This piece was written and provided by FTMA Bronze Sponsor, Stora Enso Australia.
Above: Australia’s First Wooden Office Building – International House Sydney
Australia´s first wooden office building at Barangaroo, Sydney was built with CLT by Stora Enso (2 454 m³) and Glulam (951 m³). The seven-storey office building built by Lendlease has won numerous awards including the prestigious Athenaeum and European Centre for Design Award for International Architecture. Architects – Tzannes Associates. Photo – Philip Noller
Australia has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world and its construction sector is nearly a third of that problem—three times higher than the global average . After ferocious bush fires, catastrophic floods, crippling droughts, and bleaching barrier reefs, all directly linked to the climate crisis, sustainable change is coming in the way Australians are building and the changes are coming from the ground up in the building sector.
News and official channels only report the bad news. Australia was one of four countries, along with Indonesia, Mexico, and Singapore, which chose to resubmit the same 2030 emission targets at Cop26. Committing to only a 26-28% cut compared with 2005 levels, though government projections suggest it could make a cut of up to 35%, in part due to national government policies, they still lag far behind scientists’ advice to cut emissions by 45% (Adam Morton, the Guardian). The recent budget forecasts a reduction in climate spending by 35% by 2025-26. A $20 billion commitment for “low-emission” technologies has been criticised for prioritising carbon capture and storage to facilitate Australia continued burning of fossil fuels (the Economist).
More than 60% of Australians think climate change is a “serious and pressing problem” (Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, Australia) and want to build more sustainably, “so long as it does not cost more.” Individual states and territories are setting their own ambitious emission targets. South Australia already generates more than half its electricity from wind and solar. A recent injection of $300 million by the Australian Government (CEFC) to encourage mass timber construction has the potential to substantially cut construction-related emissions, using a greener alternative to conventional construction materials. To tackle the current situation, the Australian construction industry is finding solutions to build greener at three key entry points – regulations, perceptions, and economics.
Most Australian suppliers deal with a large variety of building and construction projects locally and overseas where there are little to no regulations to encourage the use of materials with low embodied carbon, according to a 2020 report by Lendlease. While there are a few regulations through the National Construction Code (NCC), the Commercial Building Disclosure Program, the National Australian Built Environment Rating System and the Nationwide House Energy Ratings Scheme, no national plan aims to achieve zero energy and carbon-ready buildings for Australia (COAG Energy Council, 2018). There is “no new money, no new policy and no credible plan,” says Tim Baxter of the Climate Council, an NGO. His organisation calculates that Australia is doing less to cut emissions than any other rich country.
Individual home builders, progressive municipalities, and construction firms in Australia wanting to build for the future already have a number of global regulations and standards in place. Highly developed, transparent, sourcing of timber from sustainably managed forests, certified according to standards like PEFC and FSC, allows the purchase of wood with confidence from forests that are sustainably managed. Certifications like Green Star, an internationally-recognised Australian sustainability rating and the BBCA low carbon construction certification make it straightforward to ensure buildings are reaching globally recognized green standards.
Knowledge and perception of building greener are another significant barrier to sustainable construction in Australia. Architects, specifiers, and builders have expertise and familiarity with the materials they have always used, so sustainable innovations such as prefabricated mass timber are often overlooked despite being more cost-effective and efficient.
While other industries are increasingly adopting Lifecycle Assessments to evaluate their cradle-to-grave environmental impact of products and services, the construction industry is starting more and more to follow suit. More sustainability assessments are focusing on the long-term and account for the whole lifecycle impact of buildings. This is important progress to ensure the whole lifecycle carbon footprint of construction from design to demolition is calculated at the concept stage and everyone can see how critical it is to replace carbon-intensive materials and processes with sustainable substitutes. Lighter weight wood enables renovations that help to minimize demolition and waste, while also promoting building energy efficiency and wellbeing. Wood buildings can be designed for “second life” applications with elements reused to keep the carbon sequestered as long as possible.
Another block to the transition to greener buildings in Australia is economics. Enormous capital has been sunk into existing fossil fuel-intensive manufacturing processes and equipment requiring very long investment horizons. However, a recent report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development highlights the benefits of thinking about circularity extending beyond climate change, as there are economic advantages for developers. These include avoiding costs from new land acquisition and landfill costs by prioritizing existing buildings through renovations or extra floor “top-ups” made possible by lighter weight timber products. Developers also benefit from increased asset value by accounting for residual material value and reduced demolition and landfill costs.
Technological advances are making it cheaper and easier to build with renewables. Advances with Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) have created new architectural possibilities and dramatically reduce construction waste, pollution, and emissions. Composite engineered materials have reduced carbon footprints by combining different materials to create lighter, multi-functional, sustainable ones. Furthermore, the wood can be used for many more building applications, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of construction overall.
there is global cooperation and support to build greener and most Australians want it, but it must be affordable. Individual contractors, municipalities, and territories are pivoting to renewables and insisting on sustainable construction for their communities. However, in a country with few national guidelines on embodied carbon, shifts underway in the construction industry require economic incentives. Individuals, companies, and public bodies might choose to build sustainably based on their own social responsibility goals, but for widespread change, building greener must be cheaper than building with fossil-fuel materials. Innovative technological advances in wood products make this transition possible with lightweight economic alternatives. For more on the benefits and savings of building with wood, see the #WoodHouseEffect.
 The Green Building Council of Australia reports that globally, buildings are responsible for approximately 28% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 37% of energy related GHG emissions. 26% of this is attributed to embodied carbon emissions and 74% to operational carbon emissions by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Australian construction industry produces 137 metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent (Mt CO₂e) annually.