How much money can you squeeze out of a building? Rather a lot, it turns out. Since the National Australian Built Environment Rating System started to be used as a measuring stick for the energy efficiency of office buildings in 1998, more than $100 million a year has been shaved off power bills compared to 2010 levels. In terms of CO2 emissions, that’s the equivalent of taking 160,000 cars off the road.

Now the plan is to apply the same stringency to apartment buildings, with federal and state governments committed to funding a rating tool that will encourage sustainability upgrades and cut power bills.

When it is operational, with a test version expected early next year, the program will measure energy performance of apartments nation-wide on a scale of one to six stars, as part of the Australian National Energy Productivity Plan’s 2030 target to achieve a 40% increase in productivity of national energy usage.

Where the waste is

Egregious energy waste in apartment buildings often goes undetected, says NABERS national program manager Carlos Flores, because it is concealed within central services such as common lighting, lifts, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, pool pumps, hot water systems, sensors and building management systems.

“A lot of us are good at managing energy that you can see and that you control, but when the energy is held centrally it becomes kind of invisible to most people occupying a building,” Flores says. “If no-one has any indication of how energy efficient or inefficient a building is, all of that becomes really invisible.”

Central consumption can make up to half the occupants’ energy costs in many apartment blocks, he says.

Standards for sustainability in residential apartments are contained in Section J of the Building Code of Australia, which a few experts in the industry reckon is ripe for improvement. “The apartment sector is one where government and a lot of people in the industry know, as a country, we could do a lot better,” Flores says.

Tool for the job

NABERS is working on developing an assessment tool with help from federal and state governments and local councils, who Flores says have been among the most enthusiastic advocates of the program since the apartment market is so concentrated to metropolitan centres. (NABERS is managed nationally by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage on behalf of Commonwealth, state and territory governments.)

In the office market local councils City of Sydney and Melbourne have minimum requirements for NABERS ratings that are beyond the building code. Such incentives don’t exist in the residential sector partly because there is no tool to apply. “Creating a tool for apartments opens the door for that.”

Some councils are considering subsidies or financial incentives and training, he says. “Many apartment buildings have strata structures, so it’s about working with the owners and renters of those buildings to create incentives.”

It won’t be easy. Landlords will be tempted by subsidies and incentives for sure, but what’s to stop them passing on the cost of upgrades to tenants — cancelling out the effect of lower energy bills. “I’m not saying it’s not going to be tough,” he says.

The NABERS program aimed at commercial buildings has been a terrific success because market incentives were obvious to owners. Buildings with a high NABERS rating are “worth more”, he says, and attract greater interest from buyers and tenants. But rewards go beyond lower energy bills, with tenants claiming to be happier in a “cleaner” environment. “That’s something we want to explore in the residential space.”

Private lives

The program isn’t hoping to crack open the doors of tenants’ premises to enforce some energy efficiency at home, however, although Flores hints it may be on the cards. Victoria is furthest ahead on that front, he says, with its Energy Efficiency Scorecard service due to be offered to households in early 2017.

A trial of the energy rating service in 45 homes early this year found 85% of homes were uncomfortable in hot weather, heating was the largest cost in 78% of homes and 65% of residents could save money by improving the efficiency of their heating and sealing gaps.

The average efficiency rating for the sample of homes was three stars out of 10.

When it’s ready the residential NABERS scheme will also provide opportunities for sharing central plants, Flores says, including boilers and HVAC. “[In the commercial program] we’ve seen a lot of shared equipment installed to maximise the efficiency of all the buildings combined.”

In some parts of the world he says developers are rewarded with an extra floor for meeting or exceeding an excellent sustainability standard. That’s good for some, but what if it shades the neighbour’s rooftop solar system?