Luv thy NABERS (for apartments)

By Janette Corcoran

Awareness of our vertical living lifestyle is slowly growing, but unfortunately, one key characteristic is that we are “energy guzzling”.

According to City of Melbourne, more than 83 per cent of its residents live in apartments and each year, vertical villagers account for 22 per cent of the city’s water usage, 9 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and more than 20,500 tonnes of waste. Perhaps more alarming is that compared with detached dwellings, we of the vertical villages consume 25 per cent more energy.

The question is: where does this usage occur?

Currently CSIRO is finalising its Apartment Energy Use Survey which will reveal apartment-based patterns of energy consumption.

But being strata, energy is also used to operate and maintain common property which, apparently, can account for up to 60 per cent of a building’s total energy consumption and 25 per cent of administrative fund levies.

However, as our vertical villages differ in terms of size, number of lifts, external lighting fixtures and facilities such as gyms and pools, the percentage of energy usage for common areas varies across buildings. This means that we can’t rely on the aforementioned averages when designing ways to improve (and save) through more efficient energy usage.

The starting point is to find out your building’s particular situation and use this information to craft building-specific ways of your improving energy efficiency. This is the rationale underpinning the introduction of NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) into the residential apartment sector.

NABERS has been operating in the commercial sector for over 10 years and is managed nationally by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, on behalf of Commonwealth, state and territory governments. NABERS is being introduced into the residential apartment sector with the aim of realising similar order reductions in energy and water consumption as has been achieved in the commercial building sector.

In the City of Melbourne, Ausnviro has been selected to undertake Australia’s first NABERS for Apartments energy and water ratings. And the managing director of Ausnviro, Jay Gualtieri, is impressed by the robustness of the new NABERS for Apartments tool.

“There is no doubt in my mind this new system will dramatically improve environmental efficiency in the residential apartment sector … but first they need to know how their building is performing,” he said.

This involves supplying past utilities bills and a site visit by Ausnviro to confirm operations. This information is then analysed and comparisons run against similar buildings in order to calculate your building’s rating (on a one to six scale).

However, while this is a significant step forward, in reality, it is only the beginning of an ongoing improvement cycle.

The next critical step is to interpret your rating and understand what it can (and cannot) tell you about your building’s performance. This is important as it underpins all subsequent action. Indeed, there are some quiet conversations already occurring at owners’ corporation level about what can actually be done with a rating (be it good or bad). This goes to the issue of design and the ability to craft appropriate technical responses, as well as deliver them in ways palatable to both residents and investors.

In fact, retrofitting for environmental sustainability within Victoria’s owners’ corporation environment is a complex undertaking and, currently, there is little guidance available to help.

This is the situation despite our universities having a growing array of technologies that could greatly assist our retrofitting our vertical villages. For instance, RMIT has developed a self-modifying coating, 1000 times thinner than a human hair, that automatically lets in heat when it’s cold and blocks heat when it’s hot – self-regulating smart windows! But how can owners’ corporation committees know about these types of innovations?

Added to this, navigating the range of relevant funding programs is not for the faint hearted – and many of these funds remain firmly focused upon “households” rather than apartment buildings.   

To my thinking, NABERS presents an opportunity for owners’ corporation committees to connect with each other and begin collaborating around practical innovations suited to our vertical village lifestyle.

If you are interested in starting this discussion, please contact me at [email protected]

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