It’s the end of another somewhat tumultuous year, though you’d have no idea what a shocker it’s been reading the top 10 stories of 2016 at The Fifth Estate. Perhaps responding to growing unease internationally, our readers have chosen to focus their energy on the most positive, inspirational and informative stories – steering clear from politics as much as possible. From technological innovations to shifts in investment patterns to disruptive models of development, our top 10 provides a snapshot of how things can, and are, getting better in the sustainability and built environment space. It’s an affirmation of the built environment sector’s ability to contribute to the creation of a better world.

Take a look; it’s a great way to go into 2017 with a positive frame of mind. Have a fun and safe holiday season, and see you back here 23 January 2016.

10. Turning plastic waste into housing

Problem, meet solution. Here HASELL’s Ken McBryde filled us in on an innovative start-up Nev House, which aims to take plastic waste from the ocean and transform it into housing for the tropics that is able to withstand category five cyclones.

“We make housing, create jobs and clean up the oceans! That’s triple bottom line sustainability: social + economic + environmental. A win-win-win!,” McBryde wrote.

The project involved designer Nev Hyman and a range of experts including Arup, working together to make the project turn from idea into reality.

McBryde talked us through the conception, the trials, the failures and the successes.

While the plastic idea failed in terms of cyclone resistance, the team turned to engineered woods – “the ultimate recycled material – trees recycles carbon from the atmosphere to grow!” – to make a successful product.

The team hasn’t given up on the original idea of plastic waste, however.

“Currently we are exploring new recycling technology that not only uses dirty old plastic waste, but also includes tin cans and string… just about anything! The end product is way lighter, and has far superior structural qualities to [wood plastic composite].”

Artist’s impression of the Lakeland solar and storage plant in Queensland.

9. Australia’s first large scale solar and battery operation gets go-ahead

It seems every week we hear of some innovative new project propelling Australia into a clean energy future. When it comes to innovation and the clean energy space, a great deal of what we hear about  – and often there’s just too much to publish – has been funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. The recent $500 million defunding of ARENA was therefore a slap in the face to the clean energy industry and Australian consumers who overwhelmingly favour renewable energy.

Politics aside, this story of Australia’s very first large-scale solar and battery storage development in Far North Queensland struck a chord, garnering over 2000 likes on Facebook and being shared widely around the country.

Solar company Conergy’s David McCallum said solar and storage was “the Holy Grail” of the global renewable energy industry.

ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht said solar farms with storage would be particularly useful for fringe-of-grid locations, decreasing outages caused by network constraints, a lack of infrastructure and long distance power lines.

Image courtesy of Autodesk.

8. The brave new world of BIM and big data

The Fifth Estate has released a range of ebooks this year, including two in our series for the CitySwitch Green Office Program – Renewable Energy: Joining the Zero Carbon Revolution and Office Waste: A Guide for our Future (both sitting just outside the top 10).

This piece is an edited extract from another ebook based on a symposium we held on smart buildings and building information modelling, sponsored by Newforma, called Smart Building: what you need to know about the BIM and digital tech revolution.

In this overview piece, Lynne Blundell explores just what BIM is, what the uptake is, and what the benefits for firms that get in the space are. BIM, we heard, was no longer just an add-on for the architecture, design and construction industry, and is now widely seen as an integral part of the design process.

The prefab space was the next frontier with the ability to move straight from design to manufacture, and the sustainability benefits were “enormous”, according to Tom Leyden, director of information technology with Woods Bagot.

The AllGrid PortaGrid system

7. Aboriginal-owned energy company one-upping Tesla

Our viral story of 2015 just won’t quit. It’s still the most-read piece we’ve run of all time, with 30,000-plus social media likes and shares. In it Willow profiled Aboriginal-owned company AllGrid, which offers a range of battery storage and solar products that have seen it bring some stiff competition to the Tesla Powerwall. It’s one of those stories that ticks the environmental, social and economic boxes, making it easy to understand why so many people were so excited.

6. Ethical super funds – it’s what people want

The next two stories in the top 10 illustrate how The Fifth Estate is increasingly becoming a “go-to” resource for information on building and living sustainably. Many articles, some from years ago, continue to be accessed on a daily basis as they provide handy guides for how to act to ensure a lighter footprint and a better planet.

This piece from 2015 looks at the rise of ethical super funds, talking to both Australian Ethical and Future Super about why their numbers are booming and why it makes good sense to invest your money in ethical ventures.

5. Cool roofs versus dark roofs: special report

Another handy resource is our special report on cool roofs versus dark roofs, a perennial entrant into the top 10 since being published in early 2014.

We talk to manufacturers, sustainability experts, councils and academics about the benefits of cool roofs, and why, while those benefits are clear, dark roofs account for the vast majority of new residential buildings.

In an environment of increasing temperatures and heat waves, the topic still strikes a chord with people wanting to know what’s best for their home.

Maureen Thurston

4. Aurecon to get the “Deloitte treatment”

Business news is a cornerstone of The Fifth Estate’s work, so it’s no surprise that this story about an overhaul of Aurecon’s internal structure to make it fit for the future took off.

New chief executive Giam Swiegers, who hails from Deloitte, made a range of high-level appointments to tackle an impending disruption in technology, finance and business from a fast-changing macro environment.

As part of the process Deloitte principal, design leverage Maureen Thurston was brought across as global design to innovate director. Her brief: to turn the staff from engineers into “design thinkers”.

A perovskite solar cell

3. Two years away: perovskite promises a cheap, new form of solar power

Another tech story featuring solar, this time on the promise of perovskite solar cells – the “third generation” of solar. These promise a cheaper, thinner alternative to silicon solar cells.

“Transparent, lightweight, flexible and highly efficient, they will be able to be applied to windows, metal, polymers or cement, effectively turning buildings into energy generators,” David Thorpe wrote.

While not as efficient as silicon, the technology has rapidly improved in efficiency, from 3.8 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2016, making it the fastest-advancing solar technology to date.

Nightingale 3.0 concept. Image: Andrew Maynard

2. Nightingale Model & the cusp of big changes in housing

It’s no surprise Nightingale has made it in again. Any mention of this disruptive co-housing model is sure to rate its socks off. One thing that’s changed this year, though, is that now this Melbourne-developed model has stiff competition, with a range of co-housing solutions beginning to reveal themselves right across the country, from baugruppen in Perth to aged-care co-housing in Sydney.

But what is the Nightingale Model, for the uninitiated? Summing it up succinctly, author Sandra Edmunds said: “Nightingale Model projects are architect-led mixed-use apartment developments that aim to deliver environmentally, socially and financially sustainable dwellings.”

A key point is that developer profit is capped at 15 per cent, with savings pumped back into sustainability and amenity improvements.

The piece revealed that the Nightingale Model was being licensed across the country, with 11 projects underway. It was also revealed that UrbanGrowth NSW was working with the University of NSW to see how the model could be applied.

To show just how popular the topic is, our early 2015 story on Nightingale – Radical apartments: After The Commons, The Nightingale keeps ruffling feathers – also re-entered the top 10 this year, after being our fourth most-read piece last year. AND a recent piece Nightingale spreads its wings & heads north to Sydney also came in the top 10, making Nightingale the most read about topic of 2016, though to give other stories a chance, we’ve bundled them all together in the number two position. But one thing’s clear: all this interest is proof that innovative co-housing models aren’t going away.

480 Queen Street in Brisbane will be pursuing a WELL rating

1. WELL Building Standard set to storm the property world

Well, well, well. Wellness was the hottest new trend of 2016, with the WELL Building Standard bursting onto the scene and immediately finding favour with top tier developers and tenants, desperate to attract and maintain the best staff.

This story from editor Tina Perinotto predicted WELL was going to shake-up the top end of the property industry as much as Green Star did when it burst onto the scene in 2002.

And judging by the continued interest, she wasn’t wrong. Grocon, Macquarie Bank, Mirvac, DEXUS, Lendlease and Frasers Property have all been chasing ratings, while tenants like BHP, PWC, Herbert Smith Freehills, Allens and HWL Ebsworth are showing interest in tenancy ratings.

“The movement taps into growing concerns of unhealthy, mostly indoor and sedentary lifestyles. But instead of focusing only on physical health, WELL looks at the policies that encourage a genuine work-life balance,” Perinotto wrote.

Benefits include happier, more productive staff and lower rates of absenteeism and turnover.

As a recent CBRE report confirmed, wellness is indeed one of the keys to making staff “stickier”.

“Those enlightened companies that are investing in wellness programs are reaping the benefits in relation to productivity, talent attraction and retention,” CBRE senior director, asset services Amanda Steele said.

“Long-term, these organisations are the ones that millennials will want to work with and for. It’s a low-cost, high result strategy.”

One concern is that a focus on wellness – particularly with indoor environment quality and the HVAC requirements of WELL – could conflict with energy efficiency goals. We’ll keep on the trend of WELL and report more in the next year.

Special mention: Jobs!

Our jobs section always gets the biggest hits every year, though because it’s not technically a news article, we thought we’d separate it out. But rest assured, the sustainability jobs market in Australia continues to show signs of strength, and readers of The Fifth Estate want to know what jobs are on offer, who’s leaving, who’s being promoted, and who’s getting hired – and most importantly, why? In 2017 we’ll be dedicating more resources to this section to keep you in the know.

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