Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Attack of common sense hits planners
Even the McMansions will have to comply with a new system to cut water and energy use, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
OK, so here’s the good news – and don’t pretend you’re not hanging out for some. It’s this: while the Government refuses outright to plan Sydney in most ways that matter – indeed, actively defends its right not to – it is nonetheless, on one front at least, doing it. Planning: making decisions that prioritise the long-term and public (over the short-term and private) interest, and making them stick. The Government is doing these things, moreover, with a quantum of intelligence, sophistication and will. Not bad, for a bunch of jaded pollies.
What is it that they’re doing, exactly? It’s BASIX. Basix may be the name of a Danish pop band, an American sportswear manufacturer, a Hyderabad “new generation livelihood promotion institution” and a gay and lesbian nightclub in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (This is what passes for knowledge in the great age of Google.) It’s also the NSW Building Sustainability Index – BASIX.
The tag may be slightly shop-soiled but the idea, like all the best ones, is simple, obvious and broadly commonsensical. So it’s no real surprise that, as with most things we should all do as a matter of obvious course, it took legislation to make it happen.
BASIX Stage 1, effective from last July 1, is by now familiar. It requires all new houses in metropolitan Sydney to cut energy consumption by 25 per cent and water consumption by 40 per cent, compared with the then-Sydney average. Unlike many such systems, however, BASIX doesn’t stipulate particular measures – particular shower heads, a minimum insulation level, tank size or eave depth. No, for once we in Sydney outsmarted the rest, establishing instead a points-based performance system that lets you earn your new-dwelling BASIX certificate with any adequate combination of the above.
Or indeed the below: native-plant planting, rainwater tanks, water-saving fittings, insulation, light-coloured roofs, Hills hoists (serious), skylights. Like I said, it sounds obvious. But in a situation where 80 per cent of new homes are being built with air-con instead of eaves or insulation, it does seem to need spelling out.
Another ingenious BASIX feature is its DIY quality. A BASIX certificate, which carries mandatory conditions, is a prerequisite to lodging a development application. In contrast with BASIX’s predecessor, NaTHERS (the CSIRO-devised Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme), which demands specialist assessing skills, BASIX can be operated online from your boudoir.
This makes it a form of risk-edged entertainment akin to online gambling or share trading. You feed in the data – site location, roof area, planting type, cooling mechanism, glass area, wall type and so on. Then press the button and up comes your score. Nothing is prohibited. You can have a vast eaveless mansion with pool and air-con, as long as you balance these with enough of the good stuff. That’s the key – enough. If your numbers stack up, out comes your certificate. Otherwise it’s back to breaking rocks, no $200.
As a system, it’s pretty sophisticated – allowing for different microclimates depending on postcode (presuming cooling breezes in Brookvale, for example, but not Bringelly). It has an inherent fairness in that squeezing a palace through the eye of BASIX’s needle is usually more difficult and more expensive than passing a shack through. Why? Because larger volumes need more heating and cooling and, therefore, score lower than small ones, although the larger roof catchment helps on the water front. Essentially, though, the larger the house (or pool), the harder it must strive for the stamp of eco-virtue.
Its downside is cost, mainly. Complying fully with BASIX applies an impost of $3000 to $8000 a dwelling, or about 2 per cent of its cost, according to Government estimates. Some observers, such as architect Graham Jahn, argue that in an overheated market this will help force land values down, but you can guarantee that precisely as much of it will be passed on as the consumer is willing to bear. Either way, this extra cost should pay for itself in energy and water savings over a 10-year period.
Another disappointment, perhaps, is that BASIX may not make any significant visual difference to the standard overstuffed McMansion burb. It’d be nice to think that the McManufacturers might respond to BASIX with a little ancient wisdom – slab huts with a full set of verandas, eaves and tanks. But they don’t have to. They can simply insulate and reorient the existing McMansion and keep the look, if that’s what the market wants. At least we can feel a little more fondly towards the McBurbs, knowing each McMansion will henceforth be less enviro-ravenous.
This is BASIX’s home territory. Taming the McMansion is its design niche, and that’s good, the McMansion having, after all, the dominant market share. But what of that market minority, bespoke houses designed by architects? How will they fare?
Answer: quite well, it seems. You might expect architects to regard BASIX’s box-ticking approach as the ultimate in dead-hand design methods. Especially since most architects seem to be sending their staff on BASIX training courses (which makes you wonder just how DIY it is).
On the whole, though, architects see BASIX as a positive. Why? Partly because they support its underlying eco-consciousness; partly because they tend to incorporate most of the “passive” eco-virtues (shading, insulation, orientation, ventilation and thermal mass); and partly because BASIX does offer an alternative, non-box-ticking assessment path.
This alternative route is designed for houses involving technologies, materials or spatial complexity not anticipated by the BASIX format. It’s essentially the manual-override version, entailing an assessment by a specialist panel using a system more like the old NaTHERS. This makes it more expensive and time consuming than the DIY version but, again, it tends to apply to houses that can stand to lose a little fat.
The jury is still out on just how effective BASIX will be. Especially given that, so far, it applies only to new single- or dual-occupancy dwellings in Sydney. From July its net will widen to include multi-unit dwellings, and the whole of NSW. This is where the resistance will be, of course. Already the grumbling has begun, and already the Government has started to look squashy, with a beleaguered Assistant Planning Minister, Diane Beamer, saying there is still scope to modify BASIX Stage 2’s requirements before the July kick-off. Can’t blame her, I guess – when she tries to stick with the rules she gets kicked in the teeth by ICAC. Sad old game, politics.
Which brings me to my final point. My mum used to take a hard line on personal charity, arguing that the good turns that really counted on that great moral scorecard in the sky were the ones that cost you something. I thought that was pretty tough at the time. But it’s hard not to notice that this Government is positively verdant when the going is easy and the cost zero – such as turning existing bush into national parks or regulating a bullish housing industry. But when it comes to the hard political yakka – funding rail instead of roads, natural-gas buses instead of diesel-powered, wind farms instead of coal-fired power stations or applying pollution limits to major commercial buildings – it goes to jelly every time. Maybe what we need is a BASIX-esque online rating system for government? Call it DEMOCRATIX.
Local Government – Page 25
PHOTO: It may look ugly but … the Hills hoist earns brownie points as being eco friendly under the BASIX system, although the bare concrete yard might need some work. Photo:Greg Newington