Photo: @Pandamoanimum via twitter

News from the front desk: Issue 473: Aren’t we getting intimate with each other? Zoom meetings and briefings from the home studio, kitchen table or bedroom. Hair a tad askew, just in from a walk or a run in the rain. Apparently, it’s called radical transparency. That’ll bring us all down to earth. In case we need another crunching thud.

There’s also nothing to spend money on, if we have it.

Another great equaliser.

It won’t be good news for the retail industries. We’ll realise we can live without a lot of stuff that’s designed purely for social interaction.

As week two or three of the apocalypse kicks in, depending on your individual ground zero time zone, the sense of panic is subsiding into an eerie stunned calm. Quiet morning streets, even in the afternoons, broken only by the sounds of sirens. Walkers in London or swimmers at Bondi Beach moved off site by the new virulent, oops, virus, police. Accountants run ragged trying to work out what the Feds are offering to help businesses.

In the built environment there is a dusting off and shaping up to the challenge. Airconditioning professionals and facilities managers who clean and decontaminate premises are COVID-19’s version of our brave firefighters during summer. More will emerge.

Building and construction are ripe for disruption and it’s not a bad time to start

On the construction front, Tom Forrest, who took over the NSW Urban Task Force chief executive role from Chris Johnson in November after a long spate in government, reckons governments have done a good job to keep construction companies operational. As the UK has done.

“Out of all industries, construction is used to dealing with safety and risk – dealing with pouring concrete floors with embedded electrical cabling, welding, equipment, drills and hammers… any of which can kill you,” Forrest said early this week.

“Every day there are risks analyses put in place – risks identified, and systems put in place to manage or eliminate them altogether.

Think of the people who suit up to remove asbestos, he said.

Keeping the social distancing rules on site will probably require that kind of kitting up.

In the US, though, some sites are being shut down, we heard.

It’s a possibility here too, but while this potentially harsh reality is unfolding, there is an immense upside too. There is an opportunity for this industry to reinvent itself, and some quiet learning time at home is ideal. And possibly the only way it’s going to happen.

There are immense opportunities to design and build more sustainably. Not just some token questions and answers and a nice green sticker thrown on to your company collateral, but serious understanding of how we can eliminate the 30 per cent of waste that typifies this sector on every building site.

With the expectation we will double the amount of building stock in the world in the next decade or so we will need to conserve every skerrick of raw materials we have.

Right now, we learnt on yet another handy zoom conference, the globe is consuming nearly $3 billion tonnes of raw materials every year. That’s the fabric of mother earth offered up to our comfort and wealth. Depleting, most times, our natural wealth.

BIM (building information modelling) and other technologies can radically improve construction outcomes.

But they’re hard to master, especially when life if flying along at a furious pace and there’s another tender to bid on.

Who can be bothered?

But during a potential slowdown in work, well … there might never be a better opportunity to corral those mainly outdoors people to sit in front of a computer or put a podcast to the ear and learn.

A recent announcement by the Victorian government looks like it’s already stirred big interest.

The Victorian Digital Asset Strategy released in early March “calls for the use of 3D visuals and 4D modelling to allow infrastructure experts to be ‘smarter, safer and cheaper’ when building assets.

The strategy is all about making buildings and infrastructure easier to build and maintain, Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said at the time.

In Melbourne, a recent meeting of a BIM crowd ballooned from the usual 200 to 780 people, we heard.

Designing for storm damage while we’re at it

Elsewhere in the built environment, the other big disasters the likes of which we’d also never seen before – massive fires followed by the floods and hail storms earlier this year – have left their mark.

In their wake, asset owners are working out how to deal with the new world of climate heating and the physical damage it can cause to assets.

Shopping centres and industrial buildings with their vast flat roofs are not exactly designed for massive dumps of water, especially when it’s accompanied by hail that can block the downpipes.

AMP Capital’s Chris Nunn says designers are working hard to deal with this.

“The rainfall and high winds speeds of recent times are off the charts,” Nunn says.

“If drainage systems can’t cope you could get ceiling collapse.” Especially if drains are blocked by hail that turns to ice.

The storms earlier this year (though already they feel like a year ago) created some limited damage, but the fear is that this will grow as the weather worsens.

The theoretical concern of the past is now reality sinking in, Nunn says.

The imperative is to get better at design to deal with storms, heatwaves and air filtration to deal with smoke and now virus infestations. Remembering, all the time, that what we design or refit now has to last 50-60 years with worsening conditions.

Housing energy

On housing side of the coin, we know there is agreement for tougher energy standards – but now the hard part of quantifying that ambition has just started.

Suzanne Toumbourou, executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, says that for new residential buildings there is now the big job of working with stakeholders to find an “agreed level of ambition”. This will be determined by a risk process working group convened by the Australian Building Codes Board.

Alongside will be serious attention paid to moisture and condensation issues because no one wants to make the same mistakes as that other countries have made when they tightened up the energy performance, but forgot to create measures to prevent mouldy buildings.

As to targets, there are two possibilities. One scenario explored in the scoping paper late last year is for a 7 star NatHERS energy rating (yes we know, just one star more than the current minimum) but, says Toumbourou, it would come with net annual zero energy use, which would presume a fair amount of renewable energy and occupants who could work within that.

The potential contradiction between building quality and potentially poor tenant recalls the old quip of 10-star housing with 2-star occupants.

The second option is also 7 star NatHERS with moderate amounts of energy use, so setting a cap that would not be zero.

“This is absolutely a technical exercise,” Toumbourou says.

Advisory groups have been convened and experts sought.

So what’s the attitude of the usual adversaries of sustainability in the resi sector, the Master Builders Association and the Housing Industry Association? We’ve heard there could be a slight shift.

Toumbourou is, as always, highly diplomatic. Both are interested in a collaborative context of moving builders forward, she says.

She mentions a new educational program coming from that sector to educate builders and even one that helps vendors market sustainable houses.

So change is possible everywhere, it seems.

On existing houses, the potential for a disclosure rating is still live and quite possible, with a surprising lack of opponents. Well, it doesn’t impact on builders… and it could incentivise them to build more efficient housing.

Now wouldn’t paving a smooth pathway to that goal be a good way to get through our coming winter of discontent?

Cities agenda is buckling down for serious work

Out in the more mainstream world of business and the built environment, a recent virtual meeting of the organisations around Australia and New Zealand that work towards bettering their cities, such as Committee for Sydney, are grappling with the challenges ahead.

CfS’s director of strategy, James Hulme, said the mood at the meeting on Monday was one of unreality, slowly lifting.

“The lockdown brought it home,” he said. The big challenges were that the three levels of government involved were creating significant challenges in terms of comms and decision making.

For the moment, though, it was “business as usual and making sure we keep talking about what we have to do in three months, six months or 12 and the big challenges facing Sydney.

And that’s the kind of focus we all need.

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