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Building for our changing climate

We can stabilise energy prices while addressing climate change if we are prepared to reconsider the way we build our cities.

The latest report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC) has revealed the vital role that the building and construction industry must play in creating the cities of the future.

When I studied architecture less than a decade ago, only one of my lecturers ever talked about energy efficiency. As an young architect, I learnt my craft designing houses for the wealthy and affluent; it was only after designing a $300,000 carport that I started seriously questioning my contribution to the built environment.

Too often sustainability is misunderstood as something that adds expense to construction and comes at the cost of economic activity, productivity and jobs –  of what’s good for working Australian families.

But there are now numerous case studies in Australia and from around the world that prove that more sustainable buildings save money, outperform market trends for growth, and are not just good for the people who live and work in them, but also great for our communities; they will be a major part of how we respond globally to the challenge of climate change.

The IPPC reports that the building sector was responsible for 34% final energy use in 2010, but with energy demand projected to almost double, emissions from building energy use could increase 50-150% by 2050. Much of the building sector is in denial about this and we’re still seeing the construction of minimum standard, business as usual, energy-sucking homes that are locking families into a future of ever-skyrocketing energy prices.

We’re seeing more and more families struggling with the burden of rising energy costs, living in some of the most poorly designed buildings in the world. We talk about the housing affordability crisis, but almost exclusively focus on the initial cost of construction – what about the real, on-going costs of living in such poorly designed homes?

Dwelling size is a key issue – sprawling outer suburbs of 300sqm single dwelling houses aren’t just poor environmentally, but also have social, transport and health planning consequences. Compact, better designed, higher density but more liveable dwellings located within walking distance of vibrant activity centres and high frequency public transport networks will be a key part of making our cities more sustainable. Infrastructure costs such as electricity, water, roads and sewerage are around twice as much to connect to a sprawling outer suburb than an inner city, in-fill development.

Thoughtless design is costing families and industry millions of dollars in excessive power bills when buildings are designed by the ego of the architect, who want to show off their creativity without due regard for the long-term implications on our built environment. Living or working in an architecturally designed glass box may seem highly desirable, until the energy bills start coming in.

The IPCC report tells us that with the increase in advanced technologies, know-how and good policies, it’s possible to stabilise or reduce building sector energy use by 2050. We know how to design more sustainable buildings; we have the technology, the knowledge and the experience.  We know what we can do in order to improve the environmental performance of buildings and to minimise the impact on the environment. The question is: are we ethical enough to justify its importance? Or will we continue to think of sustainability as an optional extra?

It is becoming increasingly affordable and economically smart to build and retrofit buildings for improved energy efficiency. Affordability needs to consider ongoing operational and maintenance costs, not just initial construction costs.

Families looking to save on energy bills need to start with the fundamentals of home design and construction – understanding the climate and designing in response to the sun don’t cost extra. For existing dwellings, a post-occupancy assessment can help identify cost-effective retrofits to reduce your power bills.

Other improvements such as solar hot water, reducing standby energy use, and improved energy efficiency of appliances can result in reductions of residential greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40%.

The IPCC also reports that retrofits in existing buildings combined with low energy building codes for new developments can help achieve reductions of heating/cooling energy use by 50-90%.

There are over 1,000,000 homes in Australia with solar PV installed; it’s middle-income families that are embracing solar PV, not affluent households with high disposable incomes. 5 million Australians are now living in solar-powered homes.

The IPCC report tells us that the building sector is critical to the global response to climate change, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for growth. As Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”.

Future-thinking architects, builders and engineers shouldn’t see sustainability as a speciality or niche offering – it should just be what we do if we genuinely want to create better buildings.

As the effort to address climate change enters its next critical decade, the world’s attention should focus on the building sector and the significant role it has to play in responding to climate change and rising energy costs.  It’s an exciting time and opportunity to create positive, lasting change for our nation, its cities and its people.

This opinion piece was originally published in various online journals when the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report was released.



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