Built to Perform in Northern Australia

In early August, the NT Property Council of Australia Sustainability Committee hosted an eye-opening presentation by The Property Council of Australia’s National Division’s Head of Sustainability Frankie Muskovic and ASBEC’s (Australian Sustainable Built Environmental Council) Executive Director Suzanne Toumbourou. 

The topic related to how Australian buildings are currently performing in terms of their energy usage and on how the built environment can look to improve this in the future as Australia moves towards Net Zero Energy target by 2050, a tall order some might say as today, energy consumed by our buildings accounts for 55 % of total electrical use and 23% of carbon emissions. The potential for improvement is huge and has many advantages including, reducing electricity network stress, reduce energy bills for building owners & occupants, improving overall health of the population and it is the least-cost pathway to zero carbon. 

51% of Australia’s buildings in 2050 will be built AFTER 2019, therefore an obvious method to control the quality of performance of yet to be constructed buildings lies within our National Construction Code (NCC), raising the minimum standards for energy efficiency within the NCC is a major focus of the strategy.  The NCC is a familiar regulatory system in the building construction industry, code upgrades can be applied incrementally over time to all commercial & residential building types and will capture the efficiency of both the building envelope and fixed equipment that consumes energy within the building.

It was indicated that it is not going to be enough to simply produce more energy via renewables to meet a Zero Emissions Target, the energy used to heat or cool our buildings must become highly valued, the building envelope, it’s skin, must be sophisticated enough to retain the conditioned air without air leakage or heat loss via under insulated roofs, walls and floors. The HVAC equipment and lighting must also be of a standard that minimises the energy used to produce quality indoor comfort & light. The aim is to maximise the quality of the construction to minimise the ongoing energy demand over the lifetime of the building, it suddenly became apparent that 2050 is not that far away and the buildings we design & construct today will still be operating in 30 years-time.

It is indicated that throughout Australia and in the NT the industry is ready to build to higher standards than the code currently mandates for residential buildings. In the Northern Territory, records show, that the average star NatHERS rating achieved was 6.5 stars for class 1 dwellings (housing) and 7.8 for class 2 dwellings (apartments) meanwhile the NCC requirements remain much lower, only requiring a minimum of NatHERS rating was 5 stars for class 1 dwellings and 3.5 for class 2 dwellings.  Many new suburbs have covenant conditions that require a minimum NatHERS 6 Star Rating as standard, most house builders are comfortable building to meet the covenant approval standards of Muirhead and Bellamack, indicating that the local housing industry is exceeding the current NCC requirements and is well positioned to receive greater increases without major cost implications or changes to the normal construction styles and methods.

However, for commercial building the NT landscape is quite different, the gap between the NT and the rest of Australia has grown wider in 2019.  Historically, the NT has never adopted any minimum standards for energy efficiency for Class 3-9 buildings which seems unbelievable in a tropical climatic environment where most commercial buildings are air-conditioned for 100 percent of their occupancy hours. Hence, the adoption of minimum energy efficiency provisions presents enhanced possibilities to reduce the energy consumption in the NT’s built environment over and above other jurisdictions where these building types are less reliant on air-conditioning for human comfort.

Section J of the National Construction Code (NCC) Volume 1, outlines the energy efficiency requirements for non-residential buildings Class 3-9. The main objective of Section J is to reduce the amount of energy a building requires for its normal operation, first introduced to the NCC 2006 and the stringency of the regulations were increased in 2010, NCC 2019 release seen a marked increase in minimum standards across the country, yet to date the NT has not adopted any part or edition of Section J NCC. Now falling 13 years behind other states the Northern Territory is not in a position to aim for Zero Energy by 2050 target but first must aim to achieve the baseline benchmark that the remainder of Australia has already reached. 

The table below indicates the potential, by building type, for the NCC to achieve net zero energy target, the potential in the NT is even greater giving that we have not even reached the baseline as indicated for our non-residential buildings. 

Class 3 & 5-9 commercial building types included workplaces such as schools, hotels, hospitals, offices, universities, restaurants, retails, age care facilities and other public buildings. 

This indicates that here in the NT we may have further to travel to meet built environments energy reduction targets but we have more to gain along the way in terms of energy savings and opportunities to improve the quality & therefore the efficiency of our buildings.

Interestingly the presenters pointed out that while other States and Territories have different ministers with differing mandates for energy and building regulations here in the Territory one minister holds both roles and this should be advantageous towards recognising the potential that greater energy efficiency regulations can have on achieving the mandates for overall energy reduction targets. 

The NT Property Council of Australia Sustainability Committee; Richard McAllister, Ruth Palmer, Ray Fogolyan, Adam Prentice, Matt Hoogland, Peter James, and myself Sandra Howlin would like to express our thanks to Frankie Muskovic and Suzanne Toumbourou our presenters and the NT Property Council for hosting this very well attended event that highlighted the potential for our industry to make a huge difference into the future. 

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