Improving building efficiency central to a zero-carbon planet

The Wade Institute, Australia's first Passive House educational building.

The much anticipated global negotiation on climate change has kicked off and the impact on the building and construction sector appears promising. 

The successful transition to a sustainable energy future depends vitally on the building sector, as more than a third of total energy is consumed in buildings. But, as yet, the large wins to be made in increasing energy efficiency in our homes, businesses and industries have not taken hold.

This is changing. The recently announced Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Conference of the Parties (COP21) show that there is appetite and opportunity for change. The buildings sector can deliver results on both global climate and sustainable development goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals recognise the importance of buildings and cities in achieving sustainable infrastructure, and building efficiency has hit the agenda at Paris for the first time in the history of the COP.

The first ever Buildings Day will be hosted on Thursday 3 December 2015. The launch of a new Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction will also set the scene for adoption of the best policies, materials, designs and technologies around the world, and allow a global forum for improving building efficiency.

Efficiency in buildings is getting recognition for the integral part it can play in reducing emissions. The alliance aims to avoid the projected growth in energy consumption through highly energy-efficient new buildings, and achieve deep renovations of existing buildings by 2030. This builds on the program established in the EU with the 2010 directive that all public buildings must be nearly zero energy (nZEB) – or inherently low-energy, sans renewables – by 2018, while all new buildings must be nZEB by 2020. This deadline is fast approaching, meaning that real actions, where not already in place, must be committed to as soon as possible.

There are 45 new national climate plans that include building efficiency components. Australia’s policy on delivering low-emissions buildings is severely lacking, and there are no signals that this will improve in the near future. Planned changes to minimum compliance for the 2016 National Construction Code saw a worrying relaxation of energy consumption and carbon emissions targets. Thankfully, an industry-wide backlash saw these changes frozen for the 2016 release and a comprehensive review planned before their implementation in 2019.

Picture_Passivhaus_IPHAAustralian building efficiency

With so much opportunity, the impetus for action seems to fall on local and state governments. The cities of Melbourne and Adelaide have set bold targets to become carbon neutral within the next decade, all the while achieving economic and social prosperity. They City of Sydney Energy Efficiency Masterplan shows greenhouse gas emissions across the city’s buildings sector could be reduced by more than 30 per cent, with a net saving of $208 million.

A report released in the lead up to the Paris COP outlines how Australia can get to a zero pollution world with little impact on quality of life. A prosperous, net-zero pollution Australia starts today demonstrates how household energy costs could be reduced by 25 per cent as a proportion of household income, if efficiency measures are taken up.

There is opportunity for ”improving efficiencies in residential and commercial buildings, encouraging and adopting smart urban and architectural design, building practices and construction materials, optimising value chains, improving industry equipment, material efficiency and production processes (such as cogeneration through reuse of waste heat).”

The report states “significant work needs to be done over the next 15 years to prepare the market for the shift in skills, building of new infrastructure and development of supply chains that this transition requires”.

Passive House the way forward

Passive House design is one of the ways to make energy efficiency changes happen on the ground. Also known as Passivhaus, it better translates as “passive building” and applies to all building typologies, as well as retrofit and refurbishment projects. With in excess of 50,000 Passive House buildings globally, there are Passive House fire stations, schools, hospitals, high rise office buildings, apartment towers and tens of thousands of homes.

Passive House targets thermal comfort, and delivers superior energy efficiency in one of the best win-win approaches to design. The standard results in buildings that are always comfortable, and use around 75-90 per cent less energy than a typical building. Passive House is a simple, proven design and construct methodology, and is starting to make waves in the Australian construction industry.

The global reach of Passive House is largely due to the simplicity of its approach; any building can be adapted to the standard and it can use locally relevant building practices and materials.

It is a win-win approach that will help meet the rapidly rising demand in the market for green building.

Clare Parry

Clare Parry

South Pacific Passive House Conference

The Australian Passive House Association is helping this shift to occur. In February next year the association is hosting, in collaboration with the Passive House Institute of New Zealand, the second South Pacific Passive House Conference, which will be hosted in Melbourne.

The conference will demonstrate the importance of well-conceived and consistent action in the building sector for a successful transition to a sustainable energy future. Bringing together building efficiency professionals, designers, builders, sustainability experts and policy advisors from around the world, discussions will focus on the application of the Passive House building standards in local markets, both for large scale housing, commercial and education projects.

Clare Parry is chair of the Australian Passive House Association. Imogen Jubb is a climate change consultant.

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