There is a new mantra in sustainable engineering and design – “keep it simple and make sure it works in the real world”, says WSP Lincolne Scott and Advanced Environmental director, Matthew Jessup. It is a philosophy, he believes, that will help new developments meet the growing emphasis on cost effectiveness and the shift to large scale precinct style projects.

“We spend a lot of time trying to make things more simple. When it comes to commissioning large-scale green projects, the more complex you make your design, the more things there are to go wrong.”

That’s not to say that technology has not played a major part in pushing sustainability forward. But it should play second fiddle to smart design that makes buildings easy to use and maintain. This is becoming even more important as projects around the world move away from a focus on individual buildings to precinct-based projects, Jessup says.

“It’s not as if we’re not using cutting edge technology in projects – we are. But it is about using smart technology in effective ways.

“The green market has matured and there is a definite shift from a focus on getting design ratings to ensuring a building performs in the real world. That’s the hard part – there is as much work in getting it to work as there is in designing it. Half a star can be lost through the tenant behaviour, half through the building operation and half through prevailing weather. Get all three together and you’ve lost one and a half stars in performance,” says Jessup.

The result is that designers and engineers are moving back to the concepts of passive design. This is not only cost effective, it is also much more likely to ensure ongoing sustainable performance. And with the impact of mandatory disclosure and carbon pricing, there is nowhere to hide when it comes to actual performance.

Jessup points to some of the earliest of Australia’s green buildings as cases in point – Lend Lease’s The Bond, for example.

“The Bond is amazingly simple – a great example of good design and technology well applied. It still stands up to its peers and has operated at a five star average performance rating day in and day out since it was completed. Its simplicity means that it doesn’t have to have someone stoking the furnaces,” says Jessup.

Moving beyond buildings
Advanced Environmental, the dedicated environmental design arm of WSP Lincolne Scott, is spending increasingly more time on large-scale sustainable precincts and cities globally.

The Masdar project employs a vast array of new technologies including large scale use of renewable energy and light rail throughout the city

“It has all of the things that are being done on the Frasers project but on a much grander scale,” says Jessup.

Those “things” include large-scale use of renewable energy with electricity for the entire city generated by solar energy harnessed by panels. The plan is to build a large solar power station to meet the energy requirements during the construction of the city, while buildings would be cooled by wind towers.

The city is to be oriented north-east to south-west to maximise use of sun and shade and is car-free with light rail providing internal transport as well as a link with Abu Dhabi. Waste disposal is also a focus with 99 per cent of the waste generated in the city to be re-used or composted.

The waste to energy concept is the next step if cities are going to be truly sustainable, says Jessup.

“Waste has trailed behind. At Frasers we have made sure waste will be dealt with and have put together a strategy for this based on the waste to energy concept.

“In the future an anaerobic digester will be able to be installed to deal with organic waste in the residential area. It is something that is used in many houses in Asia and converts methane gas into energy. There they use it for cooking and gas lighting – it is a primitive but very effective technology,” says Jessup.

Co-generation plants are also featured in many precinct-based projects but are not the be all and end all, says Jessup. Rather they are useful currently but could be changed to hydrogen generation in the future or even a waste to energy system.

A crucial aspect of making these broader based projects work is finding new ways of transferring carbon neutral energy around precincts, says Jessup. This could involve private electricity networks, thermal networks and the recycling of water and waste.
“It is about flexibility – putting in systems that allow you to keep stepping forward. Design should be about allowing that.”

A renewable energy network for Australia

And for Australia the next big step if we are really serious about sustainability is developing the renewable energy sector. The answer, believes Jessup, is to create a network or grid across the country that allows renewable energy to be linked in.

“The big problem with renewable technology is that you are relying on the weather. The thing that gets missed is that we have a power grid that covers Australia.

“The wind is always going to be blowing somewhere and we should be looking at ways of harnessing this and allowing it to be used in the grid. We can distribute this energy and add in other renewables.

The Bond has stood the test of time and is still one of Australia’s most successful sustainable buildings

The argument that the cost of establishing a renewable network is prohibitive does not wash with Jessup.

“If someone had said one hundred years ago that there should be an electricity grid across Australia, nobody would have invested in it. The same goes for telecommunications. Renewable energy is no different.

“There is a good argument for people getting serious about a renewable energy network Australia and governments need to invest in it. In Europe they have done it through legislation – if Europe can do it what are we waiting for? They’ve got half of the renewable potential that exists in this country.

“Australia should be leading in this area and we are just dipping our toes in the water.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au