by Lynne Blundell

The push for urgent action was palpable at Green Cities 2010. It was there in the conference sessions, in calls to remove regulatory barriers preventing the uptake of renewable energy and in the drive to get hard data on green building performance.

And it was definitely there in conversations during the coffee breaks. People have moved on from last year’s focus on the world’s financial woes and there is a new determination to get things moving, to look beyond the performance of individual buildings to a broader vision of sustainable communities, albeit with a few grumbles from some delegates in the construction industry about the impact of this on costs.

This sense of urgency was put succinctly by the Green Building Council of Australia’s chief executive, Romilly Madew, who said: “We have to act now. There is no excuse any more for new developments not to.”

Daniel Grollo, chief executive of Grocon, argued the case for being a sustainable developer thus: “It is far less risky to be at the innovation end – if you’re not, you have obsolescence and a very costly retrofit.”

Held from February 21-24 at the new 6 Star Melbourne Convention Centre, Green Cities 2010 had many highlights. Here are a few of them:

Performance is the new mantra

Keynote speaker and US green building expert, Jerry Yudelson, summed up the biggest challenge currently facing sustainable buildings in the title of his address: “If it doesn’t perform it isn’t green.”

There is no doubt any longer that green buildings make financial sense, Yudelson said. The missing link is finance, particularly in a risk-averse climate when there is a lot of competition for funding.

The key to attracting finance is ensuring buildings are performing as predicted, and to prove it through performance monitoring and reporting, he argued.

“Underperformance destroys the validity of green building promise. Why should governments put faith in green buildings without evidence of their performance?

“Without performance reporting we don’t know anything. What gets measured gets managed,” Yudelson said.

With 25 per cent of green buildings in the US underperforming, the problem is huge.

Designers need to get down and dirty

Australian experts agreed that building performance is a pressing problem and considerable improvement is needed.

The key to making sure buildings actually perform, said Craig Roussac, Investa’s sustainability, safety and environment manager, is to get the facilities manager brought in right from the beginning of a development or refurbishment so they know the building and its equipment.

Ken Stickland, head of mechanical and electrical for Arup Australasia, agreed, pointing out that not too long ago the person who put in the air-conditioning would also run it, ensuring efficient operation.

“Now that’s gone,” Stickland said. “There is a separation of design and operation. The design process needs to take a step back and understand what the end need of the owner is. Too many people who design don’t know how to build, and those who have to run the building have not been involved with the design.”

Ben Yates, general manager SA and NSW for Aspen Developments, said facilities managers had to be brought in early and that strong tenant engagement was essential.

“As a developer, we appoint the facilities manager early and pass them on with the builder. Everybody needs to be at the design table,” he said.

The new energy era – removing the barriers

The consensus of those in the know is that distributed energy and renewable technologies will have a massive impact on energy use and carbon emissions. It could happen right now – we have natural elements in abundance for renewable energy and the technology is already there, so what is the hold-up?

In a nutshell – political and bureaucratic inertia, panel members said in a session on the future of energy and resources.

“Currently renewables are not cost-effective but in the future they will be much more so. The catalysts that are needed to make this happen include feed-in tariffs, network access across Australia and grants or incentives,” said Colin Raey, sustainability and operations manager with the GPT Group.

Mark Sanders, senior services manager with Leighton Contractors, said barriers put up by traditional energy providers to other energy sources, such as co-generation plants accessing the grid, were stopping progress. Basically, there is no incentive under existing regulations to make it easier.

“It is all red tape and administrative issues. There is no technical reason why we can’t hook up generators to the grid,” Sanders said.

A glimpse of the future

James McGregor, energy systems manager for CSIRO’s Division of Energy Technology, wowed the audience with glimpses of tomorrow’s technology – or today’s, if only we could kick-start a few of the dinosaurs in charge of energy policy.

One example is the latest in photovoltaic technology — organic photovoltaic polymers (today’s photovoltaics are made from silicon) — which are the thickness of a piece of paper and can be churned out by the same machines that print bank notes at a cost of 80c per watt (compared to $6 to $8 per watt for existing PVs) and at a volume of 100,000 square metres of material a week.

“Every six weeks these PVs can produce the equivalent power to that of a coal-fired power station,” McGregor said.

Then there are organic LEDs that will light up entire rooftops and have the dual function of acting as solar collectors. Or jet engines on top of buildings, powered by solar energy to generate power. Not to mention vibration energy; for example, the vibration energy generated by the Sydney Harbour Bridge. If only 10 per cent of this were captured, it could generate 660KW of power all the time, McGregor said.

All of these new technologies will have greater potential when used on a precinct basis, allowing more efficient distribution of waste and power, McGregor said.

“All our modelling looks at precincts. It allows a combination of diverse generators and consumers. We think that’s what is going to happen in the future. We will see our grandchildren having their own power generation through PVs but usage will be a community thing.”

The key to the growth of renewables, he said, is energy storage. “Renewables will take a much greater market share in the future but a storage method must be developed, whether it is carbon blocks or molten metal. A lot of research is going on in this area.”

Precincts are the way forward

There was a great deal of talk about precincts. Energy experts say it is the future for getting maximum efficiency from co-generation plants and distributed energy networks. Planners and developers view precincts in terms of cost effectiveness and in creating neighbourhoods and a sense of belonging.

A stimulating panel discussion on creating more diverse, liveable cities explored the subject. We heard about the numerous planning and ratings tools being launched to help push the precinct agenda – Landcom’s Precinx tool and the Green Building Council’s Greenstar Communities tool, to name a couple.

Pru Sanderson, VicUrban, left, and Anita Roper, Sustainability Victoria

Rob Adams, director of design and culture with the City of Melbourne, said community engagement was the key to advancing the precinct model.

“With our older suburbs it’s about making the most of what we’ve already got. Precincts of the future could define an area, create a sense of belonging. It is all about community.

We need to engage people and show them how these communities could look, but we must also be very careful that we don’t produce images that destroy the great Australian dream of the quarter-acre block.”

Pru Sanderson, chief executive officer of VicUrban, said precincts that created localised economies and density would also create sustainability. What was hindering progress in creating precincts, particularly in regard to distributed power networks, was not a lack of community enthusiasm, but the regulators.

Ché Wall of WSP Lincolne Scott, left, and Rob Adams, City of Melbourne

“In terms of tri-gen we have still got barriers far bigger than us. The community wants it but the barriers are such that we haven’t been able to get things through and we own the assets,” Sanderson said.

Ché Wall, managing director of WSP Lincolne Scott, said an urgent review of regulatory barriers was needed. “Policy-makers need checks and balances on them and accountability … Re-engineering the infrastructure is the only solution.”

Wall said there were few countries that had managed to overhaul their energy networks in the way that was needed to ensure new technology and renewable energy could compete with the traditional brown grid. California had done it by refusing to allow construction of new coal fired power stations unless it could be proved they were needed. Other countries had been less successful.

“The zero carbon approach in the UK has been a complete failure,” said Wall.

A better way to go, he said, was a cap and trade scheme for buildings as had been introduced in Tokyo.

The world takes on green buildings

Green building councils from around the world reported on progress. The growth in the number of green building councils was impressive – from a handful four years ago to 64 today.

The newest – in South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore – impressed delegates with their willingness to overcome major obstacles to advance sustainable building in their countries.

Tan Tian Chong, executive director of the Singapore green building council, pointed out that with a population of 5million living on 7000-square metres of land, density was a given.

The aim is for 80 per cent of Singapore’s buildings to be sustainable by 2030. With certification based on the LEEDS system, the Government has legislated that all new buildings of more than 2000 square metres must meet green requirements, and all new government buildings must be platinum rating. Existing government buildings must reach second-highest rating. Government incentives for green developers, including grants and extra floor allowances are boosting sustainable development.

In Hong Kong, 89 per cent of electricity use is for buildings, the chief operating officer of the city’s green building council, Kevin Edmunds, said. And with 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s land mass protected as parks, building density is very high, with most people living in high-rise blocks. While this means less sprawl it does come at a cost to sustainable design, Edmunds said.

“There is little insulation, no shading, high use of air-conditioning and high energy use. And with 1000 owners in one block, adoption of sustainable technology is complicated,” he said.

As yet there is little incentivisation from government for green development, so a key focus for the Hong Kong Green Building Council (which only launched in November 2009) is engagement with government and industry.

South Africa has enormous challenges, as its green building council’s chief executive, Nicola Douglas, pointed out. With a dual developing and developed economy, the country has 24 per cent unemployment and a housing shortfall of 24 million dwellings. The country has 950,000 buildings and of those 250,000 are shacks and 160,000 backyard dwellings.

By initially focusing on the commercial sector, the council hopes to increase awareness of energy efficiency. It uses an adapted version of the Australian council’s Greenstar rating system.

“Our major focus is on existing buildings. South Africa has an energy capacity crisis and crippling blackouts. We have a heavy reliance on coal and because of a history of very cheap and plentiful coal it has not been valued,” Douglas said.

India, which has had a green building council since 2001, has 502 green buildings, accounting for 33 million square metres and covering all sectors, Sundaresan Raghupathy, senior director of India’s green building council said, and the target is 1000 green buildings by 2012.

“There is huge potential in India. Green building materials are expected to grow by US$40 billion by 2010,” Raghupathy said.

Summing up

Enthusiasm didn’t appear to have waned by the final summing-up session by Romilly Madew and the Property Council’s chief executive, Peter Verwer. It was short and sharp.

Madew repeated Victorian Premier John Brumby’s call for regulatory change and emphasised that Australia was missing out on the application of new technologies such as photovoltaics, while countries like Germany were leaping ahead.

“We need to really look at why renewables aren’t being taken up,” she said.

Verwer finished off the proceedings with his customary verve. He talked about the shifts in 2010 – from a focus on environmental sustainability to a wider debate on the social, economic and governance dividends. And from the excitement of the new to existing stock.

He set an ambitious agenda for the industry for the next 12 months, outlining key targets for government and for the private sector.

Among these was a plan to persuade the Federal Government to create a green precinct program with funding similar to the $200 million Solar Cities project.

It should be a proper precinct, possibly Barangaroo, Verwer said, which could generate its own power, harvest its own water, mine its own waste, and serve as a green battery for public and private commuters,  all driven by an intelligent grid. And it should be closely connected to jobs and transport.

“We need a dozen of these precincts. It is the most exciting opportunity to rewire and reboot our cities. It is through becoming a partner in these projects that government will see more clearly the regulatory barriers.”

“And we want COAG [the Council of Australian Governments] to endorse this green precincts program. We could achieve 150 mega-tonnes of abatement just from that program.”

For the private sector the really big thing is to get real data to convince other stakeholders of the sustainable imperative, Verwer said.

“We need to be able to speak to tenants, financiers and valuers. It is hard right now to do that – we need all of the data. Productivity benefits, for example, the data is weak. This is the No.1 big project over the next year.”

And so …. until next year….

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au