Green Light: The Rise of the Energy Efficient Building

Kate Nason , 9 March 2020

Drawing on her research into sustainable building policy in five global cities, 2018 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship winner Kate Nason reflects on the critical role architects can play in decarbonising our built environment.   

Kate was awarded the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship in 2018, and travelled to Vancouver, New York City, Brussels, Heidelberg and Wellington to research sustainable building policy and Passive House Standards in those cities. This research was published in the recent report Green Light: The Rise of the Energy Efficient Building

Like many, I have family and friends who have been directly affected by the recent fires that swept across the Australian landscape. The impacts will be felt for a lifetime, and many will not recover from what has been experienced this summer. Changing climatic conditions have led to unprecedented drought, extended heat waves and severe storm activity which have in turn intensified bushfire activity to the point where fire fronts have become uncontrollable.

2 - Bushfire

This was a photo taken of my father and brother defending my parents property in Bilpin, NSW on 20 December 2019. This is the scary front line of climate change.

My research for the Byera Hadley Scholarship was conducted prior to the devastating bushfires over the 2019/2020 summer, and the report addresses the Australian and international context up to October 2019. It investigates the role the built environment plays in lowering our impact on the environment and creating a more resilient future for generations to come. In light of the recent fires, it is increasingly relevant to the architectural community, construction industry and the broader community.  

With buildings contributing to almost 40% of carbon emissions globally, they present us with a significant opportunity to increase our climate protection efforts. While we must limit their toll on the environment in the long term by significantly reducing their carbon emissions, we also need to respond by increasing the level of protection that they provide to inhabitants.

In the Architects Act it states that Architects have a duty of care to protect those that come into contact with the buildings they design. To fulfil this legal obligation, we must optimise the resilience of buildings so they perform to a high standard regardless of fluctuating external conditions. For example, the interviews I conducted in Vancouver revealed that the demand for buildings that achieve the Passive House Standard is rapidly increasing due to changing weather patterns and periods of reduced air quality associated with their wildfires season. The City of Vancouver revealed that a staggering 20% of all development across the city is now voluntarily targeting the Passive House Standard. My research also revealed that architects can play a vital role in accelerating the carbon reduction in buildings. 

“Across the City of Vancouver, the new incentives for complying with the Zero Energy Building Plan have been extremely well received. With 20% of all new developments now targeting the Passive House Standard, a major transformation to a green economy is taking place.”—Chris Higgins, City of Vancouver 

The architects I met all reiterated the same point – that by adopting the tools and processes offered by the Passive House Standard, they have been empowered to make a quantifiable and tangible improvement to the buildings they deliver. Most started this as an experiment to test the impact on their workflow and creativity; however, not one of them has opted to resort back to business-as-usual since delivering a Passive house building. Many architects even extended their work beyond the profession, to successfully shape the overarching regulatory systems and supply chains for buildings in their cities. For example, Sebastian Moreno-Vacce, Director and founder of A2M Architects in Brussels, played a critical role in the process of the formal integration of the Passive House Standard into building code across the region. Another example is Ken Levenson, an architect who left mainstream practice to focus his efforts on upskilling and supporting the construction industry to physically deliver buildings that meet passive building standards from the outset in a quantifiable way.

1 - Sebastian Moreno-Vacca

The Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship has allowed me to explore this topic by enabling me to collate insights from internationally recognised leaders in climate protection through the built environment. My research included exploring the perspectives from key policymakers, builders, architects, entrepreneurs, suppliers and educators at the cutting edge of low and zero-emission building design across North America and Europe. I visited Vancouver, New York City and Brussels as these cities have demonstrated true leadership in decarbonising their built environment in measurable ways.

My research also took me to key industry events in Heidelberg (Germany) and Wellington (New Zealand), which helped me uncover a broader perspective on the work being done across Europe and the South Pacific. This has allowed me to explore, contextualise and, ultimately, compare international efforts currently being undertaken to decarbonise the built environment against our own efforts in Australia. 

A key finding from my research was that the Passive House (Passivhaus) Standard is becoming the cornerstone to sustainable building policy across each of the cities I visited. Being a fabric first approach to performance and quality control, in both design and construction, it enables a building to maintain a comfortable and healthy indoor environment with minimal energy requirements and without reliance on fossil fuels. This makes achieving zero-emissions buildings viable and allows occupant health and wellbeing House Standards across North America. 

Across the five cities I visited, I spoke with over 30 individuals who are playing vital roles in accelerating the trajectory to a carbon-neutral future. They have offered personal insight into both the challenges and the opportunity this transition can bring and I have attempted to capture their energy and passion in this report.

3 - Canada group

I have consolidated and contextualised these insights into a range of recommendations for Australia. Each city visited offers a range of strategies that could be appropriated and implemented in Sydney, as well as other Australian urban centres. These range from skills and tools that can be utilised by architects on a day-to-day basis, right through to city-shaping policy, which would allow us to secure the resiliency of our cities well into the future.

These recommendations are intended to generate constructive discussion around the topic of climate mitigation through buildings, and I encourage all readers of this report to actively participate in this discourse. This report has been a pleasure to author and, behind it, the research and travel was a once in a lifetime opportunity, which will enrich my career for years to come. It has acted as a boost of optimism which I hope to pass on to the architectural community and broader industry in times of such uncertainty. 

 

4 - Green Light

The report Green Light: The Rise of the Energy Efficient Building is available to read in full on the NSW Architects Registration Board website. The primary goal of this research is to address the challenges and opportunities that Australia faces in order to reach the carbon emission targets set by the Paris Agreement. It focuses specifically on the building industry and the critical role architects play in lowering the carbon footprint of cities while increasing their resilience in the face of climate change.

If you are curious about how the Passive House Standard can help strengthen your practice or policy, get in touch with the Australian Passive House Association.

Kate Nason is an Environmental Designer at Atelier Ten, Architect (ARBV), Certified Passive House Designer (CPHD), Green Star Accredited Professional (GSAP) and Board Director at the Australian Passive House Association. She is a passionate advocate of high-performance buildings and ways we can reduce the carbon footprint of our cities.

Kate was awarded the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship in 2018. Byera Hadley (1872–1937) made provision in his will for a bequest to enable graduates of architecture from a university in NSW to travel in order to broaden their experience in architecture, with a view to advancing architecture upon their return to Australia. Today, the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship fund is managed by Perpetual as Trustee, in conjunction with the NSW Architects Registration Board.