Furious industry unites to tackle new Building Code failure
Willow Aliento | 26 July 2015
It’s too vague, has no aims, is riddled with loopholes and appears to have abandoned any explicit imperative to make a building energy-efficient or sustainable – it’s a new lower-bar Building Code of Australia 2016.
Some of the proposed changes to the National Construction Code are so dodgy, the new modelling protocol would allow an apartment that scored ZERO NatHERS stars under the old system to actually pass as compliant, leading ESD practitioners say.
These are some of the concerns about the proposed changes to the NCC that have brought 17 of Australia’s leading sustainable design and construction experts together to form a united response to some of the issues around Section J, which sets out the minimum requirements around energy and thermal performance.
Among the flaws they have identified in the proposed changes are:
- too many loopholes in proving compliance
- failure to promote improvements to the performance of buildings
- an overall lack of vision that could see Australia become uncompetitive in world terms
The group has developed a website, and will post its commentary on Section J this weekend ahead of making a formal submission to the Australian Building Codes Board. The hope is that others concerned about the sustainability of our built environment will also be able to use the information to inform their own submission to the NCC 2016 consultation.
The comment period closes on 3 August.
Another consideration that has got the members of the group fired up is that the final NCC 2016 will move to a three-year code amendment cycle, instead of an annual amendment cycle.
Chris Buntine, ESD Leader for Aurecon Melbourne told The Fifth Estate there was a “sense of frustration”.
“We’re running out of time to get this right.”
Mr Buntine said the ABCB could have been having the sustainability conversation already, but that “the voices about red tape and cost seem to be winning”.
“This is about having a leading edge, innovative industry, but we are not being heard.”
Jeff Robinson, sustainable design leader Asia Pacific for Aurecon, said that in the context of greening the built environment, the focus of the industry needed to be on how to design buildings that use fewer resources to build.
This, he said, was one of the cheapest ways for the nation to reduce its carbon emissions and deliver increased productivity outcomes, and better health outcomes, for people using the buildings. This new iteration of the NCC, however, is not taking the industry in that direction.
Mr Robinson said members of the industry group are modelling the different types of buildings including commercial and multi-residential under the revised Section J Performance Pathway rules to inform their submission. Some of the results are alarming.
Decades of experience ignored
And while there is decades worth of expertise in the group in high performance buildings that could be very useful to the ABCB, he noted that the board is restricting all those commenting on the NCC 2016 to only addressing the proposed changes and the language of the new code. There is no scope for going beyond to make a broader contribution, which he said means it is “not a genuine consultation”.
“We can’t give our opinion [on other matters],” Mr Robinson said.
Mr Buntine said the ABCB and the wider industry needed to be looking at sustainability more broadly, not only energy, but also water, waste, wellbeing and health. This type of holistic approach to buildings, however, is not in the code.
“[The code] needs to pull together in a way that promotes an integrated solution,” he said.
Mr Robinson said that while there have been some genuinely good improvements over the years in the Building Code of Australia, in this latest version “the foot has been taken off the stringency accelerator”.
“It doesn’t lift minimum standards. It is following the path of least resistance.”
But the industry group is looking for continuity with the standards of NABERS and Green Star. The NCC 2016 is not even close to those standards.
The gap between best practice and the code makes it harder to justify the investment in higher performance to clients, he said.
“The reality is the world only has so many resources, and if we are [for example] designing great apartments, we are also making an investment in the infrastructure of our country.”
He said the quality of life Australians took pride in was also at stake, and that without an emphasis on designing and delivering more sustainable buildings, “other nations will overtake us”.
“We’re sliding backwards.”
Mr Buntine said many of the members of the group belonged to industry associations such as Australian Institute of Architects, Engineers Australia, AIRAH, Consult Australia and the Property Council, and it was hoped these bodies would support the push for stronger sustainability in the code.
There was no commercial incentive or vested interest in the group’s push, he said.
“We get paid the same amount whether we analyse poor buildings or good ones.”
Cormac Kelly, sustainability project engineer at Wood +Grieve Engineers, said that while some elements of the proposed changes were “encouraging”, there were also numerous loopholes.
These loopholes would allow buildings to show they complied, but not necessarily as well as any intent the code may have to ensure a basic level of energy efficiency.
“It’s not tied down tight enough,” Mr Kelly said.
Code needs a higher bar in energy efficiency and thermal comfort
There is also a need to raise the bar higher in terms of energy efficiency and thermal comfort, as well as putting in place mechanisms that would show compliance of the final building, not just the design.
What about thermal imaging and pressure testing?
The group will suggest the BCA should require builders to provide the results of thermal imaging of buildings, and also of pressure testing. Not only would this prove compliance of the delivered building, it would also potentially create new jobs in the sector.
Mr Kelly said there was a real issue around international competitiveness if the code didn’t work to lift the building performance bar.
“If we are just happy with ticking over and doing the normal thing’s we’ve always done, we are not going to get opportunities into China and Asia. They will look to Europe.
“Like Dubai, for example. They have no shortage of fuels, but are still to a certain degree cautious about how they develop buildings, demanding a level of quality to the design.”
And the purpose is?
Another major issue the group has identified is the NCC 2016 appears to have no real reason for being. While NCC 2015 had at the start of Section J that the aim was to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse emissions, all mention of that is gone in the NCC 2016.
This apparent aimlessness is seen as a major flaw.
“What’s their target? What are they working towards? Or is there no aim to produce sustainable buildings?” Mr Kelly said. “Is there a Kyoto target they are trying to hit?”
He said the new BCA is “all about minimum”.
“If you want to build a building, this is the minimum for energy efficiency [it says]. But why? Is it to make the building more comfortable for occupants? Probably not.
“There is no real requirement to be energy efficient anymore – they took that out. And there is no main aim to give [the code] a meaning.”
The change to put high-rise residential under the same rules as commercial buildings, where the whole building is assessed rather than individual apartments is generally positive, Mr Kelly said. However, under the JV3 pathway, there is problem with how compliance is demonstrated.
So regular glass would show compliance? Huh?
The JV3 pathway models a building against a reference building, but only two climate zones are assumed for glazing for the whole country, he said.
“You could actually make a building entirely out of glass and still comply. You wouldn’t even necessarily need high-performance glazing – it would still comply.”
My Kelly has been in discussions with the Building Designers Association of Victoria about NCC 16 and he said they also have concerns. Their modelling has shown a building that would score a zero under NatHERS can achieve compliance under JV3.
“The reference building is a good starting point, but there is a big flaw with the reference case.
“A whole range of design considerations don’t get considered or addressed [under JV3]. And there’s a whole lot of averaging that goes on.”
He suggested that the code should set limits on internal energy loads, as that would then dictate the glazing solution and other elements. He would also like to see the sections of NCC 2016 that deal with natural ventilation improved, as currently these were “rudimentary”.
Another major difference in versions of the code were that while previous versions of the BCA that were “quite solid in explaining how to prove compliance”, this version was “nowhere near solid enough.”
“For any clause there are so many interpretations that are possible. There are too many vaguenesses about it.”
Mr Kelly said that one of the aims of the code should be to move towards normalising high performance buildings.
While a quantum leap would penalise many firms in the building industry that were not equipped to make the shift, incremental changes could work.
“So in 10 years time we could have something built [to code minimum] that is twice as good as we are building it now.”
Air permeability and loss of thermal comfort
Jessica Hogg, senior building physics engineer at Inhabit Group, said the lack of requirements around air permeability and air infiltration, which come down to build quality, meant there could be many buildings where occupants experience major energy losses they can’t control due to the loss of internal heat in winter or cooled air in summer.
This is where pressure testing would be an important part of demonstrating that a building will perform as the design proposed it should.
Ms Hogg would also like to see NCC 2016 and JV3 modelling account for thermal bridging. Some materials such as aluminium framing on spandrel panels can compromise thermal performance unless bridging is installed.
Glazed doors were another potential weak point, particularly for apartment buildings. The code uses standardised glazed panel sizes for the compliance calculations, but many projects use custom sized panels.
“What’s being proposed at the moment [with JV3] has some big deficiencies,” Ms Hogg said.
“And compliance at the moment [under the current code] is pretty weak.
“It is frustrating working in an industry where the bottom line is driving compliance – that is not pushing buildings [to better performance] at all.”
Apartments could avoid NatHERS ratings
One of the big changes is that apartments in multi-residential projects will no longer need to be assessed for a NatHERS rating, the JV3 modelling pathway can be used instead.
And instead of the current code requirement that each apartment achieve a five star minimum NatHERS and the whole building average six stars, under JV3 the whole building is either compliant, or it isn’t.
Ms Hogg has been testing the JV3 modelling using previous projects the firm has completed as test cases against the reference building. The results are not good.
“The way they have set up the reference building has major holes,” she said.
One Brisbane project that had an initial design that required modification because it scored zero NatHERS was originally modelled using JV3. It achieved compliance, as did a Melbourne project that had a design which achieved between two and four stars.
“We’d like the code to be pushing further and making buildings more efficient, not less so,” Ms Hogg said.
Her analysis has shown that a fully-glazed “glass box” apartment building could achieve compliance, because JV3 doesn’t specify the size of windows relative to floor area, it only considers the thermal performance of the window.
Ms Hogg said that because the NCC 2016 lacks “a pathway, end goal or strategic direction” it does not help shift the industry in a more sustainable direction.
“If everyone in the industry knew where we were headed and why, they could embrace that, and eventually that would become the norm.”
The new industry group is looking for others within the built environment sector to become involved with its ongoing discussions.
UPDATE: 24 July 2015
The ABCB has submitted the following comments:
The purpose of publicly releasing draft changes for the National Construction Code (NCC) in 2016 is to elicit feedback from affected stakeholders and those with an interest in the content of the NCC.
The ABCB welcomes debate and comment on the proposed changes, but it is important that these comments be submitted through the ABCB website www.abcb.gov.au to ensure they inform the development and improvement of the proposed changes.
The proposed changes for energy efficiency are part of a broader strategy to quantify all the NCC’s Performance Requirements, whilst maintaining policy neutrality, and promoting innovation through the use of Performance Based Solutions (Alternative Solutions). The ABCB has not been provided with a mandate to increase stringency levels as part of this initiative. The broader strategy aims to quantify all NCC performance requirements by 2019.
It is important to note that the proposed changes have been developed in consultation with representatives of industry and government, and that industry groups have advocated for the ABCB to provide greater clarity to the Performance Requirements in the area of energy efficiency. If this has not been achieved or has the potential to create unintended consequences then the ABCB is keen to hear these views as part of this process.
To assist in providing awareness and an understanding of the proposed energy efficiency changes to NCC 2016, the ABCB has made publicly available the following information:
- Overview of proposed changes to increase the use of performance
- Webcast covering the proposed changes to increase the use of performance
- Additional explanatory information for the proposed changes to the verification methods JV2 and JV3
- Sensitivity study for the proposed changes to the verification method V 188.8.131.52
The above information is available at http://www.abcb.gov.au/consultation/ncc-public-comment-draft.aspx
The ABCB would welcome the opportunity to discuss with any industry group the proposed changes and the separate matters of increasing the stringency of the requirements and the broader topic of sustainability.
For further information and to read the response to NCC 2016 Section J, go here.
Members of the Section J industry expert working group:
- Andrew Thompson – State Manager [Victoria] at Cundall
- Clare Parry – principal sustainability consultant Grun Consulting
- Chris Buntine – ESD Leader Aurecon [Melbourne]
- Jeff Robinson – sustainable design leader APAC Aurecon
- Darren O’Dea – principal building physics Inhabit Group
- Cormac Kelly – sustainability project engineer at Wood +Grieve Engineers
- Chris Walker – lead ESD Consultant at Jacobs SKM
- Digby Hall – principal sustainability consultant at Umow Lai
- David Jarratt – director at WSP Built Ecology
- Jessica Hogg – senior building physics engineer, Inhabit Group
- Tai Hollingsbee – director of research Studio Huss
- Shane Esmore – director Umow Lai
- Thorsten Padeffke – associate – discipline leader ESD at Irwinconsult
- Hannah Morton – senior ESD consultant at Cundall
- David Barker – building physics leader at ARUP
- Jenny Lewis – environmental design consultant at WSP Built Ecology
- Michael Shaw – ESD manager at Connor Pincus Group
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