Today (Thursday) marked the first day of construction of what is soon to be Australia’s tallest timber building, and one of the world’s tallest.

But what should be a celebration of engineering feat in the use of low carbon cross-laminated timber and glulam, instead seems to have been met with incredulity by many in the general public.

We’ve noticed much of the social media commentary about this news seems to be outrage that we’re building with “flammable” materials like timber – haven’t we learned anything in the aftermath of Grenfell?

We need to put the false assumption that engineered timber buildings are unsafe to rest.

The Fifth Estate has been writing about the rise of engineered timber products as structural elements in tall buildings for years.

And as part of that coverage we have spoken extensively to industry leaders about the common perception that these materials pose fire risks.

What we’ve learned is that mass timber has qualities that make it as safe if not safer than other materials.

As Professor Jose Torero, head of the school of civil engineering at the University of Queensland, told us, “Timber can have the same or better reaction [to fire] as concrete and steel.”

And as NDY’s Tony Arnel wrote for us last year, while it’s true that timber is a combustible material, it has significant insulating properties and burns in a slow, predictable way.

“Researchers in the UK, particularly those working with BRE, the Building Research Establishment, have found fire brigades prefer to enter a burning mass timber building than a steel and concrete one, because the timber building is less likely to collapse and does not release the same hazardous toxins,” he wrote.

“Researchers have also concluded that thick timber provides superior insulation and can outperform steel, which can buckle and otherwise deform in a fire.”

Fitzpatrick + Partners principal Rod Pindar told Willow that timber charred, protecting the inside of a structural beam, helping to maintain structural strength.

These are things we’ve heard multiple times.

Willow backed up what we’ve been saying for years again today, interviewing Dr Mary Hardie, director of Academic Programs Construction Management and Building Design at Western Sydney University, who said the view that the Grenfell fire was proof tall timber should not be risked for residential buildings was “rubbish”.

“Timber is quite resistant to fire; it is in some cases more resistant than other materials.”

Just take a look at this fire test Strongbuild did on one of its CLT floor panels earlier this year.

It passed with flying colours, and the company’s CLT products can now be used in projects up to 25 metres.

Let’s hope governments show sense rather than cowing to popular but misinformed beliefs.

Engineered timbers like CLT offer hope for a cheaper, less carbon intensive form of development, and multiple opportunities for Australian businesses. Let’s not forget that.

Let’s not go back to dog boxes under the guise of affordability

Speaking of cynical moves, the Urban Taskforce’s call to water down NSW’s apartment amenity standards this week takes the cake.

The developer lobby is using an affordability crisis to lobby for the relaxation of amenity standards in “urban precincts”, using a comparison with the less regulated Melbourne market to argue that we’re adding $150,000 to each Sydney apartment, thanks to pesky things like minimum sizes, habitable rooms, having some sun in winter and cross ventilation – part of apartment design standards in State Environmental Planning Policy 65 (SEPP 65).

“With housing affordability being such a big issue in Sydney we thought we should check out the relative standards that apply in Sydney compared to Melbourne and Brisbane,” Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said.

“We were amazed at the results of … independent research that demonstrated that the average two bedroom, two bathroom apartment in Sydney that is costing $750,000 could be bought for $600,000 if Melbourne standards were applied.”

First, Melbourne apartments aren’t really a great yardstick to measure apartments by, particularly under the old rules that former Victorian government architect Geoffrey London told us had left a “dreadful legacy” (some think the new rules will still do the same).

There is an argument that NSW’s minimum apartment size minimums are over-prescriptive and that tiny apartments with high amenity standards could be created with a little innovation.

But an article this week in BloombergAs Hong Kong Flats Shrink, Developers’ Coffers Swell – found that a housing affordability crisis in Hong Kong had led to developers creating units that were 5.7 square metres – slightly smaller than a nearby jail cell at Stanley Prison.

The Society for Community Organisation worked with photographer Benny Lam for an exhibition on the realities of micro apartments

Mental distress has been an outcome but, unfortunately, affordability has not.

“The overall impact has been not so much cheaper housing as skyrocketing per-square foot prices and rising profits for Hong Kong’s developers, whose shares trade close to all-time highs.”

The article said prices of apartments smaller than 40 square metres had more than doubled since late 2010 and continue to reach new records. Homes 160 square metres and above are still below a 2013 peak.

One Hong Kong law maker called the situation “hilariously absurd”.

But we’re not laughing.

The argument about smaller apartments and related diminished amenity standards has been progressed in Australia before by property lobbies, especially during the time Melbourne debated increasing its apartment amenity standards.

At that time, Australian Institute of Architects president Ken Maher told ArchitectureAU:

“You can’t use an argument for affordability to say that you can deliver sub-standard outcomes for the community – particularly apartment buildings – because they’re long-term building stock.

“It’s a complex issue, not simply a matter of calculating an extra area or some other provisions and saying that’s going to cost you an extra $120,000. It sounds like a compelling argument, but it’s a very narrowly based and simplistic argument, which I think distorts the real situation and therefore I’m quite concerned about seeing that kind of position being pushed.”

Even the Property Council has conducted a survey where 82 percent of respondents agreed SEPP 65 had led to improved design, with relatively minor impact on affordability.

Like with affordable housing targets or sustainability targets, the idea that increased standards will easily translate into higher prices for homes doesn’t have a great deal of support.

But the Urban Taskforce is confident the new NSW planning minister is taking its demands seriously.

“The Urban Taskforce has an expectation that changes may be supported by the NSW government as the recently released ‘Plan to Improve Housing Affordability’ included as Policy 18 ‘The minister for planning will issue guidelines to facilitate smarter and compact apartments.’”

It would be nice if these changes would lead to increased affordability, but as the Hong Kong situation shows us, it’s definitely not a given and could just end up lining developers pockets while residents suffer from poorer amenity.

What’s clear is we need to challenge misleading statements or ideas that could undermine the sustainability and amenity of our homes.

And if we think that the NSW government is going to protect amenity then take a look at Tim Williams’ article on how it wants to plough yet more freeways through sensitive areas, this time Western Sydney Parklands and Royal National Park, and after the disaster of the WestConnex.

2 replies on “News from the front desk: Issue No 344 – On why we must fight back on cynical anti-sustainability sentiment”

  1. Talk about sensational journalism. The Front Desk in attacking the Urban Taskforce raising the issue of apartment amenity as related to affordability (could we save a few square metres) is fronted with headlines about “Dog-Boxes” and photographs of tiny cramped space. According to a number of reports Australia has the largest average home size in the world and to suggest there is no link between this and the cost of these homes is hard to believe. All our research did was look at the new Victorian “Better Apartment Design Standards” brought in on 13 April 2017, after a few years of discussion, to see how they relate to the NSW “Apartment Design Guide”.

    The difference is a saving of $150,000 on an average Sydney apartment if the Victorian standards were used. So an apartment currently selling for $750,000 would be sold for $600,000. That is a big contribution to affordability. And it is not on about “Dog-Boxes” as the Melbourne/ Victorian two bedder can still be 65 square metres which is well above the standards used by the rest of the world.

    Rather than a knee-jerk reaction against any question of trying to help affordability by reviewing amenity standards one would expect a newsletter sprouting concern for sustainability to support a revew of what may well be excessive standards. Think of applying the logic to cars… big, chrome, is better than compact.

    Chris Johnson
    CEO Urban Taskforce

  2. I can’t believe I’m reading this. It’s an ancient quotation from a very old textbook I had:

    “Researchers in the UK, particularly those working with BRE, the Building Research Establishment, have found fire brigades prefer to enter a burning mass timber building than a steel and concrete one, because the timber building is less likely to collapse and does not release the same hazardous toxins”

    I remember reading these exact words in our Building Science textbook when I was in architecture school in 1976! I remember doubting that there were any ‘mass timber’ buildings in the UK apart from historic buildings at the time it was written.

    A bit of history: Timber wasn’t grown in large enough quantities in the UK to build anything except ships or palatial country houses. Most timber was imported from the Baltic region (aka ‘Baltic pine’ as it’s known in Australia, ‘Deal’ in the UK) from the 17th century. It came sawn and was used as conventional timber framing and weatherboards all around the coast and in East London. Massive oak framing was pretty much over after that time, because of the navy’s huge need for it, and the cost of green oak framing was high compared to imported timber. The only exceptions were oak for panelling, furniture, open church roofs and so on, and only in the highest quality of work. Everything else was built with imported timber from c.1700.

    And smoke from burning timber is just as toxic as any other kind of smoke. You’ll still die from inhaling enough of it.

    Where are the full scale tests? We thought overcladding was safe until Lacrosse and Grenfell! I think we need a bit more reassurance, more than a simple box fire test, anyway. What about flame spread up a highrise facade, as happened unexpectedly in the Lakananal House fire, and in the Beijing Television Cultural Center fire?

    I applaud the use of timber in building, but we need to be sure that it performs very well indeed in fires.

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