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Feature article

Sustainability in Practice


WORDS BY Michael Shaw

It has been three years since Architect Victoria published an edition on sustainability. There appears to be a tendency in contemporary discussion of sustainability to focus predominantly on the work of building services engineers. Particular attention is given to increased occupant well-being and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and potable water use. This edition however will focus on aspects of sustainability in design that are more of an architectural nature. It is about the sustainable decision-making that occurs at the initial architectural concept stage, rather than the technology on the roof or behind the plant room door. 

Architecture’s ability to play a leading role in shaping the future of sustainability, in buildings and at the strategic level, is demonstrated in this edition by a wide range of contributors. Robin Mellon of the Green Building Council of Australia shows how ancient principles of passive design have been incorporated in recent Green Star rated multi-storey residential buildings in Victoria. Louise Mackenzie presents a recent Victorian state school project with an architecturally driven passive air conditioning system.

New organisations are springing up to drive a broader sustainability agenda. Examples such as Living Future Institute of Australia and Bioregional are spreading ideas such as One Planet Living first trialed in London’s BedZed project. Bioregional’s understanding of sustainability includes all aspects of occupant lifestyle. It does not just focus on the efficient design of buildings to use energy and water wisely, but looks at the occupant’s whole environmental footprint which is also impacted upon by choices relating to food and transport. Ed Cotter of Bioregional provides Architect Victoria with an introduction to the concept of One Planet Living and its application on three recent Melbourne projects.

As reflected in the draft of the new Institute National Sustainability Policy, the term ‘sustainability’ is being accepted in architectural circles as encompassing a widening base of concerns. One such example is the provision of equitable access to all citizens, to enable active and safe participation in every aspect of community life. Amelia Starr of Livable Housing Australia argues for design to suit all stages of life. Mary Ann Jackson and Ralph Green map changing attitudes to disability in twentieth century society and advocate for greater adoption of Universal Design principles.

In the last few years, government support for the building and property sector has revolved around making improvements to the energy performance of existing buildings. The Victorian Greener Government Buildings program (recently axed), the 1200 Buildings retrofit program at the City of Melbourne, Low Carbon Australia low interest loans (also axed) and Sustainability Victoria’s Energy Efficient Office Buildings funding program which specifically targets mid-tier buildings, are some examples. Much of our building stock is likely to be still in existence in coming decades, particularly buildings of heritage significance. The interplay between preservation of heritage buildings and sustainability is explored in Louise Honman’s article. Gregory Burgess and Emily Cox show how the historic School of Mines building in Castlemaine has been transformed to provide a modern Civic Centre office while incorporating the local Shire’s sustainability aspirations.

Broader sustainable issues in building design are being encouraged through voluntary rating systems that recognise best practice. The extent of nationally regulated building requirements for sustainable design is limited. The areas of focus are greenhouse gas emissions of new buildings and those of existing buildings undergoing substantial refurbishment. Section J in the National Construction Code (NCC) and its domestic counterpart Section 3.12 (encompassing six star house energy ratings and maximum installed lighting input power densities) are now well established. Rudimentary natural light requirements also exist in Section F of the NCC for vision glazing in some building classes. However their lack of rigour in calculation method renders them ineffective – particularly now that tinted glazing (often with low light transmittance) is becoming commonplace, to meet minimum thermal performance requirements. In Victoria, the requirement for either a solar hot water service or a rainwater tank for toilet flushing for detached dwellings, supplements the national energy efficiency requirements.

It is interesting to recall the genesis of the National Building Energy Efficiency Requirements, to gain an appreciation of the slow speed with which new sustainable design requirements might be incorporated into the NCC. In his speech ‘Safeguarding the Future’ in 1997, then Prime Minister John Howard outlined Australia’s response to climate change in the negotiation phase of the Kyoto Protocol agreement. He said that the Government would work with the States, Territories and industry to develop voluntary minimum energy standards. He stated that if the voluntary approach did not achieve acceptable progress within 12 months, mandatory standards would be introduced.1 These are now published in Section J of the National Construction Code (NCC) but the mandatory measures for non-residential buildings were not introduced until 2006, nine years after the policy announcement. It is worth noting though that the voluntary minimum standards were given only one year to show progress before Government moved to regulate. This could indicate that back then Government’s appetite for relying on only voluntary action to address climate change through the built environment was low, but was willing to allow the regulatory process to delay mandatory action for quite a number of years.

The energy efficiency requirements in Section J were sold by Australian governments as being designed only to eliminate worst practice. Simultaneously those governments supported the development of voluntary rating tools to reward leading edge sustainable design. These tools were supposed to assist in increasing the average sustainability performance of our building stock. Perhaps the sustainable performance of our built environment is subject to too little stick (lax regulation) and a bewildering array of carrots (voluntary best practice programs), many of which are having little impact on the total market of new and substantially refurbished building stock.

Over the last decade, there have been a number of voluntary sustainability certification systems gaining some traction in the marketplace. These voluntary market transformation tools may be improving the sustainability of some of our built environment, but their uptake is patchy at best. The voluntary use of Green Star has been recently noted to have penetrated well into the high end of the commercial office sector, but had limited success with other building types.2 A similar argument can be made about NABERS Energy and Water rating system. Successful implementation has predominantly been for office buildings, in part driven by nationally mandated disclosure of energy benchmarking. The statistics of current NABERS ratings on the NABERS website confirm this: office buildings 1,260, office tenancies 202, data centres 1, shopping centres 83 and hotels 25.

As a general rule, recent Australian governments tend only to regulate when there is clear market failure to deliver outcomes for the greater public good. If voluntary sustainability certification schemes are clearly not transforming the building design market other than the commercial office sector, then there is an argument for further increasing the stringency of minimum energy performance requirements (last updated in 2010) and for expanding the scope of sustainable design requirements to include aspects that are currently unregulated.

Increasing stringency requires lead time to develop effective measures so work needs to resume immediately on setting targets and timeframes through the National Building Energy Standard-Setting, Assessment and Rating Framework. The Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) has decided not to proceed with the proposed 2015 update to Section J, which was to have a major increase in stringency for non-residential buildings. Such an incremental change would need to be preceded by a technical review of the current requirements to determine which regulations would have the greatest scope for cost effective change. My electrical engineer colleagues regularly design reasonably efficient lighting layouts that use half the lighting power allowed under Section J6, while our experience is that architects are consistently coming up against the limits of the glazed area allowances in the Section J2 glazing calculator. It is clear that the Section J requirements over-regulate in some areas, yet are lax in other areas, requiring excessive design time in compliance calculations, which ultimately have no impact on improving standard industry practice.

To avoid a repeat of the rushed implementation of the Section J update in the 2010 edition of the Building Code of Australia, technical development of new provisions needs to begin now. The building design and construction industry need to be given adequate lead time to provide regulators with feedback on draft provisions and to be able to familiarise themselves with the changes before they are adopted in the Code. Forewarning to industry of major changes planned for the UK counterpart to Section J – Part L – was given by the UK government many years in advance. Australia is one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse emitters, so we need long term planning to address our building stock’s emissions.

Some in the design and construction industry could be forgiven for thinking that wider sustainable design requirements contained within the more successful voluntary best practice tools would eventually filter through into minimum standards or mandatory disclosure schemes. With the exception of the Commercial Building Disclosure (CBD) program requiring NABERS Energy benchmarking at times of leasing or sale of office spaces, there are no examples of voluntary best practice sustainability standards being made mandatory in recent times. The Federal government has recently announced that a similar disclosure scheme, planned for benchmarking shopping centre energy performance using NABERS, has been postponed. Extending the ACT’s House Energy Rating disclosure scheme nationally has also been delayed indefinitely.

A group of local governments in Melbourne and Victorian regional centres, frustrated by the glacial rate of change at the State and Federal levels, have had some success in mandating higher sustainability requirements for building designs. Recognising that the most cost effective time in a building’s life cycle to introduce sustainable design features is during the development of the initial design concept, these Councils mandate ‘sustainable design assessment in the planning process’, known as SDAPP. Like the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star rating tool, SDAPP considers a number of sustainability categories. Unlike Green Star though, SDAPP sets a minimum target for each category. The sustainability categories address much more than the minimum thermal performance and lighting efficiency provisions contained within the Building Code.

This group of Victorian Councils has exhibited their proposed SDAPP planning scheme amendments in 2013. A combined State government hearing in December 2013 allowed the proponents and opponents of SDAPP to present their arguments about these amendments. In April the panel recommended that until a Statewide approach is developed it is appropriate that local councils include sustainability requirements at the planning stage to address issues not able to be addressed by current building regulations.

‘The average Victorian needs 6.8 global hectares of land to sustain his or her lifestyle. If everyone on the planet lived like Victorians, we would need more than four Earths to support us.’3

In the absence of a will to act at a Federal level, our environmental footprint – made larger by our reliance on brown coal for electricity – is a strong reason why greater action on building sustainability should be mandated in the State of Victoria. After all, Victoria has previously led the nation by introducing minimum standards for building fabric thermal efficiency for detached housing. Some Victorian Councils are now mandating that attention also be paid to water efficiency, waste management, sustainable materials, indoor environment quality and site biodiversity at the planning stage. Alongside this drive to include sustainable design in the planning process, architects can take charge, through design practice, to create a shift in thinking to include all facets of sustainability.


Michael Shaw is ESD Manager at Connor Pincus Group building services engineering consultants. Connor Pincus Group is a member of the Green Building Council of Australia. Michael conducts industry training on behalf of the NABERS national administrator and has delivered National Seminar Series training to architects on energy efficiency of glazing and daylighting. In a prior role at a predecessor of Sustainability Victoria, Michael managed a project to determine cost effective building fabric and building services measures for actual office building designs, to compare with those measures proposed in the first draft of Section J.


I would like to thank all contributors to this issue for their time and for sharing their professional knowledge and experience. The Sustainable Architecture Forum (SAF) of the Victorian Chapter – of which I am a member – was instrumental in developing the ideas to be explored in this issue. Particular thanks are due to Noy Hildebrand, Environment Design Guide editor, who provided editorial input on some articles. Special thanks go to my father Brian and my partner Michaela who both provided proofreading support.


1.     Howard,J,Safe guarding theFuture,speech20November1997

2.      Van der Heijden, J, Green building revolution? Only in high-end new CBD offices,  accessed 8 April 2014 
3.     ­­EPA Victoria, Victoria’s Ecological Footprint, December 2008 accessed 10 March 2014