As winter sets in and we’re as cold indoors as we are outside, it’s a reminder that Aussie homes are just not built for the cold weather.
Notwithstanding the discomfort, the energy efficiency of our homes is dire – which means we’re not just losing heat, we’re losing dollars, too. The average Australian home is rated 1.8 stars, which means they are closer to a tent than a modern eco-house!
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Sustainable, smart, efficient housing should be the norm, not a luxury. Moreover, better housing can help us to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
There is a lot of innovation happening at a local level that is addressing local climate challenges. However, solutions are often developed in silos and could be better joined up to achieve impact at scale.
That’s why Clean State is running a Clean Town and City project. The initiative brings together changemakers, experts, government and industry to review which actions will make our built environment energy-efficient, sustainable and inclusive in the face of climate adaptation.
The project is looking into five key facets of the built environment, including:
- Community power solutions, like micro-grids and batteries
- Designing and retrofitting energy-efficient homes and buildings
- Electrifying transport – so we can get from A to B without polluting
- Waste and how we can reduce and reuse materials
- Water management and how we can use it in a smarter way
The project aims to build a community of practice by joining up ideas and solutions. It will also provide practical actions that can be adopted at a local and state level to ensure WA’s towns and cities are climate-ready.
What’s happened so far?
Last month, we shared the outcomes from our first roundtable as part of the Community Power project stream. This month, we’re sharing findings from our Future Homes roundtable – which looked at how Western Australia can reduce its carbon emissions within the housing sector. It also looked at how homes and home building play an essential role in social well-being, community building and the liveability of our towns and cities.
We extend our sincerest thanks to participants who joined us from CDP Town Planning & Urban Design, UWA School of Design, Hort with Heart, WACOSS, The Forever Project, Ecotecture, Solar Dwellings, Infrastructure WA, South Perth Tree Canopy Advocates, Augusta Margaret River Shire, City of Subiaco and Legacy Living Lab.
What were the findings?
The current state of green housing in WA
There are many great things happening around WA right now to increase the sustainability of our housing stock. However, as it stands sustainable housing is more expensive than standard options, so eco-homes are more of a luxury than a norm. We could make sustainable housing cheaper, but that would involve a policy change.
The WA Housing Strategy aims to “catalyse 40 per cent of new homes built to liveable design standards by 2030.” (p 32) Getting there is the challenge. There are no obligations in WA to build a sustainable home beyond the basic 6-star NatHERS rating, and even that requirement has been often neglected until recently. At the national level there is talk of increasing the minimum thermal performance level in the National Construction Code (NCC) from 6-star to 7-star – but these changes are yet to materialise.
Our Future Homes roundtable looked at obstacles like these in detail for WA.
In summary, our participants found that WA needs:
- Better synchronicity between local, state and federal government sustainable housing policy
- WA to endorse the 7-star NatHERS rating minimum
- Better accountability from project home developers on inefficient and cheap design
- Better planning for circular housing economies
- Stronger policy requirements on the protection and retention of urban trees
- A mandatory energy efficiency rating and mandatory disclosure system for rental properties under the Residential Tenancy Act
- Tax incentives and/or subsidies for landlords to improve energy efficiency of their properties
- Earlier, stronger emphasis on sustainable building practises in all pathways to the housing and building sectors
These key action points are explored in more detail below.
Local-state-federal government nexus
One of the key challenges identified in the Future Homes roundtable is the relationship between the state and local governments. The siloed nature of state government means that key departments are not communicating with each other and leadership is lacking.
Local Government Areas (LGAs) are often ‘competing for development with each other’ and so will offer concessions that reduce their preferred sustainability standards – which triggers a ‘race to the bottom’. However, when not constrained in this way, LGAs have the potential to facilitate top-tier sustainable building practices in their communities. For example, the City of Vincent Local Council currently requires a Life Cycle Assessment as a part of any Development Application.
Participants noted that LGAs are also subject to occasionally unreasonable community expectations on sustainability – and there is a limit to what they can achieve within the planning space in WA. Some LGAs have found the required regulations, standards, or planning instruments to fully realise sustainable buildings are not currently available to them.
This is where their relationship with the state government comes in. There is a perception that LGAs require more flexibility to implement their own sustainable standards. Currently the state government imposes standard planning instruments across all LGAs, which reduces their flexibility to respond to community expectations. State-level incentives would help greatly, but these need to be balanced – where sustainable home building requires more stringent standards from the state government, then the government must also support LGAs in implementing them. At present, there is little to no legislation by the state government to drive or enable these much-needed changes.
Regulation and housing standards
Similarly, the state and federal governments are out of sync when it comes to sustainable buildings. The minimum 6-star NatHERS energy efficiency rating required for residential homes under the National Construction Code is being reviewed, and it is expected that this minimum rating will increase to 7-star by September. However, the WA State government delayed endorsement of the 2019 6-star minimum rating until 2021. Some data has shown about a fifth of new homes in WA don’t meet this mark. Potentially, any new rating will also be delayed. It is essential that the state government swiftly endorses any updated star-rating to ensure we can achieve substantial new and improved sustainable housing. Better synchronisation between local, state and federal governments on the NCC and on NatHERS is an essential step in achieving clean towns and cities.
Many (if not most) homes built in WA are project homes that are limited in planning and design. There is a perception that ‘public concern is mainly directed at building for the lowest cost and nothing else’ and that ‘developers and builders put the biggest house they can on the smallest possible block’. As such, project home builders need to be more accountable for the designs they produce and sell to consumers. One participant noted that only 3% of homes are designed by architects, and most homeowners are offered ‘banal and limited cookie cutter plans’ from volume home builders because of the cost-savings this approach offers. These are also the only affordable housing options in WA.
Planning for circular economies
Beyond energy ratings, our participants discussed how it is also important to adopt a ‘circular economy’ approach to housing. The embedded carbon of materials used in the building or renovation process must be accounted for throughout their whole ‘lifecycle’ – that is, their production, use, reuse and disposal. It’s also important to consider how basic housing can be designed for all stages of life, reducing the need for people to move as their family circumstances change. This futureproofing of a home could be achieved by considering things like universal access requirements, living space separation and backyard infill potential. In summary, WA’s future housing policy must go beyond measuring energy efficiency and consider the whole lifecycle of the building.
Urban greening (and cooling!)
The urban heat island effect is worsening in Perth, but more trees, green spaces and natural shading can help to reduce it again. Currently there are 2,500 trees planted per year, but many won’t survive as their needs are not fully considered. For example, the trends for green roof and walls are poor solutions as they are not suitable for Perth’s harsh climate. A better solution would be to stop the loss of existing mature trees – especially on private land and when infill is taking place.
WA state and local governments must show leadership on tree protection and retention policies. WA is currently the only state that does not have protections for urban trees. Some suggestions for these policies include:
- Embedding requirements for deep root zones on private land
- Curbing or carefully managing actions that threaten mature trees, such as road building or upgrading
- Enabling civil engineers to increase their understanding of the needs of trees and tree roots to ensure canopy cover
- Requiring engineers to work alongside horticulturalists during the planning and implementation of projects
- Considering and managing the impact that underground services and service maintenance will have on trees in engineering works
Mandatory minimums and disclosures
28% of people in WA rent their homes, and as such have no way to know how energy efficient the home is before moving in. They also have limited avenues to mitigate an inefficiently built home or manage the high energy costs associated with that inefficiency. Enforcing a minimum legislated requirement for the energy efficiency standards for rental properties would ensure low-income household and disadvantaged renters are not left with the cheap but energy inefficient properties to rent.
There are existing requirements for rental properties to have adequate locks, functioning plumbing and more but no requirements to meet energy efficiency, insulation, and draft proofing standards. These can and should be legislated through the Residential Tenancy Act to limit market segregation.
For simplicity’s sake these properties should be rated, and those ratings should be enforced under a mandatory disclosure scheme when buying, selling or renting. This would ensure the market has an incentive to improve energy efficiency. Tax incentives and other mechanisms could help landlords front the capital required for any improvements made. Of course, we also need the means to monitor, measure and maintain these disclosures, along with the required administrative support to facilitate transparency and compliance.
Retrofitting and renovating
An alternative to that market-driven approach to retrofitting and rating existing homes is to introduce state-wide and subsidised retrofitting requirements on rental properties. With only 2% of WA’s housing stock being turned over every year, retrofitting is an essential part of reducing carbon emissions and must not be overlooked in any pathway to clean towns and cities.
Quick retrofitting solutions could include:
- Adding solar panels and batteries
- Including community batteries for multiple dwelling buildings
- Solar hot water or heat pumps
- Improved draught exclusion around windows and doors
- Better insulation in roofs and walls
- More water-saving showers and toilets
The state government’s commitment to increasing social housing is an important economic stimulus and this can be even greater if retrofitting or existing social housing is packaged with it.
Homing in on skills and education
It was recognised that we urgently need to build sustainability into the learning and training pathways of urban designers, urban planners, developers, architects and builders. This could be achieved through skills training at TAFE, apprenticeships, universities or on the job training. Some inroads have already been made in this area, including work from the Institute of Architects – soon student architects will be required to learn about net zero design in order to achieve their accreditation under the National Standard of Competency for Architects. The Housing Institute of Australia (HIA) also has a Green Smart training programme to upskill builders and designers already in the workforce.
Overall, our participants agreed that what we need is a systems-based approach to change. Everyone needs to be ‘in the room’ to work out how we transition to a low carbon or net-zero carbon, future. A clear pathway should be defined to achieve these aims, and this takes leadership at all levels of decision-making from federal, state, and local government levels to industry, business, trades and education.
To contact Clean State for comment, reach out on email@example.com.