But the buck doesn’t always stop with builders. “Energy assessors typically work off the design, so you need to check whether they have the qualifications to perform post-build inspections properly,” says Ogburn. “With ratings soon to be tied to property value nationally, sellers may also approach tame assessors to ensure a better rating.” Ogburn provided CHOICE with evidence of homes that don’t comply with the plans provided through energy ratings software. One building was missing compliance elements such as a rainwater tank, ceiling fans, properly installed draught seals, ventilation windows in the laundry and ceiling insulation, to name a few (view the case studies). “At the end of the day, consumers are paying a premium for a product that is not delivered as specified.”
Dick Clarke, a building designer with 35 years’ experience in energy-efficient design, is Sustainability Director for the peak industry body Building Designers Association of Australia and is a technical adviser on the Your Home Technical Manual produced by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. He agrees with Ogburn that more training and education is needed within the industry.
“If you have crappy installation, you will lose energy efficiency,” says Clarke. “Unfortunately, the certification process allows a conflict of interest that often downgrades the ‘as built’ result from the ‘as designed’ goal.” He also believes more post-build research is needed to help improve the energy-efficiency software used in the design phase. “This will tell us not only how the buildings themselves are working, but also how people are using them.” He says that people aren’t being properly educated on the most efficient ways to use buildings to their design strengths.
Jan Brandjes has worked in some of the coldest climates on earth, including the Arctic, before coming to Australia to work in the building-energy-efficiency field. His company provides real-life testing of airflow issues that are typically calculated using energy-efficiency software. This is designed to provide an accurate representation of whether builders have met the gap-sealing requirements that form part of energy-efficiency compliance. When Jan first came here, he was surprised at the lack of air-sealing in Australian homes. “I’ve tested hundreds of homes and found them to be consistently leaky. Because you lose most of your heating or cooling through air leakage, this has a strong effect on a building’s energy efficiency.”
He also points out that it’s about getting the right airflow balance, not about making homes too tight. Jan says many of the problems can be fixed easily and for much less than adding other energy saving measures such as solar. “In many cases, exhaust fans in the bathroom and unsealed downlights are causing a lot of air leakage. This can easily be fixed.” For a new home under construction, this cost can be as little as $300, or $1000-1500 for existing homes. Jan also believes that energy rating software assumes that Aussie homes are built a lot tighter than they really are. However, he’s quick to point out that the fault lies in a lack of education, and would like to see more industry training along with better consumer understanding.
Master Builders Australia also stresses that education is critical as the industry develops. Robert Appleton, National Director, Technical & Regulatory Policy, points out that “The government increased the energy ratings requirements without a great deal of lead time for the industry to adapt, which has created problems in several areas. As with any new regulations, there will be issues that need ironing out, but over time the market will adjust to meet the requirements.”
The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has stated software is a tool for the design stage only and isn’t designed to measure actual activity. Any issues with build specifications not matching the design are compliance issues. It also states that issues surrounding building energy ratings analysis will be addressed as part of the ongoing National Strategy for Energy Efficiency.
The Association of Building Sustainability Assessors (ABSA) CEO, Alison Carmichael, says energy ratings of new homes and the corresponding thermal comfort of the end product depends very much on the building being constructed to plan. “Construction methods have a substantial impact on the result. You may buy the highest-performing thermal windows, but if they’re not fitted with draught stopping, you can end up with substantial air leakage and lower levels of thermal performance than predicted.” The ACT recently moved to bring energy assessors under official licensing requirements. This means they’ll be subject to stricter regulation and held accountable for any errors they make that affect the energy rating of a building in the ACT. There are now two classes of energy assessors: Class A is qualified to inspect buildings on site, while Class B can only work from designs.
New home builders, renovators and existing home owners can visit livinggreener.gov.au for general advice on creating an energy-efficient home, or check out our quick energy savings tips. You could even take the 10% challenge. Using an independent assessor to assist throughout the building or renovation cycles, or as an evaluation method for existing home owners, may also be an option – just make sure your assessor is qualified to perform the tasks you require.
In the longer term, CHOICE believes a change to the law that sees new home owners formally select an appropriately qualified building surveyor could also help in cases of big housing developments. Mandatory post-design energy compliance checks would improve efficiency standards, but this would see up-front costs rise. Further improvement to assessor and builder education, energy-testing measures, software and consumer knowledge are essential to ensuring the integrity of the system.