7 December 2012 – One of the most exciting research projects in academic and sustainable property history is about to kick off with an official launch next week.
It’s the $28 million Co-operative Research Centre Low Carbon Living project and University of NSW’s Professor Deo Prasad who heads the project can’t help being optimistic that there will be some brilliant results.
Prasad took time out last week to explain why. The setting was over coffee next to `!the Tyree Technologies Building.
Our conversation is interrupted by a small stream of academics in the solar energy field for which the university is famous, gathering from far afield for an important meeting. There are some effusive greetings.
The Tyree is significant. It’s home to Prasad’s work as director of the Sustainable Development Program and he proudly explains it’s newly completed, six-star Green Star rated and designed by FJMT.
You can sense the quality. In an initial walk through to find his office, you can’t help but notice its calm and quiet interiors, and air that feels clean and good to breathe.
The building is also important because it signifies the kind of design thinking that the CRC hopes to scale up in its massive seven year project, from building level to precincts and potentially to influence activity in our Asian neighbourhood.
The CRC team is massive: According to the official website there are 26 private companies,16 government agencies and 6 research institutions across Australia.
Prasad says that we need low carbon buildings, low carbon communities, indeed low carbon cities – zero carbon if possible – a challenge that can seem overwhelming.
Calling it low carbon living made the task seem more manageable.
“Living is about buildings, precincts and communities.
“We thought the opportunity is to go past what we achieved with the 30-35 per cent energy efficiency [considered low hanging fruit].”
“Without another burst of innovation, the prospect is that buildings will level off at that. So we said let’s prepare innovation that takes us up to the zero carbon level that’s required.”
This is a massive task.
“It needs a multi-disciplinary approach, all working together on the same platform and on integration.
“At a building level it means when an engineer is calculating heat gain, the architect is imagining what that looks like.”
To achieve at both these levels the biggest challenge is human behaviour.
“People are the least understood,” Prasad says.
“We want to look at changing community behaviour and attitudes; there have been many models.
“Decades ago we would get people to turn off the lights by leaving a little sticker near the switch.”
Water savings worked
Sydney Water had much more success. During the drought water consumption was slashed by 34 per cent on average per person. The amazing thing is that now, with the dams overflowing, it is still 34 per cent down, Prasad says.
The CRC team will work with what Prasad calls “living laboratories”, which might be at the building scale or the precinct scale to understand what generates human behaviour change.
It might be at the former Mitsubishi site at Tonsley Park in South Australia, or with a Landcom project in Sydney.
Chairman of the CRC former federal minister Robert Hill has experience of top down change from government,
but he acknowledges it’s the bottom up change that is most challenging, Prasad says.
“Industry-wise we want to look at next generation products and systems.”
Solar panels, for instance. “You can see many types, some allow the daylight through so that can be used as cladding. That’s nothing outrageously new but people have not been able to achieve that for a whole lot of reasons.
“We don’t want to continue to put panels on roof, we want the panels to be the roof.”
Next major leap will come from new solar systems.
And why not focus on solar?
UNSW already has a global reputation for excellence in the field from the work of Martin Green and Shi Zhengrong who formed the massive Suntech
“We have the reputation; so it’s taking it to the next generation. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a huge opportunity for Australia.”
Even if the manufacturing ends up in China.
The Chinese, says Prasad are “good at getting their heads around cost and the manufacturing problem so why would we want to do that in Australia?”
What Australia can do better is higher end-value manufacturing.
Gathering the information into a useable format will be the biggest challenge.
Prasad says the CRC is looking to building information management systems, or BIM, for their potential.
The question is: “Can [the technology] be extended. Can it flow to people? That will become the next big challenge: to provide common data.”
The optimistic note?This all sounds exciting for the green building industry, but in the face of the bad news coming from scientists on climate change where does the optimism come from?
Partly, as with everyone else, it’s from a lack of alternatives.
Partly too, for Prasad, it’s the exposure he has to our Asian neighbourhood where a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions are now created – 80 per cent of the world’s total came from China last year – but which has massive capacity for fast change.
As visiting professor at a number of universities – at Shanghai in China, in Malaysia and in Singapore – he sees the work Asian countries are embarked upon to green their built environment.
Yes, while it’s early days, it’s also worth remembering that Australia’s own green building movement is only 10 years old and in that time it we’ve seen the property industry transformed – for new commercial buildings at least.
At first the ambition in Asia was modest, Prasad says.
“Asia is very technological,” he says, “so if you stick a few solar panels on the roof, it was considered enough. But Asia’s gone past that now and it’s looking at the building as a system.”
This involves dealing in the subtle area of human perceptions and social sustainability; the recognition that these elements can pay off in a material way, such as better productivity in the workplace.
“I see a lot of hope with being able to change things around quickly.
“China said in 2009 that in January 2010 there would be a building code and there was,” Prasad says.
There is a low carbon cities program now under way.
In Tianjin the university is looking at two other low carbon projects, funded by Beijing.
The nation is also embarked on how to create healthy cities, bringing back cycling and walking. “It’s moving ahead,” Prasad says.
More than most academics who deal with the built environment, Prasad’s view is the one to note. He’s been working on building sustainability for the past 25 years, and has been embedded in the Australian scene from 1984 after moving from New Zealand.
“It took me 15 years to cheer for the Wallabies,” he laughs, “I did change, so I’m fair dinkum now.”
During those years he’s seen the environmental emphasis shift.
In 1987 he wrote an energy efficiency book for housing – the objective then was energy efficiency, influenced by the 70s energy crisis.
“Then sustainability crept in and after it came the matter of carrying capacity of the planet and energy became just one of many issues.”
Now the ambition for Prasad is essentially to scale up sustainability and low carbon to reach into the ways we all live.
Among the best news will be that the work of the CRC will be mostly available for public access, perhaps in recognition that we have no time to waste.
“We are now planning for a 4 degree-plus world,” Prasad says.
“Adaptability and resilience are becoming a lot more important… and they have to be taken very seriously.”
“The bell curve [pointing to climate deniers] is getting smaller.
“I think we are at the right point in time.”