Romilly Madew

On Herculean work, big BIM and jobs

18 July 2013 – At the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society’s eighth conference during the week at Sydney’s own holiday village of Manly, there was some challenging discussion about building materials, consumer products in general and their life cycle and sustainability assessment. All complex and a Herculean task to get through you imagine.

And yet this industry and others are tackling it.

Soon to embark on the job is Green Building Council of Australia, which will soon have a life cycle analysis component in its Green Star rating system.

Chief executive Romilly Madew told the audience in her presentation that this would be part of the 2014 Green Star version into which the GBCA was investing close to $1 million to ensure it would be better, easier to use and less costly that previous versions of the tool.

“The big change is that everything will be online,” Madew said. And that means using smart phones or iPads to access the tool and interact with it.

Key was “transparent methodology”, Madew said, especially in the life cycle assessment credit coming up. The idea was to facilitate the uptake of best practice in materials in a cost effective manner, she said.

Stakeholder feedback would be released in September.

A question from Norman Disney & Young’s Chris Nunn pointed to cost danger. In the UK the BREEAM environmental rating tool contains a life cycle component that was rarely taken up because it was considered so expensive, Nunn said.

The GBCA team was keen to listen to feedback and engage with the industry to see how cost and ease of use could be improved, Madew said.

“We’re making bold statements about reducing documentation time and cost.”

The research team was there to work out how this can be delivered in a cost effective and timely manner, and if not why not, she said.

David Baggs

At the supply side of materials rating, ALCAS president David Baggs, who is also chief executive of GreenTag and ecospecifier, said it was all systems go.

According to Baggs you can now go to a website and find out what flooring product is the most sustainable, not just the “best in class”, which is sometimes a poor excuse for continuing to use a product that is best left unused, but what its entire sustainability profile is.

Baggs said a big impetus right now is coming from Barangaroo, where Lend Lease has made some serious commitments on water and energy and must verify what it delivers.

“It’s a significant driver at the moment,” Baggs said. “We’ve got 200 EPDs [environmental product declarations] underway at the moment.”

Yes, it’s huge work, Baggs agreed. So how does he do it? How many staff does he have? Just 12 Baggs said, but there’s also a lot of technological “smarts” to do the heavy lifting thanks to some big input from outfits such as the CRC for Construction Innovation and others. And a recent grant from the Federal Government.

As you might expect some of the chat between sessions was about newly re-installed prime minister Kevin Rudd.

No matter what his faults, was the thinking, he’s bringing in the votes. The alternative of a Tony Abbott-led government with its attack on climate action (instead of climate change) and its promise to scrap the carbon tax and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation would be a big setback for the sustainable property industry.

On Tuesday morning Rudd had revealed that the switch from a fixed price on carbon to an emissions trading scheme would be paid for partly out of cuts to environment programs, including a biodiversity program.

Sad, yes, was the thinking, but it wouldn’t hurt the commercial property sector because the relevant programs had already been cut.

Baggs chipped in with some good words for Rudd. Rudd had earned some of his famous “people person” stripes recently by visiting the ecospecifier offices. He’s heard the company had won some government funding and had come to ask if  could be of some help to leverage this.

Even more impressive, Baggs said, was that he followed up in person, by email – a few days after becoming PM.

Nigel Howard

Also chatting among the delegates ahead of his presentation on Wednesday was Nigel Howard.

Howard had recently formed his own company, Clarity Environment, after leaving Edge Environment in April.

He was working on resilience design tools for residential property for the insurance industry but was also continuing his work on Envest, or environmental estimator, which could assess all round sustainability.


Cameron Jewell’s story on BIM last week has racked up the hits, especially among member of the Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors’ Association, which is deep into organising its BIM-MEP conference in Melbourne next week.

Executive director Sumit Oberoi says his members gave it the thumbs up, which is no easy matter when we’re dealing with such a complex technical matter.

But it it so complex?

The short answer is yes.

Speaking to one of the leading engineers in the field during the week, the potential for BIM is immense.

Not only can it forge the way to more prefabricated building projects, which directly save on waste and the cost of constructing on site in the traditional manner, but it has the potential to change the adversarial nature of the entire construction game.

Early in the year Dan Labbad, chief operating officer for Lend Lease, quipped that the construction business was one of the great unreformed industries.

Jane-Frances Kelly cities program director for the Grattan Institute has been saying the same thing recently. Not all the blame for higher cost of new homes compared with existing homes should be sheeted to government charges and taxes, she says. The builders and developers themselves are building exactly the same way for a long time. “Pyramid style”, said one wit.

Our engineer, who wants to remain off the record, said not only is the construction industry the last to be reformed, it’s the last to be digitised.

“Once you convert something to ones and zeroes you can end up with a bespoke product.”

The Germans have taken to it like a duck to water, he said. And you’ll know this if you watch the popular television program Grand Designs.

As one German manufacturer quipped on the show, “It never rains in the factory; it’s always sunny.”

A clever manufacturer can then add complexity back in, like BMW did by going the opposite ways to the pre-fab of its competitors’ processes.

“People say, all buildings are different, with digitisation you should be able to get a different product every time.”

The young will make mincemeat of tradition, our engineer says.

“It will be Gen Y that makes [full use] of the BIM. They haven’t got the boundary baggage, because they don’t know what they don’t know and will just get on and do it.”

The other sector to watch is the architects. They’re the ones that will dream up the new concepts and translate them to reality.

Our engineer says Don Bates from Melbourne’s LAB Architecture who will be speaking at BIM-MEP will be one not to miss at the conference.

Now for the downside.

BIM might get rid of the fighting between architect, builder and developer, maybe save precious resources. But jobs? Not so much.

New studies are coming out to show that technology is destroying jobs at a faster rate than it’s creating them. The US should have been at zero unemployment given the advances in productivity it’s made in the past few years thanks to technology. But it’s not.

And if you want to be truly horrified go to elance or one of those online job sourcing sites that comb the globe for cheap skilled labour and see what local Americans are prepared to work for. You might be mistaken for thinking these are Indian or Filipino rates.


More bespoke goods and services?


Our engineer makes no bones about it. This technology is disruptive.

“It makes the world a very small place.”

But people will never be able to stop using and developing it because it improves things and provides real benefits, he says.

For the humans among us, that part of the economy that will still by run by humans, the challenge is to “think of something”.


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