What is it?
A proposal is currently before the Victorian State government that recommends abandoning mandatory 6-star thermal efficiency requirements for housing as part of a broader agenda to cut government red tape. Documents obtained by The Age newspaper reveal state Treasurer Kim Wells has suggested that “consideration could be given to a voluntary thermal efficiency scheme that enables builders to choose an appropriate standard”. This standard would be based on consumer demand, reaching a compromise between “optimal thermal efficiency and building costs”.
The proposal draws heavily on a Master Builders Association (MBA) report from July 2010, which argued that compelling people to build houses with higher star ratings may cost more than it delivers in energy savings. It is under consideration despite the Baillieu government’s 2010 election platform promising support for the 6-star standard for all residential and commercial buildings.
What do we think?
This issue is a thorny one for us, existing as it does at the juncture between environmental sustainability, one of our dearest passions, and regulation, one of our most hated evils. On the one hand, we believe vehemently in the value of environmental sustainability, yet on the other we despise the pervasiveness of regulations in Victoria. Where does the balance between these two forces lie?
If we follow the MBA argument, we would conclude that environmental sustainability is not worth the imposition of regulation, that the free market should decide what it does or doesn’t want to build.
Specifically, the MBA argues that the requirement for 6-star thermal efficiency levies an unacceptable financial burden on potential home owners, estimating that increasing the efficiency of a house from 5-stars to 6 increases its build cost by around $5,000. It argues that owners should be given the choice whether or not to invest in green technologies, just as they can choose whether or not to install marble benchtops or timber floorboards.
Alas, we cannot follow this argument. It is totally and unconscionably false.
The nominal $5,000 it takes to improve the thermal efficiency of a house is not at fault for the current issues with housing affordability at large. We can blame the poorly-implemented State urban densification strategies, the reliance instead on isolated, car-dependent outer suburbs and supersized building footprints for that. If Mr. and Mrs. Average are really complaining about the $5,000, perhaps they might like to consider leaving out the home theatre room or even just the television destined for it.
Choosing environmental sustainability is not akin to choosing a material for the kitchen benchtop. It has the heavy importance of fire safety or structural integrity. The payoff may be measured in decades instead of years, but to our minds, environmental sustainability really is a matter of life or death.
Finally, we need only take a brief look at the houses in which the vast majority of Victorians choose to live to determine that the free market can absolutely not be trusted to know what it’s doing. They are located in the wrong areas, face the wrong direction, are too big and are built too poorly. Even with mandatory thermal efficiency requirements, most Victorian houses are totally unsuited to our climate and totally unsuited to egalitarian urban planning.
267sqm Zanthe house design by A.V. Jennings. Australia has the largest average house size in the world, three times larger than Great Britain, and larger even than the United States, the birthplace of the supersize.
We shudder to imagine a housing industry left to its own devices in determining whether or not to invest in green technologies. Like it or not, educating the general public about the value in environmental sustainability is a process best undertaken via the arduous process of implementing it across our built environment. If we are successful in this endeavour, we will all be rewarded by watching our children grow up in cities where water tanks, double glazing and roof-mounted photovoltaic panels are simply a way of life, where sustainability is simply a way of life.
What should the State government learn?
We may not like regulations in general and we certainly do not like the way they curb the creativity possible at the forefront of architectural design. However, we understand their irreplaceable value in ensuring the trailing edge of the housing industry at least has decent insulation in its walls and windows facing the right way.
The State government should be ashamed at even thinking about relaxing thermal efficiency requirements in the built environment. Amongst reductions in education spending, threatened healthcare upheavals and an absurd investment in brown coal, this would have to be one of the most outrageously irresponsible acts yet undertaken by the Baillieu government.