Greening the housing landscape

New Zealanders are used to seeing efficiency "star" ratings on appliances - so why not buildings? Catherine Harris investigates.

ASB North Wharf, Auckland has been built to green building standards.
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ASB North Wharf, Auckland has been built to green building standards.

A green building is a catch-all phrase for all sorts of innovation. Rooftop gardens, rainwater collection, natural lighting, sustainable materials. They are nice places to work.

Yet, some experts say, New Zealand tenants don't seem to be "going green".

In Australia, green buildings are a stronger force. NABERS - the National Australian Built Environment Rating System - has been used there for 10 years, and is now mandatory.

NABERS was introduced to New Zealand 18 months ago, and is viewed as a very accurate way of measuring "green-ness".

"It's probably the most comprehensive building energy ratings scheme in the world," says Ewan Gebbie, executive officer of the Energy Management Association which represents energy auditors, lighting, heating and air conditioning firms.

"We've got to remember that buildings are one of the biggest energy users in the world. If we can raise the performance of energy use of our commercial buildings in New Zealand, we will actually have a tangible result in our productivity as an economy."

EMANZ's job is to make NABERS relevant to New Zealand, matching star ratings with data from its members about New Zealand's building stock.

Its predecessors include the New Zealand Green Building Council's green star rating system, which assesses a building's potential at the design stage.

Another is the CIBSE standards which New Zealand engineers have been using for many years.

All of them look at features such as energy and water conservation, internal air quality and waste management, but Gebbies says the difference with NABERS is it is based the actual performance of the buildings.

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"Other ratings schemes are built on the design but people understand when they buy a dishwasher, for example, that the star rating of a dishwasher is based on its actual performance, not what it was designed to perform."

Information is taken from sources like utility bills and converts them into a rating scale from one to six stars.

Six stars means it's a market leader, one star means there's considerable scope for improvement.

The system also takes into account different types of buildings.

Gebbie agrees some building owners are probably afraid to find out what their building's "green" rating is.

Between 50 and 100 assessments have been done so far, but only a few have actually made their rating known. One of the first was Treasury.

And if a building does receive a low NABERSNZ rating, there are moves being made to get around a big capital outlay to fix it.

Overseas, finance companies have long offered "energy performance contracting" arrangements. These are effectively loans, paid off with the savings made by the improvements.

There are not a lot of these loans in New Zealand but EMANZ has began working with Westpac to kick them off.

As councils start to look at similar schemes for earthquake strengthening, Gebbie says it makes sense to throw energy performance into the mix.

However, the inevitable question for building owners is whether green efforts lead to higher rents.

Peter Mence, chief executive of listed property vehicle Argosy Property, says it's true green buildings aren't commanding a premium rent in New Zealand, but he believes they will in future.

"I think we were very strong on the green building thing pre the GFC and our expectation is that demand for green buildings and responsible buildings is coming back.

Even if a building's not officially "green," Mence says he's finding tenants are interested in what he calls environmentally responsible buildings.

"About 80 per cent of the green initiatives are focussed on ensuring the building provides exactly what the tenant wants and uses, but not more than the tenant wants and uses."

However, he says it is also true that reletting times, vacancy periods and tenancy quality are better in greener buildings.

"So where you may not get a passing yield advantage that would justify the work, you are improving the overall life of the value asset."

 - Sunday Star Times

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