The heliostat, from the 16th floor deck of One Central Park

6 June 2013 ­– The promise of high level sustainability at the huge Central Park urban precinct in Sydney’s southern fringe at Broadway is starting to become a tangible reality. At a media briefing on Monday, to announce that the first residents would start moving in this week, it was clear that even the most ambitious and dramatic of sustainability features promised by the project would actually be delivered.

From the deck of the 16th floor apartment at One Central Park where the media briefing was held, guests could get a bird’s eye view of the massive heliostat. This array of mirrored panels perched near the top of the neighbouring Central Park East tower would collect sunlight shot up to them from a series of larger mirrored panels on the roof of another building, and then redirect the light to shaded areas in the precinct. At night the heliostat would become an LED light sculpture.

Beneath One Central Park is a huge water recycling system that Frasers says is one of the biggest of its kind.

A gas fired trigeneration, low emissions thermal and electricity generation plant is another big-scale item that if not yet built, has at least been signed off. At $26.5 million, it is Australia’s biggest environmental upgrade agreement announced so far and will start with an initial two megawatt capacity, and expansion capacity of up to six MW.

From left: Lisa McCutchion, Hide Seguchi and Guy Pahor

Frasers Property chief executive officer Guy Pahor, flanked by Hide Seguchi general manager – development and communities with Sekisui House Australia, which is joint venture partner, said residents would not notice any difference to their supply of energy and hot water, neither in quality nor cost. The integration would be seamless.

The possibility is that in the future some of the energy may be sold to other nearby customers, with proceeds going to recoup the initial investment.

But perhaps the most visible emblem of sustainability is the growing plants that are populating Patrick Blanc’s biggest vertical green wall so far.

According to Pahor, close to 4000 residents and 3500 workers will live and work within 11 five-star Green Star minimum rated buildings. It was encouraging that 1100 apartments had sold so far, with sales accelerating in recent months.

But while the sales must be a relief to the developers, it’s the delivery of the highly rated buildings and the sustainability features that will be welcomed by others. There are the designers, the consultants, the engineers who turned the vision to reality, the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, which is sustainability partner for the project.

Not to mention the biggest influence of them all, Stanley Quek, the doctor-cum-developer who dreamed up the idea in the first place, with plenty of nudging and prodding no doubt by the City of Sydney.

There would have been plenty of sceptics who thought the doctor was shooting way above what was practical and realisable at the time. The project would no doubt be scaled back, trimmed in typical developer style of old, citing cost constraints, unforeseen engineering difficulties, a collapse in market demand, and so on. After all Frasers bought the site in 2007, just ahead of the global financial crisis.

But more relieved than most will be the sustainability advocates who supported the project and thought that here, exactly where it should be, a few steps from Central Railway Station, multiple bus routes, the university precinct, Chinatown and all the buzz of city life, would be a reasonably high density mixed development that would demonstrate aspirational sustainability.

Some greenies wanted the density to be much more, saving potentially thousands of new houses from being built on prime Sydney Basin farmland.

But what’s the impact on the rest of the industry? Would this development stand as an icon and inspire other developers with similarly sized urban projects to take heart and run the gauntlet of reality to deliver above average results?

Group marketing manager Lisa McCutchion thinks so. At least judging by strong interest and multiple presentations she’s made to industry groups. But sadly, from the buyers, the 1100 people who have forked out an average of $750,000 to buy the first tranche of offerings, not so much. At least not overtly.

The best that could be hoped, she agreed, was that the overall quality – with interiors by William Smart – and innovation has bestowed additional value on this development as opposed to run of the mill development that meets the basic BASIX (Building Sustainability Index) minimum requirement for sustainability. Lend Lease chief operating officer Dan Labbad recently dubbed sustainability a “proxy for innovation”. It calls into question how a brand is judged and valued. Can it be defined? And measured? And does sustainability become merged into the brand?

Bertram Beissel

Certainly Bertram Beissel, a partner in one of list of leading architectural firms on the project Ateliers Jean Nouvel, thinks the entire project is having an impact on the general public. In particular the green wall fronting Broadway.

“People are driving past and seeing it now and saying, ‘why can’t we have these everywhere’.”

Beissel calls the green wall “leaf louvres”. But what about the cost of such a structure? Critics say green walls are expensive and with their need for supporting structures, watering mechanisms and hydroponic feeding systems they make significant calls on natural resources as well as financial.

You need to consider the alternative, Beissel said.

With this system, “You’re basically growing your own louvres [using the sun] in front of the windows”.

“In a way it’s saving energy by shading your buildings.” And  the water is recycled, he pointed out.

Even a conventional aluminium louvre system would soak up huge embodied energy. You first had to get the aluminium out of the ground; there was the energy in manufacturing and then the transportation.

View from One Central Park, Level 16

Has there been a cost comparison? “That would be very hard to do,” Beissel said.

“It depends how much you are willing to spend on your façade. Even basic cladding with louvres across the building would have to be moveable because you can’t have them there permanently. You have to slide them and they’re always in front of somewhere you don’t want them.

“And people like to look at plants.”

What about a rough stab at the cost of aluminium louvres? Well, Beissle ventured ­ there’s about five kilometres of planters and you would need to multiply them by three metres. So $5 million? More, he said. $10 million?

Well, it’s a big project.

How big is now starting to become apparent. From the 16th floor view you could appreciate, finally, the scale. So this is what it will look like to build 2100 apartments, 925 student dwellings, 51,000 square metres of commercial space, 30,000 square metres of retail, and a boutique hotel in Kensington Street, which runs off Broadway.

The entire area will be transformed, Pahor said. The hotel, to be operated by The Unlisted Collection, will have only 60 or so rooms, but top notch chefs.

The offices would have 2000 sq m floor plates. And the student accommodation would be “five star” student accommodation, with pastoral care and 24-hour amenities.

So far Pahor said there had been no “buyer fatigue” typical of many projects three years after launch, as this was. But while the motivation may be tricky to pinpoint for now, perhaps as the development grows, as energy bills climb and the awareness of climate change does the same, the motivation for buyers will increasingly be more overtly about the sustainability.