Sustainability starts with precise documentation

Working an environmentally friendly vision into the overall concept, design and final product.

It’s been several months of reading, watching and listening to news about bushfires. The real consequences of climate change are too great – and too devastating – to ignore.

Reports come in: the area burned is larger than Belgium, than Denmark, than Scotland. These comparisons can make the situation seem abstract, or impossible. But Australia, though it may be a land that stretches far and wide, cannot afford such a loss. The bushfire season is just that – a season that comes and goes and comes again. If fires become increasingly destructive and increasingly difficult to manage and fight, our way of life must change. For many, it already has. This means redesigning and rebuilding.

This does not only apply to people living in fire-prone areas; as we’ve seen, parts of major cities can be affected by fires. It may be necessary to expect and prepare for fire seasons that are even more dangerous in the future. This summer set of a string of record breaking phenomena – high temperatures, low rainfall, drought, fire – that took us out of the domain of living memory and written records. It is a new era, and if the earth’s climate continues to change as predicted, we have to be ready for it.

The predicted changes in weather might look minimal on paper. In 2015, for example, the CSIRO published data predicting that, before the end of this century, Melbourne’s average temperature would increase by 3°C and its annual rainfall decrease by 9 per cent. That’s within the lifetimes of children born since 2000, and the effects of climate change will continue to be felt well before they reach old age. Unprecedented heat will become a new normal – if it isn’t already.

So how do we redesign and rebuild how we live to reduce our impact on the planet and mitigate the harmful consequences of decades (even centuries) of burning fossil fuel, driving cars, travelling by planes, leaving the lights switched on and blasting the air conditioning? This last one is crucial. After all, on a hot day, it can be hard to resist setting the indoor temperature to 15, maybe even 20°C lower than the air outside.

Building designers have an essential role to play. The built environment is inseparable from a 21st Century lifestyle. According to a 2013 report by Planet Ark, 1 in 3 people spend, on average, less than 18 minutes per day doing outdoor recreational activities. As the report astutely points out, this is about the same amount of time it takes to hang out a basket of washing. This means that an enormous proportion of our time is spent enjoying the great indoors, using heating, air conditioning, lights, water, televisions, and computers – all of which contribute harmful emissions to the atmosphere.

People are not the only culprits in this scenario, but also the buildings themselves, which makes their sustainable design and construction all the more important. Operational carbon emissions are a good measure of sustainability, as the bulk of a building’s carbon emissions are generated from its operation, rather than its construction. Therefore, building designers and other building professionals must concentrate on sustainable goals and techniques – like passive cooling – from the very beginning of their process. They can work their environmentally friendly vision into the overall concept, design and final product.

NATSPEC specifications allow building designers to do exactly that, offering peace of mind by providing clear documentation as well as enabling a direct contribution to constructing a sustainable future. With the National Building Specification, building designers can stipulate the quality and durability requirements for each of the products used in their design, giving them greater control over the final construction. The specifications are updated twice yearly, which means they align with the latest changes to the NCC, Australian Standards, legislation and industry practices. The customisable documentation allows building designers to prescribe requirements such as the reuse and recycling of materials, and energy and water efficiency.

As a result, buildings designed with the help of NATSPEC documentation and with a sustainability vision in mind have a tremendous opportunity to be part of the worldwide push to improve sustainability in urban and regional areas. It might just be only one house – or one part of one house – but each effort adds up. Small changes can set off much bigger changes, which is precisely what we need to reduce the devastation of future fires.

NATSPEC is a not-for-profit, government- and industry-owned organisation. It maintains the National Building Specification for Australia and has been a valued part of the construction industry for 45 years.

For more information, visit www.natspec.com.au.