Want to create jobs—and act on climate change? Raise building performance standards

17 April 2020 by Jason Quinn

For a longer version of this article for a general audience (that lays out in more detail the problems with our existing Building Code), click here.

An economic depression doesn’t seem like the right time to be talking about raising the standards in the Building Code. But this government may have the mettle and vision to seize the opportunity in front of it.

Read on for five concrete ways to accelerate take-up of better building performance. These measures would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, building running costs and fossil fuel reliance; and improve health and social outcomes.

The return on investment would be colossal. And every new building built right is one less we need to retrofit later.

Every new building built right is one less we need to retrofit later.

We do not have to carry the burden of trail blazing in this regard. We can learn from how other territories have achieved this because frankly, when it comes to decent buildings, we are sorry laggards in relation to much of Europe, parts of Canada and even some places in the US such as New York City.

Take Brussels, capital of Belgium and the EU, which not long ago had the worst buildings in Europe. In 10 years, it has transformed itself into a world leader, culminating in a requirement that all new construction be built to a certified Passive House standard.

The approach taken by the Brussels regional government delivered much better quality buildings, healthier to occupy and much cheaper to run. It also created economic growth, but stimulating new manufacturing activity that created hundreds of satisfying, skilled jobs. And, the city met its mandated goal of reducing carbons emissions.

It created all this by a carefully staged approach that understood the resistance of the building industry and addressed its concerns. At the same time as it phased in changes to its building code, it offered financial incentives, required different government agencies to co-operate and provided free support, training and resources to the building sector through its economic development agency.

The regional authority put its money where its mouth was, by requiring new large-scale public building projects to be built to the Passive House standard. Crucially, it demonstrated that it was possible to build this way without significant extra cost. How? Because its investment in training was increasing the knowledge, skills and confidence of designers, project managers and builders and the critical mass of Passive House projects encouraged local firms to manufacture the vital components needed to reach this level of performance.

Brussels then launched an “Exemplary Buildings” programme, putting up €5 million pa in subsidies for very low-energy building projects and €29 million pa for resources and industry support. Its subsidy over time of 243 projects was sufficient to catalyse another 3000 buildings that achieved the Passive House standard.

It covered retrofits of existing buildings as well as new builds. The subsidies were targeted to either new or existing housing or public buildings, such as educational facilities, offices, hospitals and sports or exhibition buildings.

It gets even better. Projects applying for Exemplary Building funding also had other environmental goals to meet: as close to zero emission as possible, prioritise environmentally-friendly materials, water efficiency and biodiversity; high design standards; and simple and replicable technologies that were cost-effective and provided a quick ROI.

Objections to highly energy-efficient buildings in New Zealand can be boiled down to three: we don’t have a problem that needs fixing; Passive House (for example) is not relevant in our milder-than-Europe climates; and lastly, it costs more and we can’t have that. The first two are simply incorrect.

The third is true, so far—although only because the sector (and its clients) myopically focus on first costs, not taking into account ongoing running costs. That aside, multiple territories have shown that at scale, it is possible to build highly efficient buildings at no extra first cost.

New Zealand does not have to carry the burden of trail blazing; we can learn from how other territories have achieved this.

In fact, as I’ve previously explained, thanks to the Healthy Homes Standards introduced last year, a social housing developer could potentially save money by building an apartment block to Passive House performance levels

Aware of the problems we face and the solutions already demonstrated overseas, I and other colleagues have kicked off an initiative called ESCAPE (which is catchier than what it stands for: Energy Step Code Aotearoa with Primary Energy). A ‘step code’ approach is crucial as it raises the minimum standards for new buildings in achievable steps over time, all clearly laid out so the industry can see where we’re headed.

What else would it take?

  1. Legislative clarification that the Building Code requirements for heating performance (as set out in Section 18 of the Building Act 2004) are a minimum, giving councils the power to set a higher standard for new buildings and renovations.
    The current Building Code targets are difficult to understand and simply ignored by many practitioners and Code officials. Instead they rely on Acceptable Solutions because it’s easier to implement. Let’s simplify the heating performance metric so that it’s practical and easy to understand. Energy use intensity is the right choice.
  2. Require all new public buildings to move toward the Passive House performance standard—most importantly, this should include all Kāinga Ora housing. New Zealand’s most vulnerable have most to gain from warm, healthy homes that are cheap to heat and cool.
  3. Up the game for substantial refits of public buildings. If more than 10 per cent of the external envelope is to be retrofitted, it should be done in a way that reaches the EnerPHit standard (the retrofit equivalent of the Passive House standard).
  4. Mandate investment in equipping architects, architectural designers and construction workers with the knowledge and skills they need to create high-performance, healthy, durable buildings.
    Training is essential: the last time the Building Code was substantially revisited and new materials and techniques introduced, we ended up with a leaky building crisis that is still costing billions.
  5. Support New Zealand manufacturers to retool and expand so they can produce world-class components right here in New Zealand. Replacing imports would reduce delays on worksites, protect projects from exchange rate fluctuations and ensure local support. Key components include high-performance curtain walls, uPVC and performance aluminium windows and doors (we already have manufacturers of high-end timber Passive House-grade joinery) and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery systems, designed and tested to meet Passive House performance levels in all of New Zealand’s diverse climate zones.
    (That the Building Code currently only posits three climate zones in a country as diverse in altitude and latitude as ours is absurd; Passive House designers work with 19 different zones that have been painstakingly delineated based on decades of NIWA weather data.*)
    This might require say $45 million a year for the first two years, tapering down to $5m by 2032. Half of this support could be in the form of competitive purchasing agreements for critical components.

Taken together, these initiatives could unleash improvements in the environments in which New Zealanders live and work on a scale never seen before. Let these ‘shovel ready projects’ the Government is calling for not be ones that will burden our children and grandchildren with further environmental ruin. Instead, we must direct public money into projects that will hasten our journey toward a zero carbon society.


To read more about the Brussels programme:

Dry and technical reading or an excellent and highly readable description by the team at Passive House + magazine.


* See pg 12 of Passive House for New Zealand for more on this; you can view the book online or order a hard copy here.