Housing in the desert, a desert forming in the building industry and windcatchers and windows to cool the place down

10 February 2012 –Perth and the mining industry may be the prime lair of Australia’s richest climate deniers but the West is also bringing together sustainability, developers and housing and rental managers in the not for profit space to do something about the acute housing shortage in mining towns.

This issue, Lynne Blundell interviewed the former WA planning minister Alannah MacTiernan now working with Questus, to find out how the National Rental Affordability Scheme has enabled this encouraging package to come together.

See Questus lifts the bar on WA’s sustainable affordable housing

Speaking of Perth, Michael Heenan of Allen Jack & Cottier says the firm has seven projects on the go in the city, at various stages of completion or planning but this is not a widespread phenomenon, he said. The state might be booming but the city is suffering an equity drought, as elsewhere.

Most people are “doing it tough. There’s not much really happening in Perth.

“Generally across the board, there’s a tightening on equity.” There’s plenty of residential ready to go, he says, but a reluctance to push the go button.

In Sydney too it’s a similar story, with patchy sentiment and very tough 12 months for most of the property industry.

“For us everything started turning mid-November, so we’re employing now. We spent most of 2011 saying “it’s coming, it’s coming.”

“But the builders are doing it tougher than us and there’s going to be some major adjustments,” he said.

Heenan must have been prescient. Within hours of his comments news broke that the 102 year old builder Sydney based builder Kell & Rigby was closing its doors. That’s 125 direct jobs gone and with them many more subcontractors.

In newspaper reports K & R blamed two apartment projects for the failure.

One, surprisingly was built during the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, when costs soared, James Kell told The Australian Financial Review. Another was the Advanx site development in Rushcutters Bay. “The traditional building contract model for apartments does not work,” Kell said.

Cosmopolitan Homes is another builder to close its doors (last November).

One industry observer this week said it could be time for the federal government to dig in to help out the building industry again, now that the stimulus package was finished or there would be “blood on the streets” by mid year.

Especially when there seems to be money to bail out aluminium producer ALCOA which is said to use up to 28 per cent of Victoria’s electricity (Wikipedia) at peak times. And do we need so much of this material anyway with its massive high embodied energy?

Sustainability in Victoria
Sustainability Victoria this week made good its promise to move away from its former focus, announcing it would sell its FirstRate5 software system for residential thermal ratings – after 20 years of ownership.

New SV chief Stan Krpan said that a private owner would do a better job with the software than government. But a spokesman later said potential buyers such as the NSW Department of Environment and Heritage owned NABERS, which is one government agency that seems to know how to run tools, would not be excluded.

It will be interesting to watch SV’s new stated direction to focus on the very worthy cause of waste management, if you don’t fall asleep first. Unlikely though, if you are one of the businesses whetting their chops over the prospect of more recycling dollars.

And here’s a bit of a cynical view from one of our sources: that these businesses don’t want residents to reduce their rubbish because that would mean less to recycle and turn into big bucks. And that if governments were serious about reducing the cost of waste they would do what Germany does and put one single bin in the street for many households to share, and impose strong fines for exceeding a weekly limit of rubbish.

Now would SV be interested in pushing forward a similar policy if it’s serious about waste management?

Apparently this focus on rubbish is to reflect that SV is funded by a landfill levy. As if it’s a fee for service.

We’re told that in 2010–11, “SV received $24.13 million, the EPA received $5.79 million, and waste management groups received $5.57 million of landfill levy funds. The remaining funds, $43.42 million, were transferred to the Sustainability Fund account.”

Inspiration will always triumph
This industry is so inspirational though, it doesn’t take us long to forgive a poor new government trying to find its way and possibly worried that it will look like a bit of a sissy if it supports green things…(No you won’t, it’s actually very manly and handsome to do the right thing and protect your children’s future.)

In three seconds for instance, a conversation with John Brodie of Vim has got suddenly our attention and raised the inspiration levels again.

He’s talking about and windows and windcatchers and how you can design a building not just to face north and catch the moving sun, in a way that catches the prevailing breezes. How you can change the placement of windows, their shape, size and height to control air pressure and get internal natural ventilation to provide an indoor temperature that doesn’t need mechanical heating and cooling for most days.

Brodie has written an article on this subject, based on countless talks he’s given to industry groups, his experience and study.

In conversation he is a mix of excitement, despair and wry humour in equal measure.

When you think about it windows and shades have been doing good work to cool buildings for thousands of years.

The problem is we mostly open and close them too late to make a difference to the indoor air, Brodie says.

Automate the process, however, build in sensors, with relatively simple and cheap controls and you can achieve pretty good comfort levels in most climates. Say about 70 per cent of the time in Sydney and more than 90 per cent in Melbourne.

Yes you might need aircon if the temperature spikes.

“If it’s 45 degrees outside natural ventilation not going to do a lot, but that only happens fives days a year,” he says.

“From a sustainability point of view you are looking at 40 to 50 per cent of energy to aircondition a building and 40 per cent for the lights. If you can get rid of aircon for a fair amount of time, you’re half way there.”

Anyway the windcatchers. Apparently these are often used in Europe but in Australia, not.

But what makes Brodie despair – and laugh – is that there are people who say they want a green building but are afraid of the look and don’t’ want shading on the façade for instance.

“They want to achieve ESD [Environmentally Sustainable Development] but they don’t want it to look like anything other than an airconditoned building,” he says.

And there’s the guy who said he was happy with natural ventilation as long as Brodie could guarantee the temperature would not move beyond a 22-24 degree range.

Maybe it’s time to realise that green can’t give a perfect solutions; a bit like us humans, really. And that we need a bit of comprise.