1 Bligh Street, Sydney, under construction

On senseless acts of rational behaviour, architects, systems analysis, buildings that “live and breathe” and the population debate that goes top of the pops.

By Tina Perinotto

29 July 2010 – Could it be that greening property ends up being the climate change policy you get when you’re not getting a climate-change policy? Something a government does when it knows it has to do something to lower greenhouse gas emissions but doesn’t want to look like it’s doing anything, in case it spooks the mining industry and gets itself sacked?

Tax credits for green property, it seems, might just sidle on by, masquerading as any ordinary li’l ol’ business incentive. Meanwhile – unbeknown to the mining and resources behemoths – they can save us another power station or two.(Sh, don’t breath a word of this out in corporate la-la land).

On offer from the Labor Party this week was a 50 per cent bonus tax write-down of up to $1 billion for investments to bring buildings of two stars or fewer in NABERS energy rating up to four-star standard or higher. Brilliant. Vote No. 1 for Julia.  Along with this was a $30 million kicker for the Green Building Fund pot, which had almost run dry but appears to have been hugely appreciated by the smart movers who put their hands up for a slice of the pie. Tick!

(See what our expert tax correspondent, Nicola Woodward of Apex Property Consulting, had to say on the deal And what the industry leaders said.

It’s almost as if someone in Canberra has actually been listening. All those BEMPS (Built Environment Meets Parliament Summits) and casual conversations in the corridors of power have finally made politicians realise there is power (to save) in property.

But what’s on offer from the Coalition? Nought. Zilch. Down with the Green Building Fund, it said. The Property Council of Australia’s chief executive, Peter Verwer, points out that the Coalition still supports accelerated depreciation for greening building, but this was an idea put up by former party leader Malcolm Turnbull. Let’s hope no one points this out to Tony Abbott, lest he drop that too.

So, as our political gladiators prepare to face the proverbial lions, how are our crusaders in the real world of sustainability faring?

There is activity but there’s also some nervousness about the impacts of the global financial crisis (GFC), which continue to linger, but the good news is that the GFC seems to be squeezing new ideas from old paradigms in the need to survive. Let’s hope that continues.

Business outlook: still patchy

One engineering consulting firm said the GFC’s impact keeps surprising by its longevity. The response, though, had been not so much to cut staff but to vigorously restructure to take advantage of all opportunities, it said.

In architecture, Woodhead’s principal and workplace portfolio leader, Angelo Di Marco, has similar views. “It’s up and down month to month,” he said. “That’s the key difference; the holding pattern between projects are longer and we have to tread water more often.”.

The firm had not let go staff recently. In fact, it had strengthened key portfolios, luring Jeremy Deale from Fitzpatrick + Partners after he project managed Macquarie Bank’s newest building at One Shelley Street in Sydney’s CBD. In Brisbane, Maria Asenjo has joined Woodhead’s health team. She has a long professional and academic architectural background in Argentina and Britain, including many public-private partnership projects.

“We took a bit of a hit really early on,[reducing staff from about 300 to about 280],” Di Marco said. “We’re now fitting back into a new suit, trimmed to a size and trying to stay at that sort of scale.

“We can’t necessarily jump on the next project as quickly as pre-GFC, so we have to stay quite lean and survive quieter times,” he said.

“Projects are taking longer to get off the ground and we certainly have a good array of work in the office but it’s just steady, not lighting the world on fire.”

Di Marco said that overall in Brisbane there was a significant amount of work in the health area and activity was strong in Western Australia and in South Australia. Sydney, however, was suffering the “double hit” of being between a federal election and a state election, and was in a virtual “holding pattern”.

“The market in this state [NSW] is really soft and slow to rebound,” he said. “It makes 2009 look like pretty good year.”

Overseas markets such as Singapore were going “very well”, as were projects in other parts of Asia.

In Australia, Woodhead has recently finished a 45,000 square metre project for the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Now it was embarked on the fit-out for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency’s new 20,700 sq m headquarters in the NewActon precinct in Canberra, part of the innovative and highly sustainable Nishi precinct by the Molonglo Group.

Di Marco said the highly collaborative project would involve “rethinking a whole range of concepts around how the government is working. Obviously it will be six stars, but also in terms of materiality [it would be highly innovative] and the whole integration of the building will be seamless. You won’t be able to distinguish indoors from outdoors, with landscaping invading the internal space.”

On the developer’s website, the building’s engineer, Arup, says “Nishi demonstrates the end of the design and construction of glass boxes and a transition into living, breathing buildings”. That’s a step in the right direction, surely?

Where are the architects when you need them?

On the subject of innovation, The Fifth Estate attended an interesting get-together this week with a handful of people who are also trying to shift the thinking on property in terms of building performance. Among them was Wayne Ryan, who grabbed some high-profile media attention last week at the launch of the Local Government Superannuation Scheme’s building at Macquarie Park  because the LGS had decided to install his innovative SMAC ( Shaw Method of Air Conditioning) in the building.

(The system, Ryan says, can radically cut energy use because it controls humidity as well temperature. (However, because it is so different many engineers are resistant to install it.)

Also in the group was PC Thomas, whose Team Catalyst firm is the company chosen by NABERS to conduct a review of its energy rating tool; Thomas’s  colleague GS Rao, and Peter Phillips, an engineer working with SMAC Technologies.

As the conversation dived inevitably into the question of the gap between building design and building performance, everyone  agreed that a key missing ingredient was systems integration. This is the concept that a building has to be viewed as a complex living organism, in which all the constituent parts affect each other, and that the whole adds up to something different than a mere sum of the parts.

What was missing, the group said, was the sole profession capable of integrating the various, and often competing, elements in a building and bringing them to heel: architecture.

Poor architects. First they lose out to cost controllers, then to project managers, and most recently to sustainability consultants. Before long professionals like Susan Roaf (herself an architect and professor of architectural engineering) were calling them “hairdressers for buildings”

Grocon’s Brian Moore wrote about the very serious need for architects to re-seize the agenda on sustainability in these pages last year.  Another architect, Genevieve Lilley, wrote a response that was in broad agreement with Moore.

Technology unlocking systems’ secrets

This understanding of systems is exactly where some architects are heading in terms of where to invest their effort, David Craven of Woods Bagot says.

Craven, head of sustainability for the firm, has a fair idea of the broader sustainability agenda from his days as head of the sustainable building unit at Sustainability Victoria, and later running the Green Building Council’s Victorian office.

He says his firm is investing huge resources into high-tech modelling to better understand, much earlier in the design process, how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and what sort of outcomes they produce. Part of that is getting maximum feedback on the systems.

“We’re trying now to build a model that has a lot of feedback in it,” he says. “We’re taking the idea of the systems theorists back in the 1960s, where to improve an outcome you need to get feedback, some measure of outcomes.”

This means sourcing more post-occupancy  reviews “and trying to extract learnings from that. How, in particular, green buildings and green interiors impact on people’s health and well being.”

Building information modelling tools are now 3D, he says. “It’s now possible to test our design concept very early in the process and the technology in this area is coming along in leaps and bounds.

“Technology will make a big difference as the design decisions will become much more based on evidence and on feedback you get through the tools.

“It’s an area where we have invested a lot of effort.”

Craven said the company’s projects, such as the Zero E building,  used “parametric modelling”, which he described as “fairly advanced technology”.

These new tools come in very handy with the spread of sustainability rating tools to property sectors beyond trophy commercial projects, especially the tricky ones such as health.

For instance, projects that the company is working on in South Australia (the SA Health and Medical Research Institute) and in Melbourne (the Australian Catholic University’s National Centre for Health and Wellbeing), have six-star Green Star targets.

“Probably because the tools are out there in most of the sectors, it’s now easier for the projects to include some aspirations that people can aim for,” Craven said.

A broader understanding of sustainability and systems is getting more urgent by the day, therefore.

ANZ property on higher ground

Also taking property more seriously — as it should —  is the ANZ bank, which has recently placed property at the peak of its reporting framework for all matters environmental and sustainable.  According to the bank’s head of risk and compliance, Julie Dorrian, these sectors will now report to the global head of property, Kate Langan, a former Jones Lang LaSalle staffer (as is  Dorrian), who replaced Jane Hamilton in November last year when HSBC lured her to London as European property head.
In Australia the word is that Hamilton put ANZ on the property map when she decided to take the bank’s planned new headquarters at Melbourne’s Docklands right up the scale to six-star Green Star. As we reported in our last issue, Gabrielle Kuiper, formerly of VicUrban and Investa, is now with ANZ, in Dorrian’s team.

Planning – Not

Robyn Vincin, NSW state manager of the Planning Institute of Australia, says unsurprisingly that it’s all very quiet on the policy front. The only movement is the NSW Government’s new draft State Environmental Planning Policy on retail property, which says (hilariously) that it wants to bring down retail prices by deregulating retail zoning.

With a federal election and a state election looming, it’s no wonder the state Government is sticking to something entertaining and light-hearted. The NSW Urban Taskforce says the draft SEPP is full of loopholes and won’t work. This is the group that wants to deregulate zoning because it claims this will bring land prices down. It will, but that’s because the only people who go to such messy, unregulated areas will be those who have no other options.

Professor Richard Weller

Poulation headlines at conferences

On the real work for planners, such as planning Vincin says she cannot find a planner who is not busy. Clearly she tries, possibly to help with the task of organising the state planning conference at Bathurst’s Mount Panorama later this year.

She says one of the headline speakers will be Bob Carr, who will talk about the population time bomb he planted while NSW Premier, saying that Sydney is full and that Australia cannot environmentally handle a big population.

It’s a hot subject, the population debate. The organisers of the 3rd annual International Urban Design Conference (August 30 to September 1 at the National Convention Centre in Canberra)  have also jumped on the theme, this time inviting two opposing speakers to set off the fireworks.

One of the speakers, Peter McDonald, head of the Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, has already drawn media attention in The Australian. Mr McDonald, links rejection of the notion of a big Australia, with its fears of highly inflated house prices and congestion in the big cities, to a “damaging reversion to Hansonism.”

Presenting an opposing view will be Richard Weller, author of Boomtown 2050, and Winthrop Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Western Australia. He will argue that while Australia has always grown rapidly, “nothing can grow forever”.

In 2002 the CSIRO concluded that Australia could sustain 50 million people; that is, 50 million people leading what was referred to as a “moderate lifestyle”, Professor Weller said.

“I don’t know about you, but my lifestyle doesn’t strike me as particularly moderate. .

“Australians have one of the highest ecological footprints on the planet.That means it takes five times as much stuff to sustain one Australian as it does the average world citizen.

“To put it another way, if everyone lived the way we do we’d need five Earths to plunder. So who’s going to tell the Chinese, the Indians and the Africans that they can’t have what we take for granted? “

It’s interesting to note that the people who participated in the Australian Institute of Architects’ NOW + WHEN competition for the Venice Biennale exhibition on Australia’s future urban form almost unanimously assumed that — despite what might be ideal for this country — we would almost certainly face a “big Australia” as the global pressures from climate change intensify.

tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au