With a total of almost 500 Green-Star certified buildings around the country, the push toward environmentally sustainable practices in the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure is gathering momentum throughout Australia.
Compared to other developed countries – at least in terms of energy efficiency – Australia’s current performance now ranks around the middle of the road. In a recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Australia ranked sixth overall out of 12 of the world’s largest economies based on 27 energy efficiency metrics regarding buildings, industry and transportation and national policy.
The scorecard indicates that Australia is doing reasonably well when it comes to buildings but less well in other areas such as transport.
Even in terms of buildings, however, a number of commentators say we have room for improvement.
“I think we still have quite a bit to do within individual building design before we can honestly think that we are consistently ‘doing well at green buildings,’” says David Jarratt, director of WSP Built Ecology in Melbourne.
Referring to Australia’s ranking as per the ACEEE study, Jarratt says the country is indeed performing well in terms of energy efficiency but questions whether this alone is an adequate way to define an environmentally sustainable building.
Ann Gardner, a partner at iRubber P/L ESD rubber flooring in Melbourne, identifies products and choice of building materials as a significant issue and an area in which Australian builders can improve.
Gardner says that much as she tries to educate builders about the sustainable and longer-lasting features of her firm’s products, she has encountered a number of challenges in this area.
“We seem to have no problem getting our ‘green’ rubber flooring specified all over Australia, but at the moment we feel quite stuck at getting our ‘green’ rubber flooring actually ordered and installed,” she says.
Gardner says price and resistance to change are key stumbling points. With regard to price, she says there have been a number of cases where architects and designers have specified environmentally friendly products but builders have switched them at the last minute. She also says that despite strenuous efforts to talk to builders about new, environmentally friendly flooring products, ‘they usually go with what they know.’
Gardner also questions whether young builders coming through are being sufficiently educated about environmentally sustainable materials.
Nigel Howard, managing director at Edge Environment in Sydney, agrees with Gardner about materials. He points out that the building materials component is a much more significant factor in terms of energy efficiency as it pertains to overall environmental building performance in Australia than in much of the US, Europe and in Nordic countries where weather conditions are less benign.
Jarratt feels another issue is that, while there are many ‘good news stories’ around the marketplace regarding positive correlations between good indoor environment quality and buildng occupant productivity, he feels that in many cases, buildings that encourage these strategies are being pushed to the side, with mainstream alternatives that rely on decades-old technology often chosen instead.
Outside of buildings, the ACEEE data indicates that Australia has considerable room for improvement.
Dru Spork, building services and sustainability manager at Grocon in Sydney, says Australia is well behind in transport, though that may be largely because “crazy vehicle/fuel taxation systems across Europe leave the average worker no choice but to consider lower mileage and public alternatives.”
Spork describes Australia’s infrastructure performance as ‘so-so’, saying the country’s ranking in this area is made to look better than its performance may actually reflect because Europe suffers from the same underinvestment in research and transmission lines.
On the bright side, however, Spork believes environmental values are more natural and integrated in the Australian way of life than in Europe, or at least in the UK.
“We were always in front with home recycling, building waste recycling, scrap metal return to the smelters things like that,” he says.
Yes, Australia does have nearly 500 certified green buildings – now spreading to include areas as diverse as schools, fast food restaurants and soon, fire stations. But in terms of overall building and infrastructure environmental performance, it seems the country still has room for improvement.