May-Jun 2014

Special Focus: Australia’s Sustainable Debate by Louis White

In the last week of February 2014, Dr Nirmal Kishnani was invited to Australia on behalf of the Holcim Foundation to give a series of lectures titled Between Green and Sustainable—Emerging Ideas for Australia and Asia. More than 600 people attended the four lectures held at University of Melbourne, Melbourne; Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane; University of South Wales, Sydney; and Curtin University, Perth. The lectures focused on the ideas and themes from his recent book, Greening Asia—Emerging Principles of Sustainable Architecture, which aims to differentiate Greening from sustainability.

Following on from the lecture, a panel discussion with local academic, government and industry experts from each city helped to put sustainability into the Australian context. Louis White gives his insights into the week.

What is next for the great Australian landscape?
The vastness of Australia’s geographical landscape presents numerous challenges for its federal and state governments. Infrastructure is a structural problem not only confined to the various modes of transport but also in regulating industries such as residential and commercial buildings, with each state wanting to showcase its own nuances to verify its independence.

Being the sixth largest country on the planet1 and the third freest economy in the Asia-Pacific region in 2014 2, while supporting a population of only 23 million3, Australia is young enough to embark on a serious sustainable reform.

When it comes to sustainable building development, Australia has largely been on the forefront. The country’s Green Building Council was established in 2002 and on its 10th anniversary in September 2012, 500 Green Star certifications were issued, covering 8 million square metres of built environment.

Since the 10th anniversary, a further 184 building projects in Australia achieved 5- or 6-star Green Star ratings. However, the panelists—who come from diverse backgrounds—said that moving Australia into a permanent sustainable mode of building construction presents many challenges.

Dr Kishnani started the lecture series at the University of Melbourne. This university practices what it preaches as it constructs the multimillion-dollar Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning centre, due to be completed in 2015. The new building has received the endorsement of the Green Building Council of Australia in 2012 and is registered under the 5-star category Australian Excellence. It also received a citation in the prestigious annual Progressive Architecture Awards.

Dr Kishnani gave a presentation on the Green Building Council movement in 2001 led by Asian countries such as India, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan. He also talked about the variety of assessment tools such as LEED4, BREEAM5 and CASBEE6, amongst others.

Dr Kishnani pointed out that since 2005, there have been a plethora of Green assessment tools launched throughout Asia. However, when you look at the overall tallies of conversion to Green commercial buildings, the percentage is very small—only 6.9 percent in India and 0.7 percent in China in 2003.

The population in Asia is moving incredibly fast, with more than 100,000 moving from the countryside to the city every day, putting further pressure on the sustainability of their respective cities. Dr Kishnani said that by 2050, 64 percent of Asia’s population will be living in cities, which means 20,000 new homes need to be built every day to accommodate them.

Masa Noguchi, associate professor of Environmental Design in the University of Melbourne, spoke about his career where he had seen many cities around the world struggle to cope with burgeoning population and to combine new and old energy systems into the building sector. He spoke of low-carbon mass housing in Japan and the issues they face such as carbon neutrality challenges in commercial buildings.

Mark Allan, associate director at Billard Leece Partnership and chair of the Sustainable Buildings Committee, Property Council of Australia, Victoria, highlighted that sustainability development is about new markets, which presented Australia with a lot of opportunities along with challenges. He said that there are no roadblocks to sustainable development because its terms have not become mainstream, unlike Green building tools.

Maria Atkinson, founder of the Green Building Council of Australia and board member of the Holcim Foundation, said she was proud of the inroads that the GBC of Australia had made, but it was time to focus more on getting the public to push the cause. She believed that sustainable construction is the next logical step for every country, and that every aspect of it needs to be addressed.

The next stop was Brisbane, where Dr Kishnani expanded upon the theme of Green becoming a brand and that sustainability had to be more local. According to him, sustainability is about using what one has, and therefore, construction should be different in every country.

One of the panellists is Dr Tony Fry, professor of Design Futures, Griffith University. Recognised as one of the most progressive thinkers in the design world, he observed that over the course of the development of the modern world, we have passed the point where the impact of human activity is actually taking its future away and has become highly vulnerable. He suggested that we need to go in another direction in terms of design, sustainability and politics to address many of the dangers we now confront. Fry said it is critical that creativity interacts with the natural environment in the context of population growth and climate change.

Felicity Briody, a civil engineer who, at 26, was named in the Australian Financial Review as one of the “100 Most Influential Women in Australia”, noted the important role of engineering as an innovative and creative profession with much to contribute to sustainability in the built environment.

Mark Thomson, an architect and chairman of the Australia Green Development Forum, is passionate about sustainability implementation in the design and construction industry. He is concerned that the local design industry is missing the significance and scale of current environmental challenges. He also noted that knowing where to find good information, support and resources on sustainability is a significant obstacle for the industry as it continues to grow and evolve.

Atkinson was also in the Brisbane panel discussion. She said that future sustainable construction will move the focus from “doing less harm” to creating a positive impact on ecologies, societies and the economy.

In Sydney, Dr Kishnani focused on the usage of words in Green rating tools around the world and how we can broaden the discussion. He said that words such as efficacy, ecology, wellness, embeddness, advocacy, and integration are new categories emerging in assessment tools. The big challenge is to get from Green to sustainable, and the industry needs to ask itself if it is indeed asking the right questions. He also expanded upon his theme of Green becoming a brand and that the industry is preoccupied with engineering, performance and savings. He once again emphasised that sustainability is about using what one has in one’s own region.

Dr Ken Maher, an award-winning architect and executive chairman of HASSELL, an Australian international multidisciplinary design practice, commented that the biggest challenge in focusing on sustainability was getting all the interested parties together—the community, governments and private enterprises. He was instrumental in HASSELL’s partnership with Grocon, Mission Australia and NSW Housing to build an ecologically sustainable six-storey residential complex in Sydney’s inner-west for people at risk or affected by chronic homelessness. He said that within the industry there is a debate that designers controlled everything. The discussions with engineers always meant that there was an inevitable compromise when it came to sustainable building construction.

Dennis Else, general manager for safety and health, Brookfield Multiplex, emphasised the importance of building an environment after a development has been completed. He also said that architects and developers must explain to clients the social and environmental effects of a development.

Lester Partridge, industry director and global leader of advanced design and applied research, AECOM, believed that the next stage of sustainable development would be building precincts from scratch, and the relationship between construction and the landscape needs to be further explored. Technology would also play a big part in sustainable building construction with the continual advancement of smartphone applications, enabling tenants to control air-conditioning in a confined space. He said it was important to propose sustainable construction to clients and give them options when it comes to initial design, highlighting the benefits that will reduce their energy footprint. Dr Kishnani responded by saying that architects need to sell the quality of life to developers, not the cost.

Dr Kishnani ended his lecture series at Curtin University, where he also completed his PhD. Coming to the end of the lecture series, he found it time to pose some questions for the future. He believed that there was a lack of leadership in Asia and that every country’s cost of living and cultural norms play a big part in deciding whether people undertake a Green philosophy.

Jemma Green, senior research fellow and doctoral candidate at the Curtin University Sustainable Policy Institute, said that one of the biggest problems facing Australia was its vast urban sprawl. She observed that Australians were moving further away from the main cities of each state, thereby creating new Green issues. The initial idea of state housing in Western Australia up until 1975 was to move low-income earners into one area. However, with the population growing so quickly, and expected to surpass Brisbane by 2028 as Australia’s third biggest city7, this idea was now redundant. Now, she said, Western Australia and the city of Perth have too many people in transit, which was creating lifestyle problems.

Geoff Warn, founding partner and director of Donaldson and Warn architectural firm and the government architect for Western Australia, believes that the country has taken the concept of Green commercial buildings strongly, but needs a more holistic approach as the next big step. With new suburbs and schools opening up in Western Australia, he said that is hard to establish a viable transport system that sufficiently caters to everyone. This, too, means that residents are forced to spend more time in their cars, creating traffic congestion and frustration. The fact that the public transport system is partly privatised also creates a problem with the ultimate agenda of the government and private enterprises. The government is looking to provide a service to the community, while private enterprises’ core focus is profitability. This results in people’s quality of life suffering. The next big issue facing Perth residents is moving the Green building and sustainability mentality into residential housing.

Dr Kishnani finished the discussion by posing the broader question of why the principles of sustainability cannot be incorporated throughout the world. He spoke of how each culture has its specific issues that it deems important, and that sustainability’s biggest challenge is to overcome these obstacles.

Finally, he lamented that cost and efficiency were driving most of the past discussions, and that a big failure of sustainability was that it has defined itself as doing less rather than aiming for a better life.

1 Geoscience Australia – Australian Government http://www.ga.gov.au/education/geosciencebasics/
2 2014 Index of Economic Reform http://www.heritage.org/index/country/australia
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/1647509ef7e25fa
4 LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design http://www.usgbc.org/leed
5 BREEAM http://www.breeam.org/
6 CASBEE http://www.ibec.or.jp/CASBEE/english/
7 Perth’s growing population http://au.news.yahoo.com/a/20032461/

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