By Tina Perinotto
6 May 2011 –
Last issue Lynne Blundell conducted one of her exhaustive investigative reports on the tools that rate the building materials.

This issue she looks at the building materials. If you want to know if timber is good because it’s natural and grows on trees, or is bad because it relies on plantation timbers that grow in a mono-cultural environment and destroy bio-diversity, stop there. We thought that with the work done by Edge Environment and its life-cycle analysis of building materials we would finally have an answer.

Not so simple.

“People do ask whether this material is more sustainable than this one, but they are asking the wrong question,” managing director of Edge Environment, Nigel Howard, told Blundell.
“They are pushing the wrong barrow – there is no such thing as a good or bad material – the answer lies in a combination of materials.”

As Blundell has discovered, it’s a matter of where the material is used and how, what it’s combined with and the whole range of site-specific, purpose-specific factors that, when you think about it, makes perfect sense.

It makes fascinating and important reading for anyone in the green building industry.

Mixed bag
There is such a mixed bag of sentiment and opinion right now. On the one hand there some companies are going gangbusters trying to drag old energy-guzzling buildings into the 21st Century.

Matthew Clark former boss of the NABERS program – who incidentally is searching for a replacement following his promotion in the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (see our story) – says the number of energy ratings the department has handled has been nothing less than astounding: 1000 in the past six month alone, with no let up in sight. The team expected 25-30 per cent pickup in volumes.

However, the deluge of work has been bypassing others. Some companies have told The Fifth Estate they don’t see anything so lively. In dribs and drabs news is seeping out that the Global Financial Crisis mark II is more than a newspaper headline. Offices are closing, staff are being let go. There was an early joke about the crisis: It wouldn’t be a V-shaped recovery, more like an M-shape. Ouch.

Factors that tipped the Reserve Bank of Australia into a holding pattern this week on interest rates included the property market that had gone into negative territory for the first time since the GFC, as indicated by figures from Davis Langdon.

Partly it’s the end of the stimulus spending but the bigger factor could be that he bout of natural and climate change-induced disasters in Australia and worldwide has spooked sentiment, even if people have not been directly affected.

But there is always a silver – or green lining – to the bad news these days. What we are now also looking at is a new strand of property to add to the sustainable kind: resilient property. On top of floods and bushfires is an emerging industry trying to figure out how to protect against earthquakes, tsunamis, and now violent wind events. See the amazing house that Caroline Pidcock designed for Bluescope Steel which won a $50,000 award from the Insurance Council of Australia last night.

It’s an amazing world that is opening up. We’re planning to bring you insights into it in upcoming issues.

Tobacco done taught us good
In the 1950s the tobacco industry made a huge discovery: you could cast doubt on proven science that said smoking was dangerous.

It was easier than these demons suspected: fund a few dodgy studies and have the results published in the general media. Yes, the people undertaking the work were scientists, but their work was not science.

Of course no peer-reviewed science journal would publish such junk. But that doesn’t matter to the general media. By its nature it is always searching for “balance” and the other side of the story. In fact it’s always searching for anything, so the more controversial, sensational and outlandish, the better).

The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway reviewed by Michael Mobbs in his Bathurst Burr column this issue shows how these tricks were pulled on the western world. Now that the tobacco industry is losing ground in the west, it’s moved onto children and unsuspecting adults in the developing world.

But not before passing on its lessons on how to baffle and delay on agreed science to the oil and resources industries.

The problem with the Merchants of Doubt, Mobbs says, is that the book doesn’t offer a lot of suggestions on how to counter the doubters.

But remember, when you read “science”, if it’s not peer-reviewed, it’s junk.

Who cares about the noise
Among ordinary, sane property companies and increasingly, the ASX top 50 and top 200, the responsible people at their lead are quietly placing strategies in place to prosper in a low-carbon world.

Jon Jutsen, who founded Energetics 27 years ago and now consults to about a third of the top 200 companies in Australia, says few among his clients doubt the need to prepare for a low-carbon future.

Jutsen brings some exciting news of trends in the US and Europe: widespread LED (light emitting diode) lighting with huge energy savings; photovoltaics embedded in building materials such as awnings and roofing and distributed energy grids for large and small-scale uses, right down to the individual house.

That’s the thing doubters can’t handle. They can twist the arm of government but they can’t twist the arm of a free market that smells a profit, or rational people who read the weather reports.

Luna Park or Disneyland?
Wasn’t it great news that the Government listened to the property industry and ditched the Tax Breaks for Green Buildings program? Don’t you reckon? How dare the Government try to give the industry $1 billion without folding the dosh in the right way and sending into the right pockets.

Just as well the Government listened to the complaints about its poor framing and put the whole thing on hold for 12 months.

It’s what you do with children, too, when you offer them Luna Park and they stamp their foot for Disneyland.

So why 12 months?

Does it really take 12 months to say, oh, we were mistaken to ask for a two-star NABERS improvement instead of simply some significant improvement?

And OK, it doesn’t work for trusts. But does it really take12 months to fix some relatively minor issues?

We liked what Rob Murray-Leach, chief executive officer of the Energy Efficiency Council, said: “How about some urgent diversion of at least some of the promised money to the green building fund, now closed, before a whole lot of jobs and skills and emerging industries are left floundering? Again.”

We suspect the property industry has been Niccolo’d (Machiavelli that is) … Another great-sounding promise that, with a government sitting on a fragile non-majority, may never have to be funded.

Prove us wrong, Mr Combet.

And by the way can you believe that Greg Combet has joined the chorus of radio shock jocks and blamed the solar industry for the huge spike in the cost of “poles and wires” in the electricity market.

Shame Mr Combet!

Urban play and leaping challenges

An interesting item appeared in the Queensland University of Technology website about “urban play” (See our photo above). This is a concept to improve health and social wellbeing, developed by recent QUT Master of Architecture graduate Christopher Rawlinson in a paper called Play in the City: Parkour and Architecture for a recent conference.

Rawlinson says his concept was based on parkour, that amazing activity for ultra-fit people who “run, climb, jump and vault over obstacles such as walls, stairs and garden beds”. Sadly, he says, some authorities find this a public nuisance (we’re shocked).

“Parkour encourages people to play anywhere in the city. However, when we move outside parks and playgrounds we come into political conflict with those who govern and manage those spaces and other competing desires and fears,” Rawlinson said.

“I used parkour as a case study for the wider issue of urban play. The research focuses on the concept of playing in the city as a means to improve people’s health and social wellbeing, and design approaches that mediate this conflict between our desire for play and our fears of public nuisance.”

Free speech… to what purpose?
The Fifth Estate sometimes cops a hammering for not hosting un-moderated commentary on our site.

The reason is that we are here for a purpose: to help fast-track sustainable change in the property industry. And the backlash to this is getting far more sophisticated than it used to be.

It’s getting harder to spot the fakers (and you need more resources than we have), because they use highly effective mood-altering media substances and ordinary people to “seed” information in the huge variety of media outlets now available, especially blogs. (See Merchants of Doubt.)

What is happening is that this beautiful little green building industry is no longer pure and neat, nor so small.  It’s going mainstream and turning into a major economic powerhouse. So there are squillions of dollars at stake.

The tactic is to tell sweet truths and use them to wrap up their little blobs of inertia. (See Bjorn Lomborg at Green Cities 2011. His message: yes of course there is climate change and of course its anthropogenic. But if your objective is to save human misery, spend your efforts of stopping malaria; for goodness sake don’t do anything about carbon, becaue that’s a waste of money.)

One area of growing complexity is the materials industry, as Lynne Blundell’s continuing coverage shows.

We know that changing decades of bad practices can be very difficult and of course we applaud anyone who is trying to do better .

But even so it’s annoying when an industry that wants to be part of the green building movement tries to focus the spotlight solely on one issue that it feels comfortable with, such as its carbon footprint, or recycling, when the worrying issues of toxic contaminants and carcinogens that have led some countries in Europe to ban PVC, are ignored.

Here’s the text of a media release that the Vinyl Council of Australia recently sent out on PVC:

Advancing recycling to develop low carbon products

A comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from common products in Europe has revealed that the consumption of lamb and cheese can result in higher CO2 emissions than those that are emitted from the production of a common plastic, PVC.

Virgin PVC resin’s greenhouse emissions are comparatively low compared to other materials such as cheese and aluminium products, as indicated below; However what the data from The University of Manchester’s Carbon Footprint tool Calculator shows, is that recycling PVC can reduce emissions to one sixth those of virgin PVC.

Equilivent Footprints per Kg of Manufactured Products:*

Lamb = 14Kg CO2
Cheese = 11kg CO2
Aluminium = 10Kg CO2
Frosties (cereal) = 1.9Kg CO2
PVC = 1.9Kg CO2
Recycled PVC = 0.3Kg CO2

“Recycling PVC therefore offers a great opportunity to produce low carbon products”, Ms Sophi MacMillian, Chief Executive of the Vinyl Council of Australia said. “Most PVC is used in building products such as pipes, walls, floor coverings, cabling and window frames. Improving recovery of PVC waste and identifying where recycled PVC can increasingly be used in such applications will help improve the carbon footprint of buildings and our lifestyles.”

The Vinyl Council of Australia will be convening a Summit specifically focused on advancing PVC recycling on 27 May in Melbourne. The 2011 ReSource Summit will use an interactive workshop approach to identify strategies to address current challenges in recycling PVC products within Australia.

Through engaging a wide range of stakeholders – not just the PVC industry – it is hoped opportunities will be discovered in product design and new markets for recycled PVC.

The Vinyl Council of Australia is working to advance the sustainability of the vinyl, or PVC, industry in Australia. Its members are drawn across the supply chain of the vinyl industry.

*Comparisions based on 1kg of manufactured product are not as meaningful as those based on a functional unit of product such as 1 metre of pipe.

Wikipedia says:

The State of California is currently considering a bill that would ban the use of PVC in consumer packaging due to the threats it poses to human and environmental health and its effect on the recycling stream.[53] Specifically, the language of the bill analysis[54] stipulates that EPA has listed vinyl chloride, a “constituent element” of PVC, as a carcinogen[55]. It also further cites that there are concerns about the leaching of phthalates and lead from the PVC packaging.

Greenpeace says: USA says:

This commonplace plastic is one of the most toxic substances saturating our planet and its inhabitants. PVC contaminates humans and the environment throughout its lifecycle: during its production, use, and disposal. Few consumers realise that PVC is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics. Since safer alternatives are available for virtually all uses of PVC, it is possible to protect human health and the environment by replacing and eventually phasing out this poison plastic.
The good news is that this industrial transition can be accomplished in a manner that is fair to all involved – the plastic manufacturers, industrial workers, and host communities. PVC can be replaced with safer materials in virtually all cases. Substitutes for PVC include traditional materials such as clay, glass, ceramics and linoleum. In those cases where traditional materials cannot be used as a replacement, even chlorine-free plastics are preferable to PVC. As consumers increasingly demand PVC-free products, and as the environmental and health costs of PVC are recognised, practical alternatives will become more economically viable. See https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/toxics/go-pvc-free/

You see how complex the whole thing is.

It’s great to see the PVC industry working on its product. We are all working on our product. What would be good to see is a more open and frank discussion.

After all, it’s unlikely we will ever “arrive” at the perfect green/sustainable world. The best thing we can hope for is to understand that a more sustainable future is a process, not a goal.

And that can be a beautiful thing, really.

If you have a contribution, send it along here.

If you miss our deadlines, send it along anyway.

Consider our coverage of all these issues as a work in progress.

As we all are.