Sid Thoo

3 October 2103 — Western Australian architect and educator Sid Thoo is both optimistic and cynical about the state of play for sustainable buildings.

“Although I do try to be more optimistic,” he told The Fifth Estate. “I don’t think being cynical helps anyone.”

Mr Thoo said he believed the property industry needed “to come back to what sustainability actually means, not green wash”.

“I say that there is no such thing as a totally sustainable building. Of late I have been using the terms ‘genuine sustainability’ or ‘more sustainable building’.

“Green is becoming a bit passé, and with the changes in government policy I think the green message has lost its momentum.

“We’ve settled into a comfortable rut thinking that ‘we’re better than we were’ so that’s good enough.

“I think we have a long way to go to get to anything that is even remotely sustainable.

“Is it doable? Yes, I think so, maybe not in my generation, or even the next, but perhaps the one after that. We have the technology, the intelligence and the innovation – but there is a general lack of will.”

Mr Thoo, who was the co-founder and director of architecture.collective from 2008 to 2012, and now operates his own practice, is also a Living Building Challenge volunteer facilitator and active member of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors.

He believes the challenge is about taking sustainability to the next level, and is the “closest thing” to creating a truly sustainable building.

“[The green building industry] has very much become a tick the box system,” he said.

“Have I done this? Have I done that? People are kind of happy where we’re at, but with the Living Building Challenge there could be more.

“And the challenge is all about that – it is only through the spirit and attention to collaboration that we can create a genuine sustainable building.”

Mr Thoo, who lectures at both the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, said while Green Star and NABERS had become ubiquitous, he believed there was the will to go further.

“Green Star is a victim of its own success. It has done a great job but I wonder if we have got to the stage where we are just happy with that.

Life cycle rating

“Although with the new life-cycle analysis rating you can see that Green Star is trying to take green buildings to the next level.”

Mr Thoo said he had partnered with eTool software creators Rich Haynes and Alex Bruce because he believed in the “whole of building” perspective.

“Up until about three years ago [whole of life] was seen as a bit fringe but Rich and Alex wanted people to look across the bigger picture.

“And in the early days they held meetings and it was very much, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ but I would say it is now successful.”

Mr Thoo said in Western Australia many government agencies were keen to only take tenancies in green buildings but there was a bit of cynicism in the industry.

“Everyone is Green Star but I am not sure if that is really doing anything. And architects see green and ESD as the engineers’ domain.

“They think, ‘I have done my fabulous design now it’s up to you to make it sustainable.’ It should be fundamental in the design process.

“But we are very much a silo-based industry.

“I think of a multidisciplinary team like a wrestling match. And we all sit down together but don’t ask any questions in case we look stupid.

“I have seen very few real collaborations.

“The architect wants to be first with the client, the project manager wants to come between the architect and the client.

“We all need to put egos aside so there is no conflict.”

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  1. Thanks for this Sid, well said.
    Sustainability and life circle rating should be fundamental in the design process. It is possible to create good designed buildings but this means that the architect needs to have all the knowledge. Great designs and sustainability are more challenging I have got a german degree in architecture and in 1990 at university there was the same delemma. sustainable architecture was not very attractive to archtecture students. But it is changing now.. Good to have people like you at teaching at university, keep the discussion going

  2. Wonderful to receive Sid’s thoughts from his position as an architect and educator. Perceptive, insightful and valuable commentary are a starting point, towards the promotion and implementation of future holistic measurement protocols, in supporting sustainable outcomes for us now and ohers into the future. We need to provide lasting and proper sustainability legacies for following generations to build upon, not to demolish or destroy our critical collective global resources.

  3. Sid, well said. I agree broadly with your insights. I am not trying to be patronizing when I say that as a 73 year old I am delighted that a young man like you can think outside the square to the extent you are. I am very concerned about the future and am trying to make a difference. But nobody hears me.when I say we have the ability today to reduce the specific PRIMARY energy consumption (MJ/square metre) by 30 to 60% and 80% in new buildings.The flat patch on my forehead is getting bigger because I keep knocking my head against the brick walls of modern conventions like LIFE CYCLE COSTINGS. which are celebrated shrines to excessive consumption and consumerism enhanced by governments to generate taxes to build the infrastructure to handle the demands for roads for example! Why not rail?

    I believe the main thing missing in today’s sustainability fashion is durability and longevity of everything humanity produces. Almost everything manufactured today has a built in obsolescence for no other reason that if goods last too long, there is no market for new goods, which in turn results in a decline in the mining and refining of minerals and the associated energy consumption. This concept is now formally recognized in the term Life Cycle Costing. No doubt everything has a life expectancy, but that should be based on the potential maximum utility of things for as long as possible, rather than by some artifice based on economics. We admire the builders of the Colosseum, the pyramids, Roman aquaducts, the Great Wall of China, the gothic DOM churches all over Europe etc., etc.. In many European countries people still live in 400 year old houses! Why don’t we build like that? Because it is bad for business and thus for the economy and the fear of unemployment. But in today’s advanced economies only about 5% of people are engaged in manufacturing of all the good we consume. If we halved manufacturing the unemployment rate in Australia would rise by about 2.5% to 8+%. But in time those losing their jobs would be re-employed to extend the life cycle of the fewer goods produced, which would be built origin ally for high recyclability. They would be recycled rather than thrown away. Do you think Gina Reinhardt and the other environmental vandals. No doubt many of you remember Paul Hogan, the funniest and well known of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (SHB( painters. This is an example of durability. The life cycle of the SHB is being extended by continuous and enduring maintenance!
    Excessive consumption is enshrined in government programmes like car leasing, where one is permitted to write off the capital and interest over a fixed period as a tax concession. And this applies to a lot of other things. And governments of all ilk are terrified to lose car manufacturing in Australia so far handing out billions of dollars in CORPORATE WELFARE to maintain a local foreign owned manufacturing facility the future of which is decided in overseas board rooms. It was proven long ago that Corporate Welfare does not work, Business is all about socializing the losses and capitalizing the profits!

    Stupid and silly! So what if I can’t buy a locally made or any car for that matter! Be like Singapore where one needs two licenses for a car – one to drive a car and the other to won a car!

    Perhaps you think I am another aberrant tree hugger. That is what the Chinese thought when I advised them 30 years ago not to industrialize too quickly. The reason was that at the time China was very advanced in sustainable practices like power generation using methane produced in pig manure digesters (BIO GAS, ONE OF TODAY’S BUZZ WORDS IN THE WEST!), biological pest control using large flocks of tame ducks – which themselves became part of the human food chain at the end of the season after having got fattened eating all the insects and snails at the roots of the rice plants aided by the fish being farmed in the rice paddies.- , use of natural fertilizer including human night soil, domestic pig raising by using inedible parts of food plants etc., etc.. I admired that, but the Chinese thought I was a typical Westerner who was unwilling to share Western Technology! When they woke up to what I was saying, they thought I was the only Westerner they had ever met who was concerned about the welfare of China. I simply explained that if they retained their sustainable practices, their required future U-turn would be a lot less dramatic than what the West will have to do! I wonder if any of those I met will remember when they can’t see the sun for days on end and big cities like Harbin run out of water because of heavy poisons leaking upstream into the river on which Harbin relies for its potable water. Or see the Yellow River at Gansu in the foot hills of the Tibetan plain run dry for the first time in living memory. They are the real issues and not whether the Tibetan Glaciers will melt by 2035 or 2100. The fact is they are melting away and if it takes 65 years longer the better.

    The real issues are arable land and water supply and not the race how fast we can convert the best arable lands to urban concrete jungles. Last time I was in Beijing they were talking about Ring Road No. 7 as the first six had only accelerated urbanization into the rice paddies.

    Sorry, I talk too much. My work needs to interfere with my hobbies.

    With best wishes and kind regards

    Yours sincerely

    Klaas Visser.

  4. Excellent insight Sid – at the very least approaches like the Living Building Challenge and One Planet Living will keep Green Star on its toes and provide a greater level of openness and transparency on how sustainable buildings actually are. Ed

  5. I agree with you Sid Thoo – too many ivory towers hiding behind political argument for short term populist ratings – and still passing the buck. Sustainability is the preserve of all – it’s called common sense and back to basics – for all buildings, particularly housing – not just the coffee table magazine prize winners! Green Star is a marketing gimmick for its own agenda which does not really consider the unfortunate truths about the majority of low level built fabric – which is not in high rise towers. Keep the discussion going