Building industry and sustainability experts have called on the federal government to seize the Covid-moment and tie a proposed construction sector stimulus to greener building practices, such as requirements for higher energy and thermal efficiency standards for new homes.
Prime minister Scott Morrison flagged on Monday that the residential building industry would be a focus of the new round of economic stimulus packages being considered by the Coalition government, possibly including cash grants for home renovations.
Morrison, who said federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was still finalising the specifics of any such plan, said the government’s current focus of support was on sectors that needed longer-term propping up through the Covid-19 economic slump.
“House building [or] residential construction will be one of those gaps that we have to address,” he told reporters on Monday.
“The tradies and all the others, the apprentices and others who work in that home-building sector, are a sector we know are going to feel a lot of pain unless we can keep a continuity in the business with house construction.”
But energy think tank Beyond Zero Emissions has warned that any stimulus to the construction industry in Australia must focus on delivering higher quality, higher energy and thermal efficiency housing, to lock in longer-term benefits for consumers and drive down building sector emissions.
As One Step Of The Grid reported here on Monday, Australia – a global leader in rooftop solar uptake – is lagging between 10-15 years behind Europe and other parts of the world on sustainable and energy efficient building standards. And this lack of progress is hurting consumers most of all.
A recent study based out of RMIT found that for Victorian homes designed to a minimum of 7.5 stars, the energy required for heating and cooling amounted to 40 per cent less over the course of one year than for a 6-star rated house – the current minimum standard set by the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme.
“Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) welcomes the government proposal to stimulate construction activity through home renovations but urge that the program be used to improve the energy efficiency of buildings to reduce Australians’ energy bills,” said Heidi Lee, a trained architect and BZE industry lead, in comments on Monday.
“We have a unique opportunity to upgrade Australia’s notoriously poor housing stock, and upskill our construction workforce so that we can deliver significantly better buildings for all Australians.
“Our Million Jobs Plan, set for release shortly, demonstrates that over 100,000 jobs can be created with a nationwide retrofit program for existing properties alone,” Lee said.
“It is vital that we don’t waste this opportunity to provide healthy, comfortable and efficient buildings.”
Eenergy Efficiency Council head of policy, Rob Murray-Leach, said government funding to improve homes could deliver a huge benefit to Australia, but only if done in the right way.
“First, the EEC strongly supports groups like ACOSS that are calling for funding to be focussed on construction and renovation of social housing, as this will not only be the most efficient and least distortionary way to stimulate the economy, it will also deliver major social benefits,” he said.
“Second, we strongly recommend that funding should be focussed on improving the energy efficiency of homes. While a marble bench-top might be nice, it doesn’t deliver ongoing benefits to the economy.
“In contrast, improving the energy efficiency of homes through draught-sealing, insulation and heat-pumps for heating, cooling and hot water will deliver major ongoing economic benefits, reduce households’ energy bills, dramatically cut greenhouse emissions and improve health.
“Most Australian houses leak like tents – they’re cold in winter, hot in summer and a real threat to Australians’ health. Sydney has twice the rate of deaths caused by cold weather as Stockholm in Sweden. That is a national shame, but we can easily fix it.”
Parts of the industry, too, are hoping for a more meaningful type of stimulus, with the Masters Builders Association of Australia noting in a submission to the federal government that “renovation grants could be restricted to those with a social or environmental dividend.”
Certainly, this is what the EU has done, as part of its own massive green Covid recovery plan unveiled last week.
That plan includes spending of €91 billion a year on green incentives like low-interest loans to drive sustainable building initiatives across the continent, including renewable heating systems, rooftop solar, batteries, and other smart energy and energy efficiency measures.
The European Commission said it aimed to use publicly-funded policy levers to drive private investment in the decarbonisation of the EU’s building stock. Public spending would focus mainly on the greening up of schools, hospitals and social housing, while an allowance would also be made for €5 billion of guarantees for “green mortgages,” to tie low-carbon renovations into property sales.
“It will be a wasted opportunity if any stimulus is not linked to improving quality and sustainability (in terms of financial, social and environmental) outcomes for households,” said Trivess Moore, a senior lecturer in construction at RMIT and member of the Sustainable Building Innovation Laboratory.
“I personally think the new home grant should require people to build to at least a 7 star performance outcome. The additional money would more than cover any additional costs,” Moore told RenewEconomy.
“I also think that there should be a requirement for solar (where feasible) but also for some requirement to buy local to help with the development of local manufacturing (e.g. double glazed windows).”
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