Ever wondered whether there is value in having a say during public consultations? Can you really help create positive change? Is your expertise and insight going to be given due consideration?

The Section J Industry Working Group of 2015 and 2016 is a good example of why the answers to those questions is a resounding “yes!”

The group began when the Australian Building Codes Board released the draft of the proposed changes to the National Construction Code for the 2016 iteration of the NCC. A few of those who read the draft were appalled when they examined the proposed Section J – energy efficiency provisions.

The issues as later summarised by the Working Group were:

  • There were too many loopholes in terms of proving compliance with Section J
  • It failed to promote improvements in the performance of buildings
  • There was an overall lack of vision that could see Australia become uncompetitive in world terms.

Some of the specific flaws included enabling a fully-glazed “glass box” to meet thermal performance requirements due to a compliance pathway using a flawed reference building; no requirement to address air infiltration; and no mention of the purpose of Section J being to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as had been the case in previous versions of the Code.

Engineers, building physics and energy efficiency experts rapidly networked to develop an approach to improving the proposed draft. As a result, 17 people came together to form a working group.  It included:

  • Andrew Thompson – State Manager [Victoria] at Cundall
  • Clare Parry – principal sustainability consultant Grun Consulting (Now Hype v Hype)
  • Chris Buntine – (at that time) ESD Leader Aurecon [Melbourne] (now sustainability lead at Northrop)
  • Jeff Robinson – sustainable design leader APAC Aurecon
  • Darren O’Dea – (at that time) principal building physics Inhabit Group (now director of Fabric First and co-founder of Speckel)
  • Cormac Kelly – sustainability project engineer at Wood +Grieve Engineers (Now Stantec)
  • Chris Walker – lead ESD Consultant at Jacobs SKM (Now Global Technical Lead)
  • Digby Hall – principal sustainability consultant at Umow Lai (Now Northrop)
  • David Jarratt – director at WSP Built Ecology (Now Atelier 10)
  • Jessica Hogg – senior building physics engineer, Inhabit Group (Now Arup)
  • Tai Hollingsbee – director of research Studio Huss (now GHD)
  • Shane Esmore – director Umow Lai (Now Integral Group)
  • Thorsten Padeffke – associate – discipline leader ESD at Irwinconsult (Now Meinhardt)
  • Hannah Morton – senior ESD consultant at Cundall
  • David Barker – building physics leader at ARUP (Now Integral Group)
  • Jenny Lewis – environmental design consultant at WSP Built Ecology
  • Michael Shaw – ESD manager at Connor Pincus Group (Now NJM Design)

Some of these individuals and companies have since gone on to become signatories of Australian Engineers Declare.

What happened next

The group launched a website, posted across LinkedIn and made submissions to the ABCB consultation process for the draft Section J 2016.

Darren O’Dea says the working group put professional competitiveness between their firms

to one side during the process. Everyone also worked to find a consensus of what common and specific technical issues needed to be addressed.

(Image Inset: Darren O’Dea)

”We knew there would be issues between ourselves in terms of having different technical opinions, but we didn’t focus on that.

“It was about getting the basics [in the NCC] right.”

The ABCB adopted some of the group’s recommendations, however, as the draft process was so far advanced there were limits to what it could integrate for the NCC 2016. It promised to hold more comprehensive discussions and consultations with working group members and other experts ahead of the drafting of NCC 2019.

The 2019 iteration did see a major overhaul of Section J led by Dr Paul Bannister and with extensive consultation. Engineers and energy performance experts have a seat at the table in stakeholder discussions.

O’Dea remains engaged in the ongoing discussions around evolving the NCC, with the next iteration due to be enacted in 2022.

The importance of having a say

I asked why he gets involved and engages in public consultations and industry consultations.

“I came from a wildlife ecology and biodiversity science background before I entered engineering,” he explains. I did two Masters degrees back to back because I saw that the engineering of buildings (and improving it) was definable. I could make a difference there.”

O’Dea now leads a consultancy, Fabric First and has co-founded an open-source software platform and toolkit, Speckel, that assists practitioners to design and specify more energy efficient building envelopes and also comply with Section J.

He works on projects where there is a “problem to be solved”, where it will make a positive difference or where there is a solid achievement involved such as a net zero project.

“I focus my time on things that matter.”

He says that engaging in consultations as he did with the Section J working group is about wanting to commit to something “with meaning” and not have the building industry left behind in the low-carbon transition.

“Section J is the backstop of the discussion of energy efficiency.”

The minimum performance requirements of the NCC are just that. A minimum to comply. O’Dea believes that if an engineer or consultant has the opportunity to exceed and “go beyond”, they need to do it.

This is an opportunity to create greater meaning and satisfaction in the work.

“We all search for meaning,” O’Dea observes.

Engaging in consultations is building the toolkit for others to employ. It’s the work on the front end of a code, standard or policy that then means those at the business end where those things are enacted and applied are equipped to do better work.

“There are benefits to lift everyone’s game,” he says.

That is the goal – not to only have flagships and high-profile projects – but to have everyone in the profession and the wider industry “come up at the same time.”

“That is a more inclusive and holistic approach.”

For practitioners working in firms where company culture, policy, clients or the nature of the work limits the ability of an individual engineer to innovate and drive change, engaging in consultations can also be a valuable outlet. It is where an individual can share ideas, insights and perspectives that may not get oxygen during the workday.

“It means you can move away from being a purely company person,” O’Dea says.

Willow is a STEAM wordsmith, researcher and networker working on ideas, research and strategy through to polished words and production across all media/channels both digital and traditional.
You can connect with Willow on LinkedIn

Australian Engineers Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency