d expect from leaders in the space.

So NABERS is effectively designed as the intel inside broader multi-factorial programs – a starting place to ensure there are solid foundations to build upon.

Why we need robust reliable data

Bailey says there’s a problematic stream of thought that “informal NABERS ratings” are enough.

For people still questioning the value of NABERS ratings, Bailey says the accuracy of these environmental performance building blocks is essential to getting a reliable indication of how we are tracking towards our societal targets.

“That’s the power of taking a simple verified unit, because you can add them up.”

The problem with self-verified schemes is that “not everyone is good with numbers.”

“So having verification at a societal scale is going to really, really matter.”

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One Response to “Esther Bailey on the role of NABERS in the climate emergency”

  • We are all very lucky to have Esther leading this charge. I cannot wait for NABERS to address and incentivise industrial, universities, retail and especially schools where there are so many gaps (literally) and hence opportunities.

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