On the true meaning of a level playing field and certainty

Last week we were chatting to one of our earliest and most supportive readers when he mentioned a spot of bother he’s been having with an apartment project in his hood in Melbourne.

Jeff Robinson, global sustainability manager from Aurecon, also well known to the rest of the industry for his famous and frequent questions at industry events says he’s gone to his local council and to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to prosecute his complaints. Now as a professional Robinson knows how to argue from an evidence-based perspective. As a professional in the development industry he is also keen to support density done well and not be a NIMBY, he stressed.

The problem with the project is lack of amenity and low standards. But despite the detailed analysis backed by a Powerpoint presentation, and good argument, no dice. The council looked blankly at him and dismissed the complaint. VCat likewise, leading him to mutter about considerable bias towards the developer, instead of the community.

One of his supporters then dragged The Fifth Estate into the fray. They printed out an article we ran on the same developer in question, heaping significant praise for a fabulous apartment project it had designed and built with quite high sustainability standards.

Things like meeting the Moreland Energy Foundation’s Sustainable Urban Development Framework. This had been a hit, the developer said, and would be used as a blueprint for all its other developments.

There would be LED lights, natural light, good ventilation, solar hot water and 6.5-star NaTHERS energy rating across the development and so on.

There would also be energy meters and information on how to run the efficient apartments.

Oh um…were we wrong? Did we inadvertently greenwash a poor performer and drink the KoolAid?

Well 6 star NatHERS is actually the law, Robinson, said so that’s not an indication of high performance. Gulp.

On the rest though Robins said it was pretty much correct. The company had indeed created a good quality high susty-achieving project. But on the other site, in his area, no such luck

So why the discrepancy?

Turns out Robinson is pinging the local council. One council cares, the other one doesn’t.

Melbourne, the CBD in particular, has had some huge adverse publicity about the quality of apartments, with radio commentators, community reps and architects alike slamming windowless boxes and human hovels designed for the student market and not much else.

The Property Council’s Jennifer Cunich, executive director of the Victorian division, is often at the wrong end of such attacks.

Cunich is at pains to point out that it’s often “not our members” doing the dodgy work. The top end of the industry which has a brand to protect goes to great lengths to do community consultation and produce good quality product, she says. Many people agree.

“Residential developers cop a hiding over this, but somebody approved it,” Cunich says.

“If you don’t want it, don’t approve it.”

In fact, she has a point. Developers will do what they are required to do. Generally.

What might be missing at the middle and bottom end of the market is the audit and compliance system to pick up the laggards and those who are outright cheating the system. We’ve written plenty about that recently.

Melbourne isn’t alone. A top Sydney architect has told us about a building in his area with asking prices of $3 million and $4 million for apartments off the plan, built with block wall construction, waterproof paint and plasterboard on the inside. That’s it. So, no insulation and the paint the “only thing keeping the water out of the building”, he told us. Another apartment block on Pacific Highway was built with no waterproofing in the bathroom, the same architect told us.

Sure enough the new buyers moved in and within weeks were all ripping out the bathrooms and starting again.

Ouch.

But while it’s not the top end developers under the pump, quality development and consistency of standards is a challenging issue that needs to be taken up by the industry, Cunich agrees. After all many developers talk in terms of wanting to “leave a legacy for future generations”, as she points out.

Could better standards be mandated at local council level?

There are 79 councils in Victoria, Cunich says – getting each council to raise its standards means you could end up with 79 different standards. Madness for developers.

Cunich thinks change needs to be instigated at state level. With state government working closely with councils and providing incentives for more sustainable outcomes – for instance funding for some of the infrastructure they need.

A carrot and stick approach.

That might work for councils. We’re not sure it would work for developers. There have been plenty of carrots in sustainability and unless it’s been a direct financial incentive or driven by demand from clients or investors, there’s not been a lot of progress. Just look at the B and C grade commercial buildings and the regular housing market. And besides the opportunity for trade-offs actually create greater uncertainty – the idea you can do a better deal might push developers to expect a better deal and do their financial projections accordingly.

Cunich can see the case for a cohesive minimum standards in councils and better overall standards gaining momentum.

And she says it’s coming from the materials sector where here’s a head of steam building around noncompliant materials coming into the country. “There are so many ways products come into the country. Someone is ticking off on it.”

What we don’t need is good high and consistent standards but no way to enforce them.

This can be seen throughout our society, in the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Tax Office, and consumer affairs agencies around the nation: plenty of good laws, just not sufficient resources  to catch those who ignore them, because these agencies are typically starved of sufficient funds to do their jobs properly. There are massive fines for directors creating environmental damage, for instance, plenty of damage to the environment and to human health (look no further than coal dust and mine spillages) yet to our knowledge no-one has paid the price as an individual. And it’s individuals who make the decisions that create the damage.

On all levels this is a story we need to end.

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