24 March 2011 – We live in tumultuous times. Daily we are bombarded with news and images of disaster – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, social unrest and impending nuclear catastrophe, all against a backdrop of a warming planet. Meanwhile in Australia we still can’t even get our minds around putting a price on carbon. It can make it hard to feel positive about the future. But out of turmoil can spring change and innovation.
That was certainly the mood at a recent gathering in Sydney sponsored by engineering and design consultancy, Arup.
Held at Greenhouse by Joost, the pop-up sustainable restaurant perched on the edge of Sydney Harbour, the gathering was abuzz with enthusiasm and big ideas. Guests drank from jam jars, speakers stood on wooden crates and conversations centred on plans and ideals that were not only lofty but were expected to become reality.
Arup is a sponsor of Greenhouse and is also behind the proactive initiative, The New Agenda, which kicked off last year. It is an initiative that aims to rise above the political inertia that surrounds climate change and sustainable practices in this country. It brings together some fine minds, from economists and environmentalists to urban planners, designers and academics, all determined to make things happen.
Stephen Lennon, Senior Associate in Arup’s Sydney office was instrumental in launching the initiative. He told the Fifth Estate that Arup is disturbed by the lack of courage and connection of Australian politicians and the political short-termism that is stifling progressive public policies to address social and environmental sustainability.
“Rather than sit on the sidelines, we are committed to taking an active part in the debate about Australia’s future. We needed a new agenda and it wasn’t coming from government. It would be arrogant to think we could do it on our own so we have brought together strategic thinkers and doers to define what that agenda should be and then to act on it,” says Lennon.
Out of TNA’s first two workshops came a list of goals. These were wide ranging and included promoting a culture of innovation with new styles of leadership, pushing for long term investment rather than the current five year horizon, creating a closed loop resource sector so that recycling is the norm and developing a low carbon economy driven by investment in renewable energy sources.
Next came the decision to put these goals into action in a demonstration project in a real community. This will be done in collaboration with the University of Technology, Sydney with a Memorandum of Understanding soon to formalise this partnership.
“The attractive part of the relationship with UTS is that they want to research the community engagement process of a project like this and some of their research work will inform what we do. It will be a symbiotic relationship,” says Lennon.
A wish list of communities to approach has been compiled and includes:
• Parramatta (geographic centre of Sydney, proximity to State Government offices)
• Ashfield (proactive council and diverse community)
• Marrickville (as above)
• Blacktown (community that most likely would benefit from this type of initiative)
• Redfern (central, diverse, in transformation)
• Liverpool (in planned growth corridor)
But this is by no means a final list, says Lennon, and the demonstration project may end up being located in a regional centre such as Wagga Wagga, Wyong or Taree.
“We will engage with a community or locality that wants to be engaged with. A Council may agree to be involved or it could be that we work with a community group. The crucial thing is that we won’t go in with a pre-conceived idea of what that community needs. We will invite communities to nominate themselves and what we do will depend on the needs of that community. Part of the process is to learn and to talk to people,” says Lennon.
So who are the people and organisations contributing to this push for greater action on sustainability? We decided to talk to some of them about their vision for a more sustainable future and their ideas of how we might get there.
The artist – Joost Bakker
Greenhouse by Joost was an apt venue for a gathering of thinkers and doers. A hotbed of sustainable ideas and practices, the pop up restaurant and bar has been a massive hit in its eight short weeks in Sydney, with queues of eager customers snaking along the shores of Campbell Cove in the Rocks every day of the week.
It showcases what can be achieved if you have enough passion, energy and determination – and the support of sponsors such as Arup and a government authority, in this case the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, prepared to push the envelope.
Joost Bakker is an installation artist, builder and environmentalist. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious and he points to the panels that form the walls of his building as he addresses the crowd from a wooden crate.
“I’m really proud that we’ve used magnesium oxide sheets with carbon in them for the first time in the world and I’m proud that Arup backed me up and said they believed in this product.
“There’s nothing commercial about this building – it’s just a whole bunch of ideas that I’m passionate about and I hope that in ten years time I walk into a building that makes this look like a joke.
“I think the next ten years are going to be the most exciting decade we’ve seen for the past two or three hundred years in terms of the technology that’s coming out and the changes to how we create energy and how we consume. I wouldn’t be surprise if in ten to fifteen years there is no waste and that to me would be the dream and it’s not that hard.”
Greenhouse is a showcase for recycling and low impact living. There is no waste – everything is either composted or re-used.
The flooring is made from old conveyor belting, the chairs from recycled irrigation pipes and the toilets flush with recycled water from hand washing. A rooftop vegetable and herb garden supplies the restaurant while the exterior walls are vertical gardens of strawberry plants. Wheat is bought from a local farmer and ground on-site to make the restaurant’s pasta. (See the Greenhouse website for more details.)
Construction of the building was streamlined, the steel arriving in coil form and put through a roll forming machine (a New Zealand invention), which comes with its own generator. Computer modeling allows the machine to churn out studs, purlins and any other structural elements as required. No glue was used – instead recyclable screws are used throughout. Then the framework was filled in with straw bales. Construction took seven days.
This is the third Greenhouse Joost has constructed – the first two being in Melbourne and Perth (where it has become a permanent fixture). It is the first to include magnesium oxide sheets.
“I’ve always wanted to use this product magnesium oxide but every time I ran out of time or the building surveyors wouldn’t allow it or it wasn’t a certified product. But this time I had so much momentum with the project so I went to Bendigo to a friend who’s got a pyrolisis machine and we pyrolisised some sawdust [burning organic matter at high heat without oxygen to produce carbon].”
Joost then went to China where he organised the manufacture of magnesium oxide sheets that incorporated the carbonised sawdust as bio-char. It was done in a matter of weeks, the sheets arriving just in time for construction on January 17. He points out that magnesium oxide is a naturally occurring mineral that was used by the Romans for building and despite it being extremely fire-resistant, and having one tenth the carbon footprint of cement sheeting, it is not used in buildings in Australia.
“My idea is that we turn waste into bio-char and then lock carbon in buildings. The charcoal in the walls acts as a filter, sucking the pollution out of the air. This building alone holds six tonnes of carbon – imagine how much that can filter.”
He believes we should stop using timber as a building material and leave the forests to store carbon and to provide habitat for wildlife – something that plantations do not do. Instead straw should be widely used in construction.
“Straw is probably the biggest waste product in the world today. The emissions created in California alone from burning the wheat stubble is more than all of its power requirements. So if we can find a use for straw we are making a big difference and we are also providing income for farmers.”
Joost and Greenhouse are off to Milan, Berlin, Budapest and London at the end of March and Joost is talking to an Aboriginal community in the Pilbara about the possible re-use of the Sydney building. “Only if it is of use to them,” he says.
The bureaucracy – Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority
Ironically it was the very bureaucracy often blamed for stifling progress that both initiated and facilitated the Greenhouse project in Sydney.
When Debra Dawson, SHFA director, The Rocks and Circular Quay precinct, saw a media article lamenting that an innovative project such as Greenhouse would never happen in Sydney she took action, calling her colleague Catherine Gallagher, director, precinct activation and visitor services, to put the idea to her.
“Greenhouse was initially going to be in the Botanic Gardens but it fell through for reasons to do with the sponsor,” Catherine Gallagher told The Fifth Estate. “Neil Perry was quoted in the article as a supporter of Joost so we called him to get his opinion on whether it would work in The Rocks. Then we rang Joost.”
The two directors then took the project idea to senior management where general manager Egle Garrick and others gave it the green light.
“We are a bureaucracy and we needed senior management on side for this to happen in the short timeframe involved,” says Gallagher.
And it was a very tight timeframe, the call going to Joost on December 3 and the restaurant up and running by February 12.
“It required speed so it was a matter of ensuring that any consents required were covered. Debra handled the operational side and I did the sponsorship side. Sometimes organizations can over consult and people find reasons to find problems.
“We talked to our other tenants in the area and the only issue was sightlines for some located behind – we quickly addressed these by reducing the height of the building. Most felt Greenhouse would attract more customers to the precinct which is exactly what has happened.”
Luckily the project was classified as an event so Development Applications were not an issue. The project was deemed a perfect fit for SHFA’s sustainable branding.
“There is demand for more sustainable practices and this project was the perfect opportunity to show our tenants what can be done. It has also brought so many Sydney-siders to Campbell Cove who would not normally be there,” says Gallagher.
“Sometimes you just have to make things happen. And if you have something really good it’s important to find a way to push it through.”
The building physicist – Haico Schepers
Haico Schepers, Arup principal, describes himself as a building physicist. He would like to see buildings used for multi purposes – living, working and eating. For this to happen flexible building systems must become the norm. He believes policy changes, technology and social networks are laying the groundwork for multi-function buildings – now designers have to work out how to create them.
He told The Fifth Estate that traumatic events such as the recent Queensland floods and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can prompt significant change.
“Events such as these can show us how we need to change the way we are doing things. Out of the floods for example will come decisions not to build in certain areas. There may have been resistance to this but councils now have the reasoning to support unpopular [zoning and planning] decisions.”
Next would come a far more sophisticated approach to climate change adaptation.
“We’ve been looking at mitigation and we should be doing this but we also need to recognise that we can only do so much and we have to get sophisticated in our adaptation.”
It is not hard to legislate for planning that takes into account sea level rise or extreme weather events, says Schepers. What is hard is to activate people and to get them to see how change is possible.
“We are moving on from the doom and gloom stuff hopefully to more political action. Climate change is too big for people to get their minds around so it is our job to break things down into smaller steps so people can grasp and understand it.”
Demonstration projects are very important as they provide practical examples and measurable results. This can convince politicians and give them the justification they need to implement change.
Schepers believes we are currently in the midst of a significant transition where small steps will culminate to bring about a transformation of the way we live.
“Things look like they are going slower than they are,” he says. “There is a lot of money going into renewables and the debate has been going on for a long time now. We will move in that direction – it won’t be instant but it is inevitable.”
For his part, Schepers is involved in sophisticated computer optimisation analysis. Where once computers could come up with five different building and design solutions they can now present 2000 whether it is a question of thermal load, energy efficiency or ventilation.
“We can look at thousands of different choices to see how a building’s form needs to change.”
And now that buildings are so efficient in operations, materials must catch up.
“Modern buildings are so efficient that almost fifty percent of the footprint is now in materials. This will be the next big area for innovation,” says Schepers.
The academic – David Bubna-Litic
David Bubna-Litic, senior lecturer in strategic management at UTS, sees a future where we will all be prepared to earn less and consume less in exchange for a more sustainable and happier way of living.
“What has become really evident over the last five years is that the world population is growing at such a rate we can’t assume we can continue with the kinds of disparities in income and wealth that we’ve had. As developing countries converge there will be a radical increase in consumption of resources. The point where demand outstrips supply is already here. We can continue down this track or developing a new way of thinking about meeting our needs,” says Bubna-Litic.
For this change to occur the education system from kindergarten through to university must incorporate subjects on sustainability and ethics. People must learn to think about their total wellbeing and what it is they need for happiness rather than simply aspire to earn more and consume more.
Bubna-Litic ran the first subject in sustainable enterprise at UTS in 1994. The business faculty is now a leader in integrating sustainability in its business program. Sustainability subjects have been introduced to the core of the degree as well as its major streams so that every student will be exposed to aspects of sustainability.
“We’ve had a mixed reaction from students as many have never been exposed to these concepts. Australia is a very strongly primary industry-based economy and we are used to thinking of the cheapest rather than cleverest way of doing things. Many industries have little room for doing things differently – it is hard to add value to a resource. But to think we can continue to operate without putting a price on carbon is naïve.”
UTS’s involvement with the New Agenda initiative is a great opportunity to demonstrate and research the impact of a sustainable community on human wellbeing, says Bubna-Litic..
“Can we design a city without cars where buildings get their power from local rather than centralized energy systems? Would that be a happy place to be? It may be possible to create a place where people want to be – they might even give up their expensive house in Bondi to move there. Not only could it be cheaper but it could be a better place to live.”
What Bubna-Litic aims to concentrate on is getting the economics of a sustainable city right. That is the key, he says.
“A lot of work has been done on designing sustainable cities but not a lot has been done on how business can operate in such a place. We have been thinking through the architecture, energy and transport but not how to get an economy that allows business to shift into a very new type of environment.
“We have to get people to shift in the way they think about what value is. We are all going to have to potentially earn a lot less. In the sustainable city things will be cheaper and people will be trading time and better relationships for material things. We might be working less but in terms of health and happiness we may find we are much better off.”
The geopolitical strategist and humanitarian – Prashanth Shanmugan
Prashanth Shanmugan was both a thinker and a doer from a young age. In 2000 at the age of 19 he was named Young Citizen of the Year and in 2001 he was selected by the United Nations as a Global Ambassador for the United Nations Global Atlas of Human Rights.
His passion is getting people to think in a different way, no easy feat when people are used to doing things in certain ways, he says.
“My passion has always been ideas and people – bringing people together and raising the level of discourse. Nobody is really doing that – we are not challenging the status quo.”
He has worked as a business and political strategist doing scenario planning for Shell in the Netherlands. He has also been involved in humanitarian work with the Red Cross and the United Nations. Most recently he has been selected as a fellow on the Global Climate Change Professional Fellows Program, which takes place in the US in April and May. He is attending the program as a representative of The New Agenda initiative.
The fellowship program allows participants to explore the science, impact, adaptation, mitigation and actions related to climate change and covers topics such as:
- strategies to reduce solid waste through changes in packaging and increased use of recycling
- the challenges of building sustainable economies while preserving the environment
- strategies for the management of climate change in urban settings.
Shanmugan wants to bring ideas back from the program and put them into action in Australia.
“Australia doesn’t have an entrepreneurial eco-system. We can change policy in order to keep talent here and develop an entrepreneurial spirit. We think an entrepreneur means having a corner store but that is essentially about running a business. An entrepreneur is someone who takes risks, injects new ideas and challenges the status quo. It is about creativity and innovation.”
Some of the things he envisages for a future sustainable Australia:
- high speed rail linking the major population centres
- more social inclusion that encourages both cognitive and sociological diversity
- diverse media with fewer talk back broadcasters and morning shows that encourage low level thinking and don’t raise the level of public discourse
- a more productive interaction and engagement with Europe and emerging markets
- much more investment in renewable energy
“The foundation of the Red Cross was considered the supreme humanitarian achievement of the 19th century, the eradication of small pox was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of the 20th century. What will be our greatest achievement in the 21st century?
“I believe we can shape a better world by 2020 and it will be achieved through raising the level of discourse. I am optimistic about human creativity and innovation – we just have to bloody well do it,” says Shanmugan.