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Looking for an energy-efficient home in Greater Melbourne? Think again.

Waiting in anticipation of this year’s Christmas pudding in 35 degrees of blistering Melbourne heat, the conversation of home energy efficient came up.

Delighted, as any alternative to what school is your kid going to or which neighbourhood is the next to explode (financially) is mind-blowingly boring, I quietly looked forward to providing some context given I work in and am an enthusiast on the subject of energy efficient design and construction.

The conversation starter was relatively simple, the answer was much more complex:

How do I rent or buy an energy-efficient home in a Melbourne suburb?

The conversation, floated by the evening’s protagonist, a local house builder of 15 years, was aiming to highlight the point that we are so disconnected from our energy consumption, carbon emissions (yep, they are officially still going up) and anything else associated with ‘quality’ construction that it is a flawed philosophy. We want a new kitchen, not new insulation, he argued!

In a quick attempt to illustrate that we are seeing change on the construction market and a driver for energy efficiency, i must have had one too many red wines, we jumped onto the two most frequented websites for renting and buying property.

After some time, we found the terms ‘energy rating’ and ‘star rating’ to be those frequented by the real estate template machine. Here is an example, illustrating the benefits of a 6 Star Energy Rating.

So, if you were to do the same, what would you expect? How many properties (houses, apartments and new developments) on the market would be selling energy efficiency, energy ratings, star ratings, etc, with a bid to make that commission?

With a pinch of salt for accuracy, I am sure some made the cut when they shouldn’t have while others may have been dropped off, here is a summary of the results.

The circle above are for those with the deep pockets and looking to buy or get up to their necks in debt (we now have some of the highest personal debt in the world) while the circle below is for the rest of us trapped on the rental market or waiting to hear the hiss from the bubble bursting!

As Mr Builder had gleefully predicted, it would seem he might be close to the truth. This quick rudimentary review of the Melbourne markets suggests that 96% of those homes being bought and 99.5% of those being rented fail to acknowledge any energy efficiency from a sales perspective.

The only noticeable result from this very quick keyword search was that > 3% of New Developments were being marketed to include energy efficiency as a sales strategy. Ok, not great and pretty much expected but what did this > 3% of New Developments promise in terms of energy efficiency?

Absolutely nothing beyond a rock bottom, business as usual, design ratings for minimum compliance…..a 6 Star (NatHERS) Energy Rating. Nothing to do with the built form and how it will actually perform, the comfort of occupants, the reduction in GHG emissions, just a numbers in, numbers out design rating.

As a case in point and slightly off on a tangent, check out this cool looking 228 m2 place that recently sold as a high performance 'green building' summarised by its ability to get 8 Stars. Looks great, plenty of eco bells and whistles but the drafts within it when I visited suggested to me that its 8 Star accolade was simply testament to the lack of definition provided by the NatHERS Star rating system.

Now, my natural position would be to happily blame the real estate industry in the pursuit of a sale. Here, I cannot blame them at all. There is something fundamentally flawed about a rating system that sets a minimum compliance of 6 stars out of 10 stars for houses or an average of 5 stars for apartments. How is this helpful to consumers if they have no idea what 5 or 6 stars mean? It certainly does not mean energy efficient, it means minimum building compliance. Indeed, 10 Stars does not mean energy efficient if it leaks like a sieve!

As I tucked into my Christmas pudding, sitting opposite Mr Builder who now had a big grin on his face, I could not help reflect on all the conversations, aspirations and direction of the energy efficiency component of the building industry here in Australia over the last year.

My conclusion, if we cannot correctly, simply and accurately communicate the benefits of energy efficiency in the built form to the mass market, market changing aspirations of ‘zero carbon’ or ‘high-performance buildings’ will remain as buzz words on the lips of academics, not-for-profits, individuals and thought leaders without any real chance of being obtained. 

Without the development of a competitive mass market for building energy efficiency that adds real value to privately owned dwellings, we are at real risk of those GHG's continuing to grow while any energy efficiency targets may be simply rendered as nothing more than wishful thinking and the bedrock of well-intentioned advocacy for the coming decades!

So let's aim to have this conversation in 2017, and bring the mass market benefits of energy efficiency to Melbourne and further afield so this time next year, Mr Builder doesn't wipe the floor with me!


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