14 December 2012 – The Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living was formally launched by federal minister Chris Evans at the University of NSW on Wednesday morning, and if they’d dropped a bomb on the six star Green Star Tyree Technologies Building where the uber-smart guests were assembled, Australia would have lost half its genetic IQ.
An honorific of “Dr” or “Professor” seemed to grace the majority of nametags.
How nice to know all these people were there on behalf of the built environment.
- Photo above: Left to right: Professor Mary O’Kane, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Syed Jalaludin bin Syed Salim, former Vice-Chancellor of Universii Putra Malaysia, and Robert Hil, chairman of CRC for Low Carbon Living
In a brief mingle through the crowd we spotted strategic advisor on water and climate at AECOM, Jennifer McAllister (this is just “her day job” one guest pointed out; McAllister is also Australian Labor Party National President), NSW chief scientist Professor Mary O’Kane, Professor Peter Newton from Swinburne University, Professor Dennis Else from Brookfield Multiplex, Professor Fred Hilmer, vice chancellor of the university, Neville Stevens, chair of the CRC Committee, CRC chair Robert Hill and course chief executive for the program, Professor Deo Prasad from UNSW, who we interviewed about the project last week (see our story, CRC: taking the giant step that we all need)
The program is massive: worth a cool $100 million over seven years, with potential to be extended to 15 years. Senator Evans said that over the next four years the Federal Government would provide $625 million. The balance will come from the program partners.
The investment is huge, and so is the ambition. There will be three key programs, from integrated buildings to precincts and communities. The aim is to break new ground in understanding how to make buildings function best in terms of carbon, productivity, efficiency and health and social outcomes for the people who use them.
The hope is to create a positive feedback loop by mixing and matching disciplines, universities in Australia and overseas, and private sector companies.
Private sector benefits
Professor Dennis Else, Brookfield Multiplex group general manager sustainability, safety and health, certainly expects big outcomes for his company.
He would not say how much his company is pumping into the project, but said it was by far the biggest commitment from the private sector.
In his view it’s not just an opportunity to “seize the low-hanging fruit” of carbon savings from the built environment”, which can be up to 40 per cent of emissions in Australia and 27 per cent globally. It’s also a chance to be at the front end of major breakthroughs.
Reducing carbon from the built environment was the “least expensive way of reducing the overall carbon emissions, so I think that’s really important to do,” Else told The Fifth Estate.
“And while we’re doing that … there’s no reason we can’t look at buildings from other angles. This is a great opportunity, not just a problem.
“Yes, we need low-carbon hospitals, but it would be a shame to not, at the same time, make them so people heal faster.
“With schools, yes, let’s make them low-carbon, but let’s also make them where students can interact more and, basically, learn faster. If we can do that with greater productivity, and enable collaboration to take place, we’re basically producing a higher performance built space.”
Of course BM has been delving deep into the productivity of its One Shelley Street Sydney project for Macquarie Bank, where the bank has reported a surge in productivity.
But the “amazing results” from that building are just the tip of the iceberg of what the company is attempting to implement across many of its projects, Professor Else says.
And it doesn’t stop at how people work individually or socially to produce better outcomes, but also extends to how the design of space impacts on health and stress through the stimulation of endorphins and dopamine in the human brain.
“That’s why we’ve had our senior people working with neuroendocrinologists to work out how space influences dopamine emitters and so on,” Professor Else says. “And therefore how you can make that space work for an individual to improve their health and reduce their stress.”
What about the politics and scenarios for change?
Robert Hill, chair of the CRC, former environment minister in the Howard Government, and a former chair of the Carbon Trust is, not surprisingly, enthusiastic about the potential outcomes of the program.
But with his background in politics, it’s impossible not to ask him what the chances are for rapid progress on a broader national scale, especially given the politicisation of the green and climate agenda, and especially given the latest science on warming.
The optimism holds.
“I became interested in environmental issues out of necessity when I became Environment Minister in 1996,” Hill says. “But it grows on you.
“Sustainability is intergenerational. We’re living on a planet in which our resources are finite, and where we can use them up very rapidly. Do we learn to use those resources in a more sustainable way and realise it’s not just the responsibility of some people, but of everyone?
“You can look at it in many different ways and it’s easy to become quite depressed at the enormity of the global challenge, and become very pessimistic.
“Or you can look at what’s being done now, wasn’t being done just a few years ago, like the CRC, and this is an example of what’s being done all over the world.
“You can actually see a lot of change.”
The problem is the lack of knowledge; we’re starting from Square One, he says.
“We’re trying to build a whole constituency; a community-based determination to live differently; professional services and the skills base to help, and the products that ensure lower greenhouse output from the built environment.
“So much is happening now all over the world that wasn’t happening a few years ago.
“You see the green building movement now is huge. The Green Building Council is working on how to measure community standards. First it was buildings, then the occupancy and now it’s the community.
“This is all rocket science.”
But where do the politicians come in? Why is there a failure of leadership?
Hill, who attended the first Kyoto negotiations, says many of the successes are bottom up rather than top down.
The global top down push “hasn’t really worked, so what it needs is more of a push from underneath,” he says.
Do we have time for that? Do we need more regulation? Seatbelts in cars, for instance, did not come from the bottom up.
It’s not so simple, Hill says.
“Even seatbelts took a cushioning period before people would embrace them. Now, you’d be stupid to not embrace them, but when they were first introduced it was, ‘how dare you interfere with my civil liberties in this way’.
Being a politician is hard work, he says. “You need leadership as well as response.”
And time for community standards to evolve.
“When I introduced the first compulsory renewable energy targets in Australia, at 1.5 per cent, they said it would ruin the Australian economy. It’s now 20 per cent.”
Making better decisions
Associate Professor Alistair Sproul, on the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says: “One of the most exciting areas in the CRC is for cross-disciplinary collaboration in each of the three programs.
“What’s coming up in the next two years is how can we make better decisions? How can we better integrate low-carbon with more productive, healthier buildings? Energy is a very small percentage of what we spend in a building. It should be a simple thing to deal with.
“The challenge is to find ways to get all the players involved.”
CRC board member Tim Horton, who is also Integrated Design Commissioner for SA (see our interview, Tim Horton on South Australia’s integrated design revolution), says the CRC will open the opportunity for change, as opposed to the “threat of change”. Greater transparency would be key: “making the invisible visible”. To declare, for instance, that one bunch of fresh food has travelled from a few kilometres away, and another from thousands of miles.
CRC for Low Carbon Living chief executive Professor Deo Prasad says the program might help to alert the community to the massive potential of building to cut emissions.
“Many people do not realise that the biggest opportunity for emissions reductions is in buildings,” he says. “The built environment is responsible for 40 per cent of energy use and Australia’s homes account for 16.5 per cent of our emissions in electricity use alone, without accounting for energy embodied during the production and disposal of building materials,” he says.
The opportunity also extends to Australia taking a leadership position in the Asian region, “a key element of Australia in the Asian Century White Paper”.
Research projects already underway:
- Developing next-generation building products including roofing materials that double as solar panels and can also moderate the temperature of buildings.
- Exploring how low-carbon concretes incorporating fly ash can be used within existing standards
- Zero carbon housing through the integration of design and technical features with new materials and technologies.
- Scoping studies for the design, creation and evaluation of entire low-carbon precincts and suburbs.
- Changing household behaviour by better understanding the scale and form of domestic usage of electricity, gas, petrol and water.
- Developing a modeling framework to forecast the impact of government policy and program interventions on the uptake of building retrofits by tenants and landlords in commercial and residential buildings.
- The creation of “living laboratories” to roll out and test innovative low-carbon living solutions in real communities, and observe the impact across a broad spectrum of social, technical and economic metrics.
Included in the program are the universities of Swinburne, Melbourne, Curtin and SA, CSIRO, the South Australian Government, private companies such as Brookfield Multiplex, AECOM, Australia/China joint modular housing company Nova Deko, Suntech Australia, Bluescope Steel, and solar thermal company Chromasun https://chromasun.com/index.html
Other private sector partners will have an opportunity to join the program at a later date.