From houses to high rises, buildings account for half of Australia’s electricity use and almost a quarter of its climate change emissions.
Extend that to include roads and rail and the like, and it becomes 70% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions that are enabled by infrastructure, says the Infrastructure Sustainability Council.
All of that needs to come down to net zero to declare Australia sustainable, say the experts.
Big ask, you might say.
The good news is the greening of Australia’s building industry is well underway, and several new initiatives are now in play.
You might have noticed, for example, the recent federal budget in which the Commonwealth committed billions to help smooth a path to net zero.
Moreover, there are tangible runs on the board says the building industry, with several notable examples in regional Australia as well as in its cities. More on that later.
But not everything is apples just yet.
Firstly, you’re right: it’s all very well to decide the building game should go green, but exactly how do we get there?
The big challenge is regulation, says Green Building Council of Australia CEO Davina Rooney, who describes the situation as something of a patchwork quilt.
“You’d think it’d be pretty simple and straightforward, how buildings fit together,” says Rooney.
“But the challenge is that there’s national regulation, there’s state-led regulation, and there’s councils.
“What we find is [policies] apply differently to different kinds of asset classes that are in different spots across Australia.”
GBCA’s marketing asserts that the built environment already has the technology to decarbonise.
But it also warns “we must do this at speed and scale to smooth the way for other hard-to-abate sectors and achieve Australia’s legislated emission reduction targets.”
To that end, and in the lead-up to the recent federal budget, GBCA launched a new and overarching policy framework it calls Every Building Counts.
Rooney describes it as “a plan of how to get every building in Australia down to net zero,” including residential, commercial, industrial – the lot.
“And it’s overlapped with regional Australia,” she says, “its target is every building, so it theoretically covers everything.”
“A lot of the policy complexity is how we apply [it] for all builds across Australia: How do we take the most vulnerable Australians with us; how do you actually apply that to regional and sometimes rural Australia?”
They’re tough questions and Rooney admits that, sometimes, it’s easier in the city.
Reaching for the sky
Wander up Sydney’s Broadway toward Chippendale and you can’t miss what is possibly Australia’s most recognisably green high-rise, at One Central Park.
The twin-towered apartment complex and entry mall was built in 2013, but a decade later passers-by still stop to gaze upward at its impressive façade of hanging gardens and drooping greenery.
A total of 2700 planter boxes adorn the building’s exterior, creating seven kilometres of gardens around both towers, which reach skyward from levels 2 to 33.
Launched to early resistance from the industry in 2003, the site’s two towers also feature motorised and fixed mirrors designed to reflect sunlight to its more shaded corners.
The mirror surface is mounted on a cantilevered structure hung between the towers, a seemingly impossible element that appears to hover in mid-air. It was designed to become a canvas for public art at night.
But some architects questioned what they saw as the ‘bling’ on the building – “How long will the plants live? What happens if or when they die? What’s it like living under the mirrors?”
As it turns out, the plants survived, watered by a blackwater recycling system.
In a 2014 case study in CTBUH Journal, Architects Jean Nouvel and Bertram Beissel – the French designers of One Central Park – explained their offspring as “a powerful and visible green statement with a tall building that is environmentally responsive on multiple levels”.
The design scooped 87 international competitors to win Best Tall Building Worldwide from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) at its annual awards ceremony the same year.
Back in Australia, the building’s environmental credentials had already earned it a five-star rating from the GBCA, under a six-level rating system called Green Star.
The award helped to cement the building as an early milestone in Australia’s emerging green building policy and practice.
“The thing with One Central Park,” says Rooney, “is that it is an Australian example of excellence, a leading building; one thing they did very well is the green façade – it’s just so communicable.”
What is a Green Star Rating?
The GBCA Green Star rating system aims to verify that a building, fit-out, or community, is sustainable. It looks at energy, water, waste, nature, and circularity, as well as how you work with partners, contractors and the supply chain.
Under the scheme, six stars means zero operational carbon emissions, five is net zero ready, and a four-star score provides “a new entry point for sustainable buildings”, one that demands 10% fewer emissions than currently required by the National Construction Code, which has new editions due this year and a major revision in 2025.
Achieving a green star rating means to have demonstrated “environmental stewardship, social responsibility, best practice governance, leadership and innovation.”
GBCA keeps a record of its green star certifications and star ratings, but the system is not mandatory, which presents some challenges.
Rooney spoke with Cosmos from Barangaroo, a still controversial $6 billion development of the former wharf precinct of Sydney’s waterfront by Lend Lease Corporation.
The 22-hectare project comprises three precincts: mixed office and residential at Barangaroo South, recreational space for festivals and entertainment at Barangaroo Central, and public park and cultural centre at Barangaroo Reserve.
In 2016, Barangaroo South earned a six-star Green Star – Communities rating from GBCA.
But from the outset, public controversy had dogged the overall development, which still attracts criticism for its casino, unsolicited urbanism and planning as deal-making.
Rooney also points to the University of Newcastle as GBCA’s first regional NSW win – a 2022 certified six-star Green Star – Design and As Built project.
This is for the $25m Q Building, described by the university as “state-of-the-art facilities for the School of Creative Industries and the Integrated Innovation Network Hub” and located in the heart of Newcastle’s CBD.
Rooney says GBCA is also working with more regional communities and councils.
The GBCA is a not-for-profit industry association, with a mission to drive the sustainable transformation of the built environment.
When explaining what that means, Rooney speaks of ecosystem change, which she says comes from the diligent use of “carrot, stick and tambourine”.
“We run Green Star, which is a rating system that operates in the carrot space,” she says. “When we talk about disclosure spaces, as a not-for-profit industry association we don’t create the disclosure mechanisms ourselves.
“People that use the rating system, particularly for the larger building sector [people that use office buildings], they cost 1 to 3% more, but they get a 5% higher value, 13% that are rental returns.
“Then we talk about the regulation space, the policy side, [where] we’re usually advocating for disclosure, or for government to lead through their own procurement, or advocating for higher things in the national construction code.
“As a not-for-profit, most of our rating tools are in the carrot space.”
Other rating systems currently include the National Construction Code, up for a major revision in 2025 for which it proposes a seven-star rating system for residential buildings.
Navigating the regulatory maze
As Rooney explains, it pretty much takes a village to raise a green building policy.
“The National Construction Code is a national decision, but different states decide when they want to take it up; Queensland, ACT, Victoria and NSW are picking it up, [but] Tasmania is not picking it up for at least three years,” she says.
“South Australia has nominated a different date, and WA I don’t think has been announced yet.
“[It’s] a national system, but really state-based regulation, because different states choose as they pick it up.
“This is why we use the term ‘patchwork quilt’ to acknowledge the inherent complexity in the space: We want to get up the national system, but we want to work with our state partners.”
Adding further to the complexity, some jurisdictions are moving ahead faster than others.
“ACT has their own plan on electrification, which is ahead of the national frameworks; NSW has the Sustainable Building State Environment Plan, they call it a SEPP, which is calling for net zero in new buildings.”
Amendments to the NSW SEPP’s Certification regulation and the EPA regulation will commence operation on 1 October 2023, out of cycle with anticipated changes to the national construction code, because it’s jurisdictional only.
“It has some components that are residential,” says Rooney, “so it’s going to have mandatory embodied carbon reporting in residential, but it will only have net zero requirements in larger commercial [building].”
Every Building Counts provides 39 policy recommendations over eight themes to help Australia decarbonise, with more promised for state, territory, and local governments later in the year.