by Lynne Blundell
21 May 2010 – The sustainable property sector is littered with tools – tools to measure, to assess, to rate – to give insight into an increasingly complex area. Every other week, it seems, there is a new tool or piece of software. But is there a need for so many? Or is this proliferation simply confusing, or in some cases downright misleading?
Certainly some people who spoke to The Fifth Estate for this story think there are too many different tools emerging, with very little integration across the market. There is also concern that some tools being developed are driven by a desire to “claim the space” and to attract the limited pool of funding available. And that they are not truly representative of what the wider industry wants, or needs.
Others felt proliferation led to innovation and that it was all part of the industry evolving and adapting.
It is not easy to get your mind around the vast array of tools out there – while there are many, most are very location and task-specific. Few have a broad application.
There have been a number of studies over the past few years assessing tools in the market.
One of the most recent of these looks at an emerging area of interest – broader tools for measuring what sustainability means to urban communities. Undertaken by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, the project involves a review of international and Australian climate adaptation tools. Done in consultation with the International Federation of Landscape Architects and the CSIRO, the project received funding from the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.
A one-year project, the review will report in June 2010, but has just released it preliminary report.
This report lists 57 different tools – in Australia six existing tools and 13 under development and internationally 27 existing tools and seven under development (see the table below). These are by no means all of the sustainability tools in the market, just those that deal with strategies for adapting to climate change in urban centres. It doesn’t, for example, include recently released company-developed tools by Lend Lease and WSP Digital, nor the ratings systems for green products provided by Good Environmental Choice and ecospecifier.
Project leader for the AILA review, Catherine Nielson, told The Fifth Estate that the number of tools in the market is very confusing and she believes the only way forward is real collaboration across the industry. She cites the approach used to develop the STAR Community Index in the US as the sort of “genuinely collaborative” approach that should be used in Australia to develop a national sustainability tool for urban development.
The STAR tool, which is currently under development, involves an alliance between the US Green Building Council, the Center for American Progress and the international body for sustainability in local government, ICLEI.
The focus of the tool is on giving local councils recognition for their sustainability initiatives. And it will be accessible to all. To encourage action in communities with tight budgets the STAR benchmarking system will be free online with performance standards tied to readily available data.
True collaboration is the key for setting up a national framework that represents a broad range of interests, says Nielson.
“There have been some really good reviews of tools and schemes and most are coming to the same conclusion – that it doesn’t matter if they are location-specific. What is important is that they operate within an agreed framework and it is understood how they fit in,” says Nielson.
Nielson concludes in the report that the ownership of a tool is “an important indicator of its likely effectiveness in influencing long-term sustainability outcomes, because tools are developed within a brief which reflects the objectives of the stakeholder group or institution they are intended to serve.
“Within the context of the built environment, different stakeholders have different priorities and motivations for addressing particular sustainability parameters, and these can sometimes be conflicting. This has implications for the ability of the tool to drive innovation in urban planning and development,” say Nielson.
AILA also found that because most tools were voluntary, many industry-developed tools focus on measuring aspects of sustainability that are seen to confer the greatest market advantage.
“Economic analysis of benefits therefore takes precedence in tool design with targets and indicator sets reflecting sustainability criteria which are most easily quantified as conferring financial advantage to developers, investors and owners,” says Nielson in the report.
This meant that measures for reducing energy and water use, for example, took preference over criteria which reflect more complex social and community responsibilities – such as measures for improving social equity, building community capacity and enhancing quality of life with the urban realm.
It is this complex area of community sustainability that is now attracting considerable interest, with the Green Building Council of Australia officially announcing earlier this year that it was developing a new national rating tool to measure community sustainability- Green Star Communities. This followed hot on the heels of Landcom’s neighbourhood tool, Precinx, which was launched late last year.
The Green Star Communities project is a massive undertaking. GBCA has partnered with VicUrban for the project and has sought sponsorship from the private and public sector.
The first stage is to develop a national framework and set of best practice criteria for the tool to provide a common language for new and existing communities. The second stage will be to develop a ratings tool to measure communities against these five principles.
The five key principles have been formulated and include:
- Economic prosperity
- Environmental quality
- Place making
Adam Beck, the GBCA’s project manager for the Community tool, told The Fifth Estate that while the drive for the community tool had come from its members – both within industry and government – input for the development of the framework had come from a broad range of organisations throughout Australia.
“This framework and tool is being built on strong engagement – we have had many discussions with non-GBCA members while developing this framework and have just completed two months of consultation around the country. There were no rules of members or non-members – we talked to social service organisations, chambers of commerce and a broad range of professionals.
“We have been running strategic workshops where we talked to planners, utilities and state governments to see where the maximum gain is for such an assessment and rating tool,” says Beck.
The GBCA also intends to commission an independent assessment of tools available in the market to see what they might be able to bring to the project.
“We want to get a good idea of whether any tools out there address our five main principles. There are a lot of existing tools that are built for a specific purpose, such as Landcom’s Precinx for example, and they are all very valuable in their own right.”
But not everyone is convinced the GBCA is the right body to be developing such a tool. Some in the industry who spoke to The Fifth Estate, said they felt there was a risk that a member-based organisation such as the GBCA would inevitably set parameters and develop a tool that reflected the agenda of its main member base – developers and manufacturers.
Several felt it was best left to government to develop truly independent tools, as in the case of NABERS ratings.
One sustainability consultant said it was questionable to devise a tool to measure the sustainability of communities at a fixed point in time when communities, by their very nature, evolved over time. There was also a risk that the property industry, in being heavily involved in the development of a community tool, could push an agenda for urban growth.
There is no questioning the GBCA’s rigour and commitment to the task. To ensure transparency and governance for the GBCA project there is a steering committee, made up of eight representatives from government and industry, and a technical advisory committee of 25, predominantly from the private and government-owned development sector plus representatives from the Planning Institute of Australia, CSIRO and the Queensland Institute of Technology.
But is this broad enough, say some? By comparison, the US STAR Community Index has a steering committee of 45, with representatives of the founding partners plus a diverse group of elected officials and executive staff from cities and counties, national associations, federal agencies, and non-profit organisations. It also has 45 different technical advisory committees with a total of 120 members selected, according to STAR, “with the aim to create a balance among a variety of perspectives which is imperative to address the breadth of issues.”
Where does Precinx fit in?
Landcom released its neighbourhood tool last November (see our story on this). The tool is a software based product that allows the user to test sustainability performance or outcomes by varying the inputs. It also helps in discussions with utilities providers and local councils or with private developers to see what happens if different approaches or inputs are used.
Steve Driscoll, Landcom’s director of sustainability and policy, told The Fifth Estate this week that while Precinx was at this stage a NSW-based product there was potential for it to be taken nationally once it becomes web-based. The barrier to doing this was cost.
“We haven’t given it to anyone else at this stage. We need to make it more user-friendly and robust to be used more widely. We will be web-enabling it at some stage- maybe this year – but to do this will not be an insignificant cost and we have already spent a lot,” says Driscoll.
There is no question, says Driscoll, that the tools market is a very crowded space, but there were very clear differences between most tools, as was the case with Precinx and the GBCA’s approach.
“The fact that it is so crowded reflects that it is a very interesting space. Our objective is not to confuse the landscape with another tool. It doesn’t give scores or ratings out of 10. It gives good answers to important questions on water use, carbon output and other issues of sustainability.
“The GBCA has a strong record for building green tools and have created a demand for green buildings. Its tools have a very specific purpose and we are at the other end of the process- before a development begins.”
Landcom is on the technical working committee for the GBCA community tool and is keen to have input to a national framework.
“There is always a request for standardisation and there is a risk that if we don’t develop national standards we’ll end up with a standard gauge railway track situation,” says Driscoll.
Guy Barnett, research team leader for CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, says there is a great need for tools that inform and improve sustainable development, rather than just rate it.
“Ratings are very useful for differentiating different types of products but they don’t provide feedback. The CSIRO is coming from a very different perspective and our research is quantitative based.”
Barnett is currently leading a research project that focuses on building a quantitative computer tool, The Integrated Sustainability Assessment Platform. A map-based tool, it will compare different development scenarios looking at water and energy use, transport and human health.
The tool is using the ACT Planning Authority’s East Lake urban renewal development as a case study.
Barnett says that while buildings and appliances lend themselves to ratings schemes, communities, because of their dynamic nature, were a very different prospect.
“Communities are much more than a physical built structure. The role of social capital is much harder to quantify,” says Barnett.
Assessment of whether technologies such as co and tri-gen and blackwater treatments are actually cost-effective in developments is likely to become a key issue, according to several people who spoke to TFE, particularly when they count towards points in the Green Star system. Questions are being raised about the logic of using these technologies in single buildings just to gain points when they are really only effective at a precinct level. Tools such as Precinx may well throw further light on this.
Another critical issue is that of lifecycle assessment. A new online tool, called Product Ecology, was recently released by WSP Digital, part of the WSP group, to help designers, architects and construction companies select materials based on full lifecycle assessment of their sustainability.
John Gertsakis, WSP Digital’s project leader for the eco-tool development, told TFE the tool uses data from the Swiss Centre for Lifecycle Inventories to assess a broad range of building materials.
“It allows designers to see the impact of materials right through the entire lifecycle, from the manufacturing process to the end of life – whether it goes to landfill, is recycled or re-manufactured,” says Gertsakis.
Eighty percent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product, says Gertsakis.
“Waste, toxics, emissions and water scarcity are all impacts that can be significantly minimised and even eliminated through intelligent design, lifecycle thinking and eco-innovation.”
The online tool enables designers to input data and receive instant and uncomplicated feedback on design decisions and choices to help them shape their most eco-efficient approach. It compares CO2 emissions, waste impacts and water consumption.
The tool also allows users to review products against relevant regulations and standards.
John Gertsakis expects it will make life a lot easier for designers and architects who have to provide information on materials for Green Star ratings. He says the product will be offered on a subscription basis and will be very affordable, particularly when compared to hiring a lifecycle assessment consultant.
The product is in the launch phase at present and WSP is offering users a free trial.
“It is connecting design and lifecycle thinking,” says Gertsakis.
Climate Adaptation Tools reviewed by AILA
Australian – existing:
1. Envirodevelopment (Urban Development Institute of Australia, QLD.)
2. HIA Greensmart (Housing Industry Association)
3. Liveable Neighbourhoods (Department of Planning & Infrastructure, WA)
4. SDS Sustainable Design Scorecard (City of Port Phillip, VIC)
5. Smart Growth Assessment Tool (City of Waneroo, WA)
6. STEPS Sustainable Tools for Environmental Performance Strategy
(Moreland City Council, VIC)
Australian – under development:
1. AGIC Sustainability Rating Tool for Infrastructure (Australian Green
2. BioCity Health Index (McGregor Coxall, NSW)
3. East Lake Planning Tool – Integrated Sustainability Assessment Platform
(CSIRO & ACT Planning & Land Authority, ACT)
4. EPRA Sustainability Assessment Tool (East Perth Redevelopment
Authority & GHD, WA)
5. Ecological Footprint Model (South Australian Land Management
6. GBCA Green Star Communities Framework tool (Green Building Council
of Australia & VicURBAN, VIC)
7. Integrated Model for Urban Sustainability (University of South Australia)
8. LESS Local Area Envisioning & Sustainability Support system (HASSELL)
9. PRECINX project (Landcom, NSW)
10. Sustainability Modelling Framework SMF (South Australian Land
11. Sustainable Community Rating Tools (VicURBAN)
12. Sustainability Management System (Department of Planning &
13. Urban IT model (City Futures Research Centre)
Australian Institute of Landscape Architects
International – existing:
1. Adaptation Wizard (UK Climate Impacts Programme)
2. ASPIRE (Arup International & Engineers against Poverty)
3. BREEAM Communities (BRE Global UK)
4. BREEAM (BRE Global UK)
5. CASBEE UD (Japan Sustainable Building Council)
6. CASBEE UD+ (Japan Sustainable Building Council)
7. CRISP Framework (EC Thematic Network)
8. DPSIR (United Nations Environment Program)
9. EQUER (Centre for Energy & Processes, France)
10. European Urban Audit (EU Initiative)
11. Green Plan (City of Guelph)
12. GreenPrint (BRE, UK)
13. IRM Integrated Resources Management tool (ARUP International)
14. LEED ND (Green Building Council, USA)
15. Manchester Guide to Development (Manchester City Council, UK)
16. Neighbourhood Sustainability Framework (Beacon Pathway, NZ)
17. PLACE3S (California, Oregon & Washington State Energy Commissions,
18. PlanSmart NJ (New Jersey, USA)
19. PPDS Precinct Planning & Design Standard (Green Globe, Earthcheck)
20. SPARTACUS System for Planning in Towns & Cities for Urban
Sustainability (European Commission consortium)
21. SPeAR Sustainable Project Appraisal Routine (ARUP International)
22. SSIM Sustainable Systems Integrated Model (EDAW AECOM)
23. Sustainable City Program of Vancouver (City of Vancouver, Canada)
24. Sustainable Sites Initiative (Green Building Council & Partners, USA)
25. Sustainable Urban Landscapes – Site Design Manual for BC
Communities (University of British Columbia)
26. TUSC Tools for Urban Sustainability Code of Practice (Synergine &
Waitakere City Council, NZ)
27. UNEP Yearbook (United Nations Environment Programme)
Australian Institute of Landscape Architects
Climate Adaptation Tools for Sustainable Settlements (CATSS)
International – under development:
1. BCA Green Mark for Parks (Singapore Building & Construction Authority)
2. Bristol Development Framework (Bristol City Council)
3. Local Climate Change Visioning Project (Centre for Advanced Landscape
Planning, Vancouver, Canada)
4. LUSH Programme Landscaping for Urban Projects & High Schools
(Singapore Building & Construction Authority)
5. Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity CBI (Singapore National Parks
6. SEAT Subdivision Energy Analysis Tool (California Energy Commission
7. SUE-MoT (Dundee, Glasgow, Caledonian, Loughborough & St. Andrews
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