Another year has come and gone, so what were the main themes that have come through in The Fifth Estate’s articles?

While in 2016 it was overwhelmingly positive news stories that had people clicking and sharing, this year it’s been more of a mixed bag (though mainly good news). Though there have been more significant gains in technology towards a low-carbon future – both in renewables and building construction – the effects of climate change are starting to bite, and the shortcoming of our governments, regulatory bodies and corporations’ actions have come to the fore.

10. We’ve failed the Great Barrier Reef

The first article in our top 10 is a contribution from Greenpeace on the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, following back-to-back bleaching events that had scientists fearing the worst for the reef’s future. Simon Black produced an emotive piece on a climate change “tragedy” threatening “the largest living structure on Earth, formerly 2300 kilometres long and visible even from space”.

9. Passive House social housing at no extra cost – that’s the plan for Melbourne project

In a year where we have seen energy prices rise and low income families bearing the brunt, the importance of efficient social housing can not be understated. In this story, we saw a group of investors coming together to build prefab social housing to Passive House standards. The kicker was that it was happening at no extra cost compared with business as usual.

“The vision is for them to be able to operate at net zero for energy,” Grün Consulting director Clare Parry told us.

8. Transparent solar could meet almost half of US energy needs

This year saw The Fifth Estate accept its first intern as part of a university program, and she delivered a top 10 story, liked close to 2000 times on Facebook. Thanks Katie! This story was based on a research article that analysed the entire glass surfaces of the US and found that almost to half of the country’s energy demands could be met by covering these surfaces with transparent solar technologies, which are improving every day.

7. VCAT, we have a problem

Tensions are boiling in Melbourne around planning, and this story about perceived failures of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal resonated with our readers. In this contribution, Preston resident Justin Passaportis wrote about the imbalance between lawyered-up developers and local residents using the dispute resolution service. The outcome of this particular battle has been a building many residents and the council say is inappropriate for the area.

“So what are we left with after five years and two replicated applications to VCAT?” Passaportis asks. “A great deal less than the original court order gave us – a clear slap in the face for the professional town planners at Darebin City Council, a dispirited community and deep cynicism about the ideals of VCAT. We are not the first Victorians to be completely betrayed by the system and clearly we will not be the last.”

6. Healthy Offices: Why Wellness is the New Green

Wellness was the biggest story of 2016, and it’s still hitting a chord, with our fourth and final instalment of the Greening Your Office series (with CitySwitch) becoming one of our most successful ebooks ever, with thousands of reads and downloads. The ebook looks at why wellness is currently top of mind for building developers, owners, tenants and designers, and why there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. It also looks at how to conduct a workplace check-up, which rating tools are currently operating in the space, and the key areas of wellness around culture, body, mind and workplace.

Download a PDF

5. Banks: the good, the bad and the slow

We didn’t expect this recent story to take off like it has, but people must like knowing what the banks are up to in the name of sustainability. In the midst of reporting season, we took a look at the Big Four banks’ sustainability claims. Under significant pressure, NAB and Commonwealth have made the move away from coal (though gas investment is booming) while all banks have increased lending to renewables and climate solutions.

The crux: good, but not good enough. Particularly the strange claim by NAB that most of its low-carbon financing was going towards business-as-usual residential housing development. We’ve since found out, following quite a controversial editorial, this is most likely due to very lenient Climate Bonds Initiative rules.

4. Cheap and quick printed solar on the way from Newcastle

We all love a techy good news story, and this development from the University of Newcastle was a hit. Solar ink tech developed by the uni meant that flexible solar sheets could be printed so rapidly that enough energy to power 1000 homes could be created every day on just 10 commercial-scale printers.

Professor Paul Dastoor said the technology could be rolled out faster than any other renewable competitor, with commercialisation expected within the next three years.

3. Market Pulse: Planner shortage amplified as young planners leave in droves

Okay, so this piece really came in as number four, but we’re combining it with our number 7 story – Planners in red hot demand – and number 8 – Young planners leaving in droves? Here’s what they think – and pushing it up a place because they all touch on the same issue: a growing demand for planners, but a concomitant increase in dissatisfaction with the profession, which is seeing planners leave after the 5-10-year mark. The story touched a nerve and started intense debate on our website and on social media.

While some had the early career change down to broader changes in the workforce, namely increasing “career mobility”, the comment section was rife with people saying they were disillusioned with planning becoming a “tick the box” exercise in a lot of cases.

Young planners Brighid Sammon from Hansen Partnership and Hugh Utting from GHD wrote a op-ed where they pointed to a “lack of respect for the professional expertise of planners”, as well as “frustrations with the broader planning system” and a lack of support.

2. Cool roofs versus dark roofs: special report

Yet again, this piece from 2014 remains near the top of our list. In it we talked to manufacturers, sustainability experts, councils and academics about the benefits of cool roofs, and why, even though the benefits to the community in terms of reducing bills and the urban heat island effect are clear, we still can’t stop our addiction to dark roofs.

1. Is gas heating really cheaper than electric?

Surprisingly, our biggest story of the year wasn’t published in 2017 either – it’s another fan-favourite resource that people keep coming back to in their thousands – a contribution to our “Spinifex” op-ed section by the Alternative Technology Association’s Kate Leslie in 2016.

Well perhaps it’s not that surprising. The price of gas has shot up over the past year and shows no sign of going back down anytime soon, so both households and businesses are seriously looking for alternatives.

There’s even talk of developing entire suburbs without supporting gas infrastructure.

What was once seen as a transition fuel to a low-carbon economy is finding itself quickly being cut out of the future by new technologies such as PV, batteries, solar-thermal water heating and super-efficient reverse-cycle air conditioners.

The Green List

Our top two stories have performed so well because they meet a consumer demand for information on sustainable homes, and we believe, through education, these kinds of stories have tangible benefits for the planet and people’s pocket.

In 2018 we’ll be launching a more consumer-focused site – The Green List – which responds to the growing demand for more targeted user-friendly information on where to source the right products and services.

The Green List is our curated expert guide to the people, products and services that will lead to a better future – a marketplace for sustainable solutions in green buildings, cities and homes.

Special mentions

Stories that just missed out of a top 10 place but we think are important this year include:

  • Nightingale reaches the village scale – now “anything is possible” – always one of our top-rating topics, this recent story on the Nightingale model’s expansion to the precinct-scale would have shot right up to the top if given another week or so, but just fell out of the top 10.
  • How to fix the sad state of transport decision-making – Tim Williams hit the nail on the head again regarding the woeful state of car-centric NSW transport planning, calling for Roads and Maritime Services to be absorbed into Transport for NSW, and for the community to be involved in infrastructure prioritisatio
  • Cladding scandal – no incentive and no enforcement. Nationally – After this year’s horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London, people came flocking back to our 2016 series of reports on Australia’s own cladding scandal. Sadly, it took Grenfell for Australian governments to start taking seriously the need to tackle the proliferation of flammable aluminium composite cladding, but the need to act was already staring them in the face.
  • Visit Tomorrowland: Buildings for a Sustainable Future – Our other big ebook for the year, based on a summit with input from lead sponsor Arup, was designed to give industry a view, not into the distant future, but the probable one around the corner that we need to prepare for now.
  • How a dementia-friendly net-zero home will help older people stay put – Those plucky kids from the University of Wollongong and TAFE NSW have done it again. First it was a net-zero retrofit of a 1950s fibre cottage that won the global Solar Decathlon event in 2013. Next year they’re going in it again, and we got the low-down on this thoughtful dementia-friendly design that promises to help keep people living comfortably in their own homes.