It has been a huge year for The Fifth Estate, and the sustainable built environment sector in general. Dealing with a new federal government intent on trashing any policy that benefits the environment, regardless of whether or not it makes economic sense, has been trying. But along with the negative has come a whole swag of inspiration and hope from the business community, getting in and filling the glaring gaps left by government with innovative approaches to sustainability set to transform how we approach the places we live, work and exist in. As Scott Ludlam told us at our recent Sustainability Surround Sound for Perth, he doesn’t look to Canberra for inspiration and optimism – he looks to sustainability and business professionals. And so do we.

As City of Melbourne councillor Arron Wood said in one of our top stories this year, “It used to be nation states that led the way, then the constituents, then big business begrudgingly followed. Now it seems to be the reverse.”

Here we list the top 10 stories that have captured your attention over the past the year by number of hits – a nice mix of innovative sustainability practice, politics, business news and emerging trends, as well as three stories on what has become the most controversial topic of the year – high density living.

  1. Jobs, jobs, jobs

By far the most popular section of The Fifth Estate is alway the jobs page. Year after year you want to know who has been employed where, who’s looking for staff, who’s moving on, where the growth areas are, and the behind-the-scenes industry gossip. And we happily oblige.

  1. Peter Newman: the top 10 myths about high density

Professor Peter Newman cut through the myths surrounding high density, and it went off like a rocket, attracting comments from supporters and detractors alike (though mainly supporters). The issue of high density continues to be a controversial one. With Australia’s population expected to grow to 35 million by 2050, we must do cities smarter. On the one hand we need to stop urban sprawl and have workers close to jobs-rich areas – we need to think about creating the “20-minute city”, as we heard in our Creating Sustainable Precincts ebook. It’s both a productivity and amenity issue. On the other hand we need to make sure density is done right – with sustainability and amenity in mind – not unliveable congestion-causing high-rise dog boxes – future “urban slums” – as some people believe may occur in Melbourne, following record approvals of high-rise residential towers in the CBD by the former Victorian planning minister.

  1. Australand breaks through the affordable multi-resi barrier with timber

Timber. Pre-fab. Affordable. Medium density. Four of our favourite buzzwords of 2014, with Australand showing some real innovation by putting all four together with its The Green apartment complex in Parkville, Melbourne. The great thing is it saved them a massive 25 per cent on construction costs, which the company said would lead to more medium-density housing in middle and outer suburbs where standard concrete construction is currently not economically viable.

  1. Scott Ludlam delivering his viral speech

    Dear Mr Abbott, every time you open your mouth the Greens vote goes up – Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam captured the sentiment of the nation in a speech to Prime Minister Tony Abbott ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election earlier this year. The speech now has close to one million views on YouTube, making it one of the most popular political moments of the year. We provided a full script of the speech, which contained gems like, “Just as the reign of the dinosaurs was cut short to their great surprise, it may be that the Abbott government will appear as nothing more than a thin, greasy layer in the core sample of future political scientists drilling back into the early years of the 21st century.”

He may have had a point too. The federal government has been on the nose, being blamed for the Victorian Coalition government being ousted after just one term (here the Greens got two lower house members and five upper house members) and the South Australian by-election giving Labor the ability to control the lower house without relying on cross bench support.

We also caught up with Mr Ludlam following the speech to get the inside scoop.

  1. High-rise living – sustainable or not?

 Here’s one from back in 2011 that won’t stay off our list of top-read stories. Lynne Blundell obviously hit a global nerve when she delved into the topic of whether high density was more sustainable than low density housing, following Norman Disney and Young’s Tony Arnel challenging the high-density vision of cities developers often present. Some studies, Arnel said, suggested buildings above three storeys begin to use more energy due to the need for lighting in common areas, lifts, security and the lifestyle of residents. Professor Deo Prasad and others, meanwhile, said high density could be done better, though, and urban sprawl was no solution.

Our 2014 update, The challenges of tall building sustainability, picked up the topic again, and also came in as one of the top-read stories of the year. Following the Urban Taskforce’s vision of Sydney in 2050 as a mega-tall skyscraper-filled metropolis and Melbourne approving high-rise resi like it was going out of fashion, we spoke to Alan Pears, Peter Newman and AECOM’s Lester Partridge to get to the bottom of the sustainability challenges inherent in building residential skyscrapers.

  1. Victoria axes Greener Government Buildings Program

Conservative governments axing cost-effective efficiency programs under the guise of red tape reduction was the most unfortunate trend of 2014, with programs like the Energy Efficiency Opportunities program cut by the federal government, and the Renewable Energy Target and even the much-praised Commercial Building Disclosure program going under review.

In Victoria, things didn’t fare much better. The former Victorian government wanted to axe the state Energy Efficiency Target, and as detailed in our sixth biggest story of the year, cut the Greener Government Buildings Program, a hugely successful government energy efficiency program that was on track to save billions of dollars in energy bills for taxpayers, replacing it with something the industry said wouldn’t work. The move was labelled “economically reckless and financially irresponsible” by industry, and made many people wonder exactly who the government was serving.

While conservative governments were the subject of some well-deserved attacks from The Fifth Estate, we must make clear that we have no partisan position: we don’t care which side of politics is progressing built environment sustainability, as long as it’s being progressed. Case in point the NSW Coalition government, who this year gained much praise from The Fifth Estate for its forward-thinking resource efficiency policy, which will see government agencies pursuing solar leasing, energy efficiency projects including lighting upgrades, minimum 4.5 star NABERS ratings and environmental upgrade agreements. They also broke ranks with their state and federal counterparts by supporting the RET.

  1. MacBank reveals new green global headquarters

 Who doesn’t like a good case study? Macquarie Bank’s stunning new global headquarters at 50 Martin Place provided a nice bit of eye candy for readers, and the techy details of just how this building underwent extensive refurbishment to become the largest heritage building in Australia awarded a 6 Star Green Star rating satiated the engineering and construction geeks.

The refurbishment of 20,000 square metres transformed the 1928 Beaux-Arts building into sustainable commercial office space over 11 levels, involving the overhaul of building services and systems, a new fitout, the widening of an existing atrium and the construction of a two-storey domed roof and glass shuttle lifts.

  1. Chris Reardon: a champion of sustainability

A great champion of sustainable design passed away this year. Dr Chris Reardon, whose invaluable insights into building sustainability had featured in The Fifth Estate numerous times, died at his home/office in Goulburn on the evening of 17 November 2014, aged 61.

Following the obituary we published by good friend and colleague Tone Wheeler, many of the people who had engaged with Chris, both on a personal and professional basis, came to pay their respects, making it one of our most read and most commented stories of all time.

Reading through the notes from friends, colleagues and even people trained by Chris through the innovative Liveability training program with LJ Hooker, it is clear this was a man who made an indelible impression on the Australian built environment landscape, and was regarded as an engaged, spirited and sometimes argumentative true believer of sustainability. The industry wouldn’t be where it is without his passion and dedication.

See our stories:

  1. Frustration with NatHERS sparks new verification body

This was a cracker of a story, and one yet to be fully played out. Rodger Hills stepped down as chief executive of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors in a move coinciding with his push to establish a new industry-led body, the Building Verification Council, to address what he and other industry figures see as significant failings of the Nationwide House Energy Ratings Scheme, and its administrator.

The problems with NatHERS had been filtering into the The Fifth Estate inbox for months, and with the shock of Rodger Hills moving away from ABSA it was time to chase up exactly what was going on. A lot, we found, and we are still to publish on the controversial changes to NaTHERS training that has current assessors up in arms.

The crux of it was that NatHERS was not performing the task of improving residential building sustainability. Two fundamental problems cited were:

  • the market failure and systemic limitations of NatHERS currently
  • the endemic occurrence across Australia of building regulation non-compliance and compromised building performance

Builders gaming the system, unaccredited NatHERS assessors and state governments unwilling to do anything about it was leading to the creation of substandard housing. The BVC, Mr Hills said, would address these issues. It would be an industry-led “quasi-regulatory” body that would be self-regulated and have no government enforcement. It would provide a means for building performance to be demonstrated through “verification, assurance and testing” rather than prediction alone, as currently exists under NatHERS.

The issues of residential building sustainability have been detailed in a pitt&sherry and Swinburne University report the federal government is currently sitting on. Last time we spoke to pitt&sherry principal consultant & manager – carbon & energy team Phil Harrington, he said a decision had been made by government to release the report in November 2014. We’re still waiting…

More on this and the NaTHERS training changes in the new year.

10. Stockland’s green bond stirs appetite for more

Green bonds were without doubt one of The Fifth Estate’s hottest trends of 2014. The innovative product – a debt instrument for financing projects that tackle climate change – pretty much came out of nowhere, with the market trebling in size to $34.3 billion in issues in 2014, according to the Climate Bond Initiative.

It’s a game changer for property and the sustainable built environment, with green buildings and urban improvement bonds expected to comprise more than 50 per cent of the market in the long term.

As Ché Wall of Flux Consultants said to us: “Think about the paradigm of the property sector that assigns value to green buildings and getting others to pay more for them, and combine that with the huge appetite of institutional investors for investments that meet their needs. There are huge opportunities.”

In our top green bond story Stockland stunned the property and capital markets by announcing Australia’s first green bond, for EUR300 million. And according to Stockland chief executive Mark Steinert, the margin on the bond cost the company no more than regular funding, save for a small compliance fee to make sure it delivers the goods.

Westpac and NAB also had some firsts, which you can read about in all our other green bond stories.

 Honourable mentions:

These stories were right up there as some of the most read of the year, and deserve a special mention:

Woodhead liquidation – many questions and few answers from GHD

 GHD announced its acquisition of Woodhead a day after ASIC appointed administrators for the award-winning international architecture practice, The Fifth Estate discovered.

Light rail proliferates as urban centres seek low-carbon solutions

As the city with the world’s largest light rail network, Melbourne is a showcase of the benefits of light rail for rapid, pedestrian-friendly, low carbon transport. The idea is catching hold around the nation, with projects at various stages of planning and implementation.

Affordable housing: NRAS under attack

 Australia’s much lauded attempt to create its first affordable housing investment asset class came under vicious attack, lambasted, inaccurately and potentially along dangerous racist lines by national conservative newspaper The Australian.

Cool roofs versus dark roofs: special report

We spoke to manufacturers and sustainability expert Dr Chris Reardon; we checked the councils such as Pittwater and Woollahra to see why they don’t like light roofs; and took a look at City of Melbourne’s study; and even the argument for dark roofs.

People’s panel: citizens tell Melbourne where to go

Put a group of around 40 randomly chosen people in a room and ask them to come up with priorities on spending and revenue strategy for council. What do you get? Sustainability as a key priority; roads and parking spots ripped up for bike lanes; more open space; and increasing rates to pay for it all.

Holiday time

We wish you all a lovely Christmas and great new year.

We’ll be back on deck on 12 January 2015.

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