Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Jason York says his phone has been ringing off the hook for 18 months with people wanting offers of insulation for their homes.

“It’s getting to the point where I’m having a lot of trouble getting stock in. Keeping up with demand has been a big issue,” he says.

“When I started in 2016, there was apparently a lack of confidence that isolation could even work.”

As the UN climate conference in Glasgow approaches, governments and large corporations are under control of their CO2 emissions.

But York has also found an increase in interest from homeowners in hopes of regulating the temperature in their homes in an effort to make them more energy efficient and generate a lower CO2 footprint.

Jason York leans against a truck containing insulation equipment.
Jason York has seen an increase in demand for insulation, but says it is not necessarily an immediate solution to energy efficiency.(ABC News: John Gunn)

Buildings account for around a quarter of Australia’s total emissions, largely from the energy they consume, and residential housing accounts for 57 per cent of this, according to the Green Building Council of Australia.

Commercial buildings, high-rise buildings and infrastructure also generate significant emissions — both during construction and when construction is completed.

Looking for greener building materials

In Sydney, a team of researchers is experimenting with concrete – a major contributor to carbon emissions, mainly generated during the production of its binder, cement.

According to the International Energy Agency, cement production accounts for 7 percent of global emissions; Carbon dioxide is released when the materials used to make cement, including limestone, are heated in an oven.

Louise Keyte stands with her arms crossed.
The concrete Dr Louise Keyte that is evolving today looks very different than two decades ago.(ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

Dr. Louise Keyte, co-director of a research partnership between UTS and Boral, says the recipe for concrete looks very different than two decades ago.

“To move to a low-carbon binder, we need to use other substitutes instead of cement,” she says.

Boral has several lower carbon concrete products already on the market, and the development continues – but they need customers who are willing to buy what they sell.

Concrete samples on shelves.
Concrete samples dry at UTS-Boral Center for Sustainable Building.(ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

“When you think of construction, and especially high-rise buildings or important infrastructure, there will always be an element of conservatism,” says Boral CEO Zlatko Todorcevski.

“It’s up to us to work on these specifications to make sure they understand how our products work under different conditions, and give them the comfort that these things will last for decades, if not longer.”

Sir. Todorcevski says several state governments have recognized new Boral road construction products, helping prove the business case.

“It’s great, but you know, it’s early steps and quite small steps,” he said.

“We would love to see governments and other specs go on foot and be really proactive.”

The industry’s assessment is moving into residential areas

The materials used in buildings contribute to their green credentials, including under the rating system administered by the industry-led Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

“Within the Green Star rating system, we take into account materials … what we are looking at is reducing the carbon in them,” says GBCA CEO Davina Rooney.

The GBCA is made up of more than 500 members, including private and ASX-listed companies with a turnover of more than $ 46 billion — Boral is one.

GBCA’s Green Star rating system is used to assess everything from shopping malls to office buildings and development opportunities that consider features such as air quality, energy consumption, wastewater and facilities.

In recent months, the GBCA has expanded its reach in the housing sector and now offers Green Star ratings for housing.

It has gone in goal with targeted developers who build large amounts of new homes, e.g. Stockland and Metricon.

Features that contribute to the assessment include energy efficient appliances, induction hobs, rainwater tanks, insulation, double glazing and solar energy.

Davina Rooney looks to the left with plants hanging behind her.
Davina Rooney hopes the government will introduce mandates around green homes.(ABC News: John Gunn)

But so far, Green Star ratings are not available for existing properties.

“When you look at something like a refrigerator, you go in and buy it, you see a star rating, you can figure out how efficient that refrigerator is,” Rooney says.

Calls for a national “green” standard

Ms Rooney hopes the rating system, created by GBCA as an industry body, can spur policy change and show that market demand is there.

“The role is that we set voluntary standards in order to lift the market up and make room for regulation to come under,” she says.

“It is our role to show that the way is possible, and then work with the government to bring the standards there as quickly as we can.”

Economist Diaswati Mardiasmo has studied the landscape in Australia compared to other countries, and says it lacks a mandate, national definition of what a green home is.

She describes state- and territory-based schemes as “somewhat incoherent”.

“Each of these standards has its own language … whether it’s a scorecard or a scheme or a grant. So there’s always a little bit of misunderstanding and uncertainty about what they really are.”

The various measures include solar aid, low-interest loans for energy-efficient appliances and energy efficiency information schemes.

At the national level, the National Construction Code (NCC) contains requirements for energy efficiency, and compliance is governed by the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS), which provides homes with an assessment based on their potential energy consumption.

A meeting of state and territory energy ministers in 2019 agreed to consider changes to improve current programs.

The consultation has just concluded on the latest round of updates to NCC, which will be introduced next year.

These include a national scorecard for assessing the energy efficiency of existing homes based on the Victorian model, which extends focus from new constructions.

Owners of existing homes can now request a NATHERS appraisal of their property, but these appraisals and the incoming scorecard are optional.

Green homes sell for more, finds economist

There is something that should get homeowners to sign up for volunteer schemes, according to Dr. Mardiasmo, chief economist at the real estate company PRD.

Her research has found greener homes are sold at a premium.

Diaswati Mardiasmo smiles at the camera, wearing a red shirt.
Diaswati Mardiasmo has studied the relationship between green buildings and property prices.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Dr. Mardiasmo looked at existing homes with features such as solar panels, water tanks and greywater systems.

However, insulation business owner Jason York warns that putting a tick on a real estate ad that proclaims green credentials does not necessarily guarantee an energy-efficient result.

As someone who looks inside roofs every day, he will see that building standards are tightened to ensure that the insulation he installs works as it should.

“Insulation will, of course, control thermal properties to some degree,” says York.

“But there seems to be this misconception that insulation will achieve magic in itself, and it really comes down to the environment, you have to put it in a dry, moisture-free, airtight environment.”

The Climate Council has slammed Australian homes as “glorified tents”, arguing that building efficiency standards not only lag behind other major economies, most homes were built before the current standards were introduced.

Dr. Mardiasmo also notes that the financial savings from energy efficiency features can be seasonal and depend on individual use, meaning it can be difficult to put a dollar value on the benefits.

“On the other hand, if we can prove it from a capital growth perspective, of how much people are willing to buy, and that it sells faster in the market, it will be something that is more tangible, as many owners or homeowners will be looking at,” she explains.

In addition to a higher price when it comes to selling, a new benefit for owners of greener homes is access to cheaper loans.

Clean Energy Finance Corporation finances home loans that provide a 0.4 percent discount for homes that achieve a certain energy efficiency rating under NatHERS.

Bank Australia and non-bank lender Firstmac are currently issuing the reduced mortgages.

“It’s a kind of national movement, but it’s not a national mandate system,” Mardiasmo said.

She points to more widespread programs abroad, such as Canada’s Greener Home Grants and tax deductions for energy-efficient construction products or housing improvements in the United States.

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