Ensuring responsible and sustainable construction for our future built environment

By Caleb Adams

Caleb attended the 2016 Habitat III Summit where he represented Griffith University. Caleb is studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering.


Whilst there have been recent advances, and global commitments to address the challenges of climate change, its remains a critical issue. The construction and building industry is one of the biggest global polluters and energy consumers, yet plays a significant role in Australia’s economy, meaning there is potential to achieve significant emissions reductions through activating change within the building and construction industry.

Cultural changes are reflected in the recent advancement of construction and design relevant policy and regulations; which now address environmental sustainability. However, it is arguable that current regulations and guidelines are not assertive enough, leaving companies to choose how sustainability they wish to operate.

Voluntary sustainability assessment programs are achieving positive results as energy efficient and sustainable projects are now being featured in cities across the globe. Only a compliance culture of the construction industry has meant that the use of these tools is limited and dominated by large-scale industry leaders. Through analyzing the success and framework of these programs, recommendations can be drawn on how Australia can ensure our built environment is constructed via responsible and sustainable methods. This research will influence recommendations on policy review and regulation, innovative research, and an internationally collaborative approach to minimising impacts on climate change through the development of our cities.

Policy Recommendations

1. Develop a uniform approach to defining and assessing sustainability for buildings.

Introduce a national requirement for all construction and development projects in Australia to undergo sustainability assessment through an accredited assessment tool. For example, the Green Building Council of Australia’s (GBCA) Green Star rating or an international equivalent. This will ensure that sustainable design and sustainable construction practices are well known and are beginning to be considered before linked minimum standards can be introduced.

2. Upgrade minimum sustainability standards for the construction sector, enforceable with regulation.

Introducing a higher standard of minimum requirements for sustainability credentials of construction and development projects will aim to reduce the industry contributions to climate change. New minimum requirements can be assessed and regulated using recognised third party sustainability rating and assessment tools. This will eliminate worst practice and incentivise environmentally friendly best practice.

3. Develop funding initiatives and bodies for ongoing research and industry improvements.

State and national Governments should develop funding initiatives and organisations partnered with private sector, focused on developing sustainable practice within the construction industry.  This would include review of current policies and regulation, improvements of assessment and rating tools, and research based innovation for technical and practical improvements within the industry.

4. Encourage international collaboration and uptake of sustainability assessment

Encourage the uptake of sustainability assessment programs in more countries across the globe. In doing so, education on sustainable practise for all countries will be important, along with support to developing nations.


Climate change and its causes are a topical issue. 2015 saw major progress in the global movement to address these issues through various commitments, particularly through the United Nations. This included the Paris agreement resulting from the Conference of Parties (COP21), a comprehensive global treaty that has come into force in 2016 featuring commitments from one hundred and ninety-five nations to combat climate change and unleash actions and investment towards a low carbon, resilient and sustainable future. These nations are now dedicated to implement strategies to keep warming well below two degrees Celsius based on preindustrial levels, and to drive effort to limit this to one and a half degrees (UNFCC, Historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 2015). Additionally, September of 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where released as apart of the UN development agenda aim to address various areas of global concern. Amongst the seventeen goals, there are elements focusing specifically on clean energy, industry, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action (UN, Sustainable Development Goals, 2015).

The United Nations Habitat III conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban development will occur in 2016. This is the third UN Habitat conference, as they currently occur every twenty years (UN, About Habitat III, 2016). This meeting and a unique and vital opportunity to establish the framework by which recent global commitments on climate change mitigation are integrated and considered in the design and development of urban environments over the next two decades. (Paul Aitchison, What is Habitat III, 2016).

The building sector contributes up to 30% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions and consumes up to 40% of all energy. Construction and operation of buildings are both very Carbon intensive. Estimations from the International Energy Agency (IEA) find that this will contribute to warming of six degrees should current practices continue. (UNEP, Buildings and Climate Change, 2009). Compared to other industries, construction and property provides one of the most significant contributions to the Australian economy through GDP and employment. As cities and their respective populations continue to grow, construction and development will remain an essential part of local and national economies. (Hampson, Brandon, Construction 2020, 2004)

The opportunities to address environmental and climate change issues through systemic changes in the building and construction industry need to recognised and utilised. This requires a transformation of industry culture, where low carbon practices are valued above business models aiming to maximise profits whilst disregarding high levels of carbon emissions. Ensuring sustainable practices become standardized will lead to significant reductions in emissions from the built environment and progress towards net zero emissions from the industry.

This paper will examine the policy and legislation that are currently being used to regulate the Australian construction industry. Once the areas for improvement have been identified, examples of industry best practice will be analysed, specifically regarding sustainability rating tools and how they can stimulate the uptake of environmentally sustainable practices. Based on these findings, recommendations will be provided explaining how improved regulations, national and international collaboration, research, innovation and constant review can achieve emissions reductions in the construction industry.

Construction in Australia

Business models that prioritise profit and economic efficiency have typically driven urban development in the construction industry. This one-sided approach has had shortfalls, particularly with negative impacts on the environment and the climate. Environmental protection and sustainable development has become more of a common theme, seen throughout policy and regulations as the industry undergoes a gradual cultural shift and embraces sustainable practices. (Turner, 2006)

In Australia, there are a number of different bodies and regulations that are contributing to the progression of sustainable construction and urban development practices. The most relevant to the context of this report is the Building Code of Australia (BCA), or National Construction Code (NCC). The Building Code of Australia is a set of technical provisions, implementable as a joint initiative between The Australian Government and state and territory governments. The codes intend to establish nationally consistent standards to address safety, health, amenity and sustainability issues (Master Builders Australia, 2016).

In 2003, the Building Code of Australia had no mention of a sustainability goal, only provisions on energy efficiency, which arguably has a strong correlation with environmental sustainability (Brian Ashe et.al, 2003). Since then, in the 2016 National Construction Code sustainability is featured as a goal alongside safety, health and amenity. The focus of this is energy efficiency, which is a positive step in the right direction, however these measures are arguably not as advanced as they could be. Further steps can still be taken to introduce a higher standard of environmental and sustainability legislation, whilst still being appropriate and realistic. (ABCB, National Construction Code, 2016)

While we are seeing positive changes for the construction industry, it is questionable if these are sufficient measures given the severity of climate change, and the remaining room for industry wide improvements that will potentially see for drastic reductions in environmental and climate impacts. A report from the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) outlined that the built environment sector has the potential to become carbon neutral by 2050, and insists that this is achievable using existing technologies. In working towards these emissions reductions, ASBEC also outlines the potential economic and social benefits, including $20 billion in savings. (ASBEC, Low Carbon High Performance – Full Report, 2016). Per Green Building Council of Australia CEO and Deputy President of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, Romilly Madew:

Our built environment presents some of the cheapest and fastest opportunities to reduce our emissions…We have the technology, the skills and the knowledge to halve emissions from buildings, while also boosting the productivity, health and wellbeing of the people who live, learn, work and play in them. It’s time to act. (GBCA, Research – Reductions in Emissions, 2016)

Under the Paris agreement, nations will submit updated national climate plans, also known as nationally determined contributions (UNFCC, Historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 2015). The ASBEC also believe that policy review and amendment are fundamental to improving the way climate issues are addressed. In a national plan towards 2050 net zero building emissions, published in 2016 by the ASBEC, amongst an array of policy recommendations, ASBEC calls for a review and upgrade of the National Construction Codes, specifically with regards to minimum energy performance standards. This document later justifies the need for improved compliance and enforcement for these minimum standards (ASBEC, 2016). 

Construction Best Practice: the use of Sustainability Rating Tools

Sustainability rating systems are tools for the construction industry and the built environment to assess projects across the world against various sustainability criteria. Key focuses include energy efficiency, renewable energy, embodied carbon emissions, material use, design and operation; meaning projects that undergo sustainability assessment often have notably reduced impacts on the climate and environment. These assessment tools have been developed to help guide projects towards industry best practice in sustainability. There are several sustainability rating systems across the globe and outlined below are the programs that are the most reputable and commonly used. As examples of best practice, they are an essential means for Australia to reduce emissions. Common use of these programs could offer massive potential environmental improvements for the Australian Construction industry. (Zuo, Jian, Xia, Bo, Zillante, George, Zhao and Zhenyu, 2014).   

Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM)

Established in 1990 in the United Kingdom, BREEAM assesses buildings throughout all stages of if the building life; construction, use or tenancy, refurbishment, and demolition. BREEAM provides a rating based on credits and categories, to ensure assessment is detailed and specific It is also the longest and most widely used rating tool, and often regarded as the pioneering system. (BREEAM, 2016)

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

LEED is the leading sustainability rating tool in the USA, and was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998. Since being introduced, more than 79,000 projects are partaking across 160 different countries. LEED features rating tools for building design and construction, interior design and construction, building operation and maintenance, neighbourhood development, and homes. The tools each comprise of specific and relevant assessment criteria that provide credits to determine the overall project rating.  This certification process is designed to inspire innovative solutions from project team to benefit the environment and communities. (LEED, 2016)

Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency (CASBEE)

CASBEE assesses project sustainability through four different construction components; new construction, pre-design, existing buildings, and renovation. This is like LEED and BREEAM, however this system was implemented in Japan in 2001. (Binh K. Nguyena, Hasim Altana,Comparative review of five sustainable rating systems, 2011)

Building Environmental Assessment Method (BEAM)

BEAM is a sustainability assessment scheme developed in Hong Kong in 1996. The assessment process aims to encourage measuring, labelling, and improving the environmental performance of buildings and their environmental sustainability (BEAM, 2012). BEAM is most commonly used in the Hong Kong area, and has the support of the Hong Kong, with an allowance for BEAM certified buildings to construct with a 10% greater floor area than normal regulation. (CoreNet Global, International Sustainability Systems Comparison, 2014)

Green Star

The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) introduced Green Star in 2003, based on its LEED and BREEAM predecessors. Whilst there are other rating tools in Australia, Green Star is considered the dominant and premier program in Australian. (Binh K. Nguyena, Hasim Altana,Comparative review of five sustainable rating systems, 2011)

In 2013, the Australian Trade commission reported 550 projects, accounting for eight million square meters of retail, hospitals, schools and offices have received Green Star certification. This accounts for just over 20% of Australia’s CBD office space. (Australian Trade Commission, 2013).

Green Star features several tools designed to assess building interiors, design and construction, communities, and operational performance. There are nine overarching categories used in the assessment process for each tool; they include management, indoor environment quality, energy, transport, water, materials, land use and ecology, emissions, and innovation. Each of these them have sub points called credits, which are used to ensure the assessment process is comprehensive. The final rating is then calculated, being determined by the cumulative score from all categories and their respective credits. (GBCA, Green Star, 2015).

Figure 1 Green Star Scale (GBCA, The Green Star Rating Scale, 2015)

Figure 1 Green Star Scale (GBCA, The Green Star Rating Scale, 2015)

Figure 1 outlines how projects are allocated Green Star certification, with ratings ranging from one to six.  The tools are tailored to assess specific types of buildings and projects, as is reflected in each name. For the rating tools that assess Design and As Built, Interiors, and Communities, they only be recognised as a Green Star certified project if they achieve four (best practice) or more stars. The performance rating tool recognises one to six stars as this tool can also be used for older projects that may feature out-dated technology, requiring retrofitting (GBCA, The Green Star Rating Scale, 2015). Rachael McGinley, GBCA Senior Market Engagement Manager explains, ‘Green Star rating tools reward sustainability outcomes and encourage moving beyond standard practice.’ (GBCA, The Green Star Rating Scale, 2015)


Sustainability rating tools accept that relying on the design of a project to perform sustainably is and minimise the onsite impacts is unreasonable. A holistic approach is delivered, aiming to consider the importance of early stages such as the materials or prior site demolition. Addressing these areas provides more depth and information before any detailed design or commitment has been made for the respective development. (Grace K.C. Ding, Sustainable Construction, 2008)

Research is still being conducted to continually develop these programs, however positive results can still be seen from the programs in their current state. Australia is the youngest and arguably the least developed, yet a GBCA report from 2013 reported encouraging statistics (GBCA, The Value of Green Star, 2013). On average, Green Star certified buildings:

  • Produce 62% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, when compared to average Australian buildings.
  • Use 66% less electricity, when compared to average Australian buildings.
  • Use 51% less potable water, when compared to average Australian buildings.
  • Produce 45% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than if they had been built to meet minimum industry requirements.
  • Use 50% less electricity than if they had been built to meet minimum industry requirements.

Although these programs are voluntary, they offer a framework for best practice in construction and sustainable development. Having third party certification ensures that the assessment process and outcomes are transparent and reputable. (GBCA, Introducing Green Star, 2015)

Current Concerns

Sustainability rating systems have been proven to be effective and yield positive environmental results. Sustainable construction methods are considered best practice, and these rating tools are used to define and incentivise best practice for industry leading users. Users are predominantly large businesses and aspiring industry leaders.

However, these programs are voluntary, leaving a substantial void between the midrange and lower end of the industry where there is no need to prioritise environmental responsibility and sustainability. This is part of a long-lasting culture within the construction industry where economic performance is prioritised over environmental and social considerations. Historically, the two have not been It is also often assumed that sustainable practices will costly.

Programs such as LEED and BREEAM have been operational for eighteen and twenty-six year respectively, and as such they are mature and refined programs. In contrast, Australia’s Green Star is a relatively new program. New programs need to be monitored and reviewed so that improvements can be made when needed. This needs to be a continual process, with appropriate changes made to regulation to ensure they incentivise sustainable practice and illuminate unsustainable, or worst practice.

Voluntary uptake of sustainable practice and slow program development is dangerous in addressing impacts on climate change from the construction and development industry. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council published a report examining the risks associated with delayed implementation of industry wide sustainable practice, in working towards net zero emissions. The findings state that a five-year delay will cost over 170 mega-tonnes of avoidable emissions (ASBEC, 2016).

Concluding Recommendations

1. Develop a uniform approach to defining and assessing sustainability for buildings.

Introducing mandatory sustainability assessment for all building projects within Australia will have a significant impact on the industry. Whilst there are many companies already practicing this as best practice, there is still a large gap where many improvements can be made. Ensuring companies are aware of ways that they can improve their sustainability credentials and practices, and providing a framework to assess this is important in changing the attitude of the construction industry.

Using the Green Star rating tools or equivalent will provide a uniform method to define and assess sustainability across Australia. In doing so, it is an important step as it provides an assessment framework that can be used nationally to enforce sustainability regulations of a higher standard.

2. Upgrade minimum sustainability standards for the construction industry, enforceable with regulation

Having enforceable higher sustainability standards would create an action-oriented system to set Australia at the forefront of global standards in achieving sustainable urban development through construction processes. Increasing minimum standards will eliminate unsustainable industry practices through enforceable regulation. This will then drive industry leaders to conduct research-driven innovation to continue demonstrating best practice to stand out amongst the industry. (Newton, Pers, 2002)

Australia’s Green Star certified projects have been proven as effective; GBCA found 5-Star buildings are 45% more efficient than if they were built on current minimum standards (GBCA, The Value of Green Star, 2013). Unfortunately, these incentives are not reaching all areas of the industry; meaning sustainable construction practices are currently limited to best practice. Companies typically with large budgets and international operations are currently the dominant users of sustainability rating systems. Introducing mandatory sustainability standards will ensure that companies of all sizes meet these regulations, which are of a higher standard than current regulation. As stated by the GBCA CEO, the built environment can achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 using existing technologies, justifying why we should strive to achieve this.

Through collaborative state and national enforcement, mandatory use of sustainability rating tools (as outlined in recommendation one) can be used to assess the compliance of increased minimum standards. Currently Australia’s Green Star rating system only recognizes four stars (best practice) and above. The minimum standard should be a Three Star Green Star rating or equivalent. GBCA considers this Good Practice, below four, five and six-star rating being best practice, Australian excellence and world leadership respectively. A Three Star rating is therefore more achievable and realistic for projects with small budgets.

3. Develop funding initiatives and bodies for ongoing research and industry improvements

State and National Governments, along with private sector need to establish funding mechanisms and plans to ensure that sustainable practice within the construction and development industry remains dynamic and innovative.

Research into sustainable practice is imperative in the progression of the construction industry (ASBEC, Low Carbon High Performance – Full Report, 2016). This will drive technical and practical sustainable practice improvements within the industry. Areas like energy efficiency and energy sources have potential for improvement (Turner, 2006).

However, when considering the holistic sustainability of buildings, old and existing buildings perform poorly. With many buildings being constructed before sustainability was an important design consideration, retrofitting old buildings to operate sustainably could have massive potential in emissions reductions due with improved energy efficiency. Continual research should be conducted in this area to ensure both new and old buildings are sustainable.

As the industry shifts with increasing research, innovation and improved standard of best practice, the rating tools need to be adjusted accordingly. Government and private sector need to drive this research and development, whilst ensuring the sustainability assessment criteria for each tool remains up to date and relevant. As changes are made to rating tools, policy and regulations also need to be reviewed and updated accordingly. 

4. Encourage international collaboration and uptake of sustainability assessment

Encourage the uptake of sustainability assessment programs in more countries across the globe. In doing so, it will be important to continue educating people, public and government, to ensure there is a proper understanding of the issues and solutions with sustainable practises.

Where research and industry innovation is done, these outcomes need to be shared internationally to ensure all respective countries construction industries are operating as sustainable as possible.  To achieve this, educational and financial support my need to be provided to developing nations.


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