Precinx will be able to assess sustainability for an entire precinct. Pictured: Rouse Hill Town Centre developed by Landcom, the Department of Planning and Lend Lease

-By Tina Perinotto

3 December 2009 – It came out of left field but Landcom’s Precinx, the sustainability assessment tool that looks at a whole neighbourhood to assess its overall sustainability, may in time be available nationwide with a modelling system that its developers say is world class.

Launched at Homebush in Sydney’s west on 18 November at a conference [see photos ]that included some of the country’s leading luminaries in climate change and thought leadership, Precinx, takes a step into a wider social measure of sustainability by incorporating factors such as weekly cost of housing in the final equation.

It even looks at the increasingly important issue of how long people spend travelling in a vehicle.

Precinx examines six key inter-related factors:

  • onsite energy
  • embodied CO2
  • potable water
  • Stormwater
  • housing diversity
  • transport

These are then fed into four key performance indicators:

  • Greenhouse gases (tonnes CO2/year)
  • Potable water (kL H2O/year)
  • Total affordability ($/week)
  • Vehicle hours travelled (hours/week)

It’s an impressive set of measures, and it’s taken 18 months of hard slog to set up.

The tool was developed for Landcom with principal consultant Bruce Taper of Kinesis,  assisted by Rod Simpson of  Simpson Wilson and SGS Planning and Economics. Taper and Simpson have a track record in rating tools, together they were the key architects of the BASIX housing sustainability index for the NSW Government.

But the big question on everyone’s lips is, “why?” It’s no secret that the Green Building Council was working on a similar project, as outlined in these pages some time back.

For Steve Driscoll, Landcom’s director of sustainability and policy, it was a natural evolution. Landcom last financial year developed 1719 equivalent lots, (including the lot yield expected from parcels of land sold to private developers). This year’s tally was boosted by the stimulus package, but the general rate is around 1500 lots a year.

As Driscoll sees it, that an awful lot of sustainability to you can either capture by applying a rigorous set of metrics, or “waste” by taking a stab at what you think may be a sustainable outcome.

“In the same way that developers do financial feasibilities, Landcom can now do a sustainability feasibility,” he told The Fifth Estate in an interview last week.

Steve Driscoll

We did it because we operate at a scale that has caused us to realise… we can really make changes…savings in sustainability.

“We’ve learnt form experience that retrofitting can be done but at a marginal cost greater than if you do it early on.”

The tool allows the user to test sustainability performance or outcomes by varying the inputs. It also help in discussions with utilities providers and local councils or with private developers to see what happens if different approaches or “inputs” are used, Driscoll says.

Creatively, and expansively, the tool can demolish preconceptions and bias to produce a counter-intuitive result. For instance, while the large scale use of water tanks seems like a good idea, incorporating medium range weather pattern forecasts that show an area will have much lower rainfall might make such an idea redundant.

Knowing what the utilities and infrastructure providers have in mind is another plus.

Besides, Landcom likes to be a leader.

“We’ve seen great things come out of BASIX [the ratings tool for housing] but Landcom was doing BASIX compliant housing two years ahead of time,” says Driscoll.

“When the industry said that BASiX was the end of the world as we knew it, we could point to Landcom and say it’s still in business.

“In margin cost – yes it was a little more expensive and we predicted that BASIX compliant houses would come down to around $5000 a house extra and that’s where it sits today.”

With Precinx, Driscoll thinks the team has come up with world class tool. In terms of the  tool’s ability to respond to the issues of the day in the context of what is expected from the Copenhagen summit, he is “very confident”.

So where to next for Precinx?

Driscoll says the focus so far has been on its development, but now it was time to explore the potential application of the tool nationally.

However, this would take some time.

“We’re not going to get any sense out of the development industry before Christmas. Early in the new year we will talk to a range of stakeholders…get out there and show them what’s under the bonnet,” says Driscoll.

That will include putting the tool on the web and ensuring it can run smoothly. To give it a national application it will need to be adapted for various climate zones.

Currently, “it’s full of Sydney data. It would work in Darwin but it would not give a sensible answer.”

There will also, of course, be some close collaboration with the Green Building Council which will continue its own work on precincts.

However, as GBCA Green Star executive director Robin Mellon put it to TFE, the work could be more accurately described as a “framework” rather than a rating tool.

The GBC was working in joint venture with VicUrban on the project and consulting extensively with Landcom.

“We’re very keen to not re-invent the wheel,” Mellon said.

“We’re not doing a precinct tool as such – it’s a project, and yes, we’re working closely with and following closely on the tracks of what Landcom are doing and keeping up to speed.

“We’re talking with Landcom about social issues about what makes a community; there is a lot of work that’s gone already with this.”

The Precinx developer

Bruce Taper: “We think it’s pretty clever”

According to Precinx primary consultant Bruce Taper of Kinesis,  the neighbourhood rating tool was developed to “allow Landcom to make informed decisions very early on in the process – it gives some common language for the industry to discuss the implications of large scale, precinct-wide development.”

Even better, says Taper, who collaborated on the project were Rod Simpson of Simpson Wilson and SGC Planning and Economics, Precinx “gets rid of some of those urban myths of what works and what doesn’t in some sort of locations.”

With water tanks for instance. “It shows that what works in one proposal may not work in another, so it discriminates.  It gives you a broader perspective of your chosen solution.

“For example a series of rainwater tanks in a green field development site possibly achieves good water reduction and good storm water benefits, but may be in an area where it’s predicted that rainfall will dry up in the near future.”

The tool allows the proponent to “vary the rainfall inputs to see if a good strategy now will still be a good strategy in 20 years time. You can do a long term analysis.

“You can refer to a CSIRO report and what they might expect and when you can consider  your options of rain water or black water and grey water reuse you can see the effectiveness of an impact and the capital costs of making those things happen.

“So we also model the energy contributions for the different types of strategy – the water demand or the co-generation system.”

A proponent can also look at changing transport modes and frequency of public transport.

“You get a choice to quickly and accurately model a number of intervention or abatement strategies to green up your precincts and you can compare those strategies across a range of performance indicators.”

Another is the language, such as claims that a project is carbon neutral or carbon positive.

“For example, you can have the potential to say this is a carbon positive development and I am not sure what they mean by that. It can refer to a large co-gen [co-generation] plant…or to exporting low carbon electricity beyond the bounds of the development.

“So Precinx cuts through that. It shows where you have carbon emissions reduction and what’s attributable inside the precinct and outside.

“It’s a massive leap forward from BASIX” says Taper.

“It’s just a hard nosed quantitative modelling tool.

“For an idea like this the time has come. The profession needs good information.”

“We think it’s pretty clever”
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