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Victoria urged to act on sustainability-boosting strata reform

Victoria’s peak body for strata title management is calling on the state government to hurry up with long-awaited strata law reforms to resolve an impasse many strata residents have over installing solar and other sustainability initiatives.

Strata Community Australia Victoria (SCAV) says apartment complexes are some of the heaviest energy users, and the scorching heat of summer hits resident hip pockets particularly hard.

However, many owners are stymied by decade-old rules that require the vast majority of other owners to agree to measures such as an individual lot owner installing solar, retrofitting blinds or changing to a cool roof colour.

SCAV general manager Rob Beck says the state government needs to do its part by removing roadblocks to strata schemes accessing solar power.

“As it stands, Victorians living in apartments have effectively been locked out of the solar market, thanks to legislation which makes it near on impossible to approve energy efficient upgrades by community vote,” he says.

Owners wanting to install panels on common property, which in some schemes includes external walls and any other part of the unit that is visible from common property, currently have to gain 75 per cent approval of a special motion at a strata scheme meeting.

“This inflexible and often long-drawn process is preventing apartment owners from seeking more environmentally and cost-effective solutions, and given the six figure savings some strata schemes are now reporting, needlessly wasting precious dollars,” Beck says.

The current review of the Owners Corporations Act (2006) is the government’s chance to change the game.

In the latest options paper, produced following lengthy community consultation, Consumer Affairs Victoria noted: “It is clear that owners corporations can make rules prohibiting the installation of sustainability items on the external surfaces of private lots, such as solar hot water systems, solar energy panels and roofs with colours that have particular solar absorption values.”

In response, it is proposing that the existing power of owners corporations to “make rules about the external appearance of lots would be amended so as not to include rules that unreasonably prohibit the installation of sustainability items on the outside of private lots.

“In terms of what might be an unreasonable prohibition, a prohibitions for purely aesthetic reasons could be deemed to be unreasonable.”

Beck says SCAV supports this option.

“If the state government is serious about hitting its carbon free goals they must deliver an energy-friendly reform that caters to apartment living as soon as possible.”

How to pay for common area upgrades

Another stumbling block for Victorian strata schemes is the vexing question of how to pay for energy upgrades to common areas. Unlike NSW, there is no requirement for owners corporations to maintain funds for maintenance or contingencies.

This may also be potentially addressed by the reforms.

Beck says the relevant proposed options separate two interlinked factors – what should be done, and how it should be done, in terms of common area matters.

“Reducing the issue of ‘how should it be funded’ will help to just focus on what should be done,” he says.

“Proposals include requiring many more strata schemes to have maintenance funds, and also to have contingency funds.”

No grants programs available

Currently, there appears to be no sustainability grant programs targeting Victoria’s strata sector, although there are information kits and resources such as Smart Blocks and City of Melbourne’s Sustainable Apartments guidelines.

Beck says that quite a few years ago there was a program that allowed strata schemes to add the cost of upgrades to their rates bill and pay it off gradually, however this was discontinued.

He says that despite the hurdles, there are some strata schemes taking up the “easiest, quickest runs on the board” such as installing LED lighting, or putting sensors on lighting or variable speed drives on exhaust fans and pool pumps.

This may come about because the scheme’s strata manager has taken the lead and raised the possibility and then demonstrated the business case to the owners corporation.

In other blocks, there might be a champion in the form of a passionate owner or group of owners, such as the group that saw solar installed on Hero in the Melbourne CBD.

There are also some owners corporations that simply get it, he says.

“With up to half of energy consumption being tied up in common areas like hallways, car parks and pools, it’s not hard to see how energy bills for high-rise residential properties goes into the millions of dollars annually,” Beck says.

“But, that’s not to say strata schemes can’t do something about it, and we’re encouraging owners in Melbourne to read up on recent success stories.”

These include apartment complexes that have participated in the Smart Blocks program, jointly administered by City of Melbourne and City of Sydney.

Initiatives have included changing the energy supply for common areas such as hallways, pools and carparks.

The savings as a result have stacked up, with Melbourne & City Towers now saving around $140,000 annually.

Installing LED lighting for common areas has seen Freshwater Place save more than 62,000 kilowatt-hours of energy a year.

The real sticking point is budgets, as “people don’t like their levies going up every year”. So it’s a case of needing to highlight that energy performance improvements can limit increases.

Solar “tricky” for individual apartments

Alternative Technology Association (ATA) spokeswoman Kulja Coulston says the body has been seeing that when it comes to solar, the rule of thumb is that it is easy for common property energy use, but “tricky” for individual apartments.

One thing that may help reduce the challenge level is the number of start-ups coming into the space, she says.

“It’s an emerging area.”

One example is a company called Allume Energy that is doing a pay-for-power trial of solar for individual apartments in Fitzroy, she says.

When it comes to basic measures like installing external blinds, particularly for apartments on the south-west corner that may experience both heat and cold issues, the rules can be quite strict. They may say blinds cannot be external, and may also have specifications in terms of the colours allowable for internal blinds.

The first step owners or tenants need to take is to ask the question and investigate, then make their case for the owners corporation.

They may even find, as some blocks have been discovering, that the original building design specified blinds but they were never installed – this can make for an easy win.

Coulston says the ATA, along with energy experts like Alan Pears, are hopeful the state government will give owners corporations more authority to look at sustainability.

“The policies need to be right.”

The market also needs to see more “nimble start ups and products” emerge, such as aesthetically decent window films and reflective blinds.

Simple things such as allowing residents to dry clothes naturally in an external area rather than having to use a dryer can also be a challenge. Coulston suggests that where this rule cannot be changed, if the building had solar at least residents could run the dryer from the solar and not need to use fossil fuels for laundry.

“As more and more people live in these environments we will see more and more that it’s ridiculous not to allow sustainability measures.

“Petty issues shouldn’t hold people back from making improvements to their comfort and to their lives.

“We need policies for empowering residents so people can make environmental improvements.”

Despite the policy vacuum, there are some examples of leadership emerging, where owners corporations are making long-range plans for upgrades over 5-10 years.

Coulston says Republic Tower, for example, has a plan to halve energy use over 10 years through lighting and cooling upgrades.

During this year’s High Life Expo, she says common area improvements were “top of the list” for strata residents.

“People’s [strata] fees have been going up and up with prices of electricity and gas,” she says.

“There is an incentive there.”

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