Environment

‘Right direction’: New building rules to improve safety, efficiency

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New buildings will have to meet higher safety standards such as greater use of sprinklers, while other states will have to follow NSW and adopt separate minimum energy requirements for summer and winter, according to proposed changes to national construction codes.

The public has until April 13 to comment on changes proposed by the Australian Building Codes Board due to come into effect in 2019.

Minimum standards for new homes and other building are set for an overhaul. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

The possible amendments come as ClimateWorks and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council released a report highlighting significant savings in energy use and carbon emissions if governments strengthened minimum standards for new homes.

Neil Savery, head of the ABCB, told Fairfax Media new residential accommodation and hotels would need to install sprinklers in floors above three storeys – or about 12 metres – compared with 25 metres now if the proposed changes get approved by state and federal governments.

"Firefighting equipment can deal relatively easily with fires up to three storeys but not above," Mr Savery said. Above that height, it also becomes "much harder and much longer for people to evacuate”.

All residential accommodation and not just aged care would also need to install sprinklers.

Another proposed change is to introduce minimum energy standards for both home heating and cooling, under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme. Such a move would bring the scheme in line with NSW's separate BASIX program.

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Mr Savery said it had "always been the intention" to have homes perform to minimum standards throughout the year "but people haven’t been interpreting it that way”.

Tony Isaacs, an energy consultant who has long called for such changes, said the move was "in the right direction".

“At least you’re not going to have an absolute hotbox at the absolute worse end of performance," Mr Isaac said.

He also welcomed a proposal that would eliminate certain clauses allowing builders to exploit the codes to get houses with three-star performance counted as six-star ones.

“It’s a great relief to close the loophole," Mr Isaacs said. "Good on them for biting the bullet.”

While the proposed changes were welcomed, Mr Isaacs described them as "fairly modest" because they fail to require an increase in stringency.

Australia's six-star standard, which is poor compared with most of Europe and North America, has been largely unchanged since 2010 and, with the 2019 window closing, won't be lifted before 2022.

However, Kristin Brookfield, chief executive of the Housing Industry Association, said the proposals "will make a significant difference in the energy ratings for new homes across Australia".

"With cost of living and energy prices soaring, average families and home owners need all thehelp they can get," Ms Brookfield said.

Eli Court, program manager at ClimateWorks, said a three-day delay in lifting residential energy efficiency standards to 2022 – or later – would see another half million homes built locking in unnecessarily high energy bills and carbon emissions.

The ASBEC/ClimateWorks report – dubbed The Bottom Line – estimates that postponement would slug those households $1.1 billion in extra energy costs to 2050 and an additional 3 million tonnes of emissions.

With the excessive cooling and heating needs, those houses would also require $530 million in unnecessary network investments, the report said.

The list of cost-effective measures include increased requirements for wall insulation, stronger specifications for window performance and the installation of roller shutters and large eaves, such as for westwards-facing walls.

Such steps could lift new homes' ratings by the equivalent of 1-2.5 stars and cut energy consumption for heating and cooling by as much as 51 per cent, the report said.

Mr Court said there is increasing evidence to suggest renewable energy such as solar panels should also be made a requirement for new homes.

Compliance in the industry also remains weak. Assessors are typically not required to be accredited in most states, with NSW the main exception, Mr Isaacs said.

Building surveyors who inspect construction are also usually hired by the builders, creating a conflict of interest, Mr Court said. A failing assessment could mean the surveyor "may not get work again", he said.

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