Well, Tomorrowland was great – in the original sense. The non-pejorative sense, absent the connotations the word has been imbued with by that strange one in the US White House whose name shall no-longer-be-spoken.
We’ve had heaps of unsolicited fabulous feedback (hardly any that was solicited … fill in that Survey Monkey, folks!), mostly about the high calibre of the speakers, which anyone can see for themselves. But also for the density of the content (how we wish there was such quality of density in our urban fabric).
There were soaring ideas from Ian Lomas, a partner in the latest fabulous architectural practice to land on our shores, Make, which is working on Wynyard Place in Sydney. Lomas allowed us a glimpse into the thinking that unpins the future of our buildings, by not just looking at the need to be hyper flexible but also to learn from the buildings of the past.
From a bird’s eye view, we moved to zero in on the buildings themselves.
Arup’s Alex Sinickas was a hit with her view of technology.
“Technology is the answer,” she said, “but what was the question?”. Baby boomers and Millennials alike are more digitally connected, she said, but less actually connected (we reckon you can see it by the profusion of cafes and other “herding” grounds” frequented by both dominant clusters, each seeking the real to tug them away from the virtual.)
Also if, as Sinickas said, everything that’s inconvenient or hard will be automated and removed, what does that do for the human spirit and the joy of pushing past impossible odds or degrees of difficulty?
But what of our obsession and need in this world of growing cyberspace for a firm, solid built form that is as far removed from our digital devices and coming holograms as it’s possible to be?
As David Chandler, our latest star contributor to The Fifth Estate (see his articles here) told us on a trip to Western Sydney University to meet Kerry London, its new professor of Built Environment And Urban Transformation (and deputy dean of the school), the world will soon be constructing an eye-watering US$15 trillion worth of buildings by 2025.
Right now we use mostly virgin raw materials to build everything. But those natural resources are running out. So where are they going to come from?
As we heard at Tomorrowland they will come from what lies right before our eyes, some in their original form such as timber, some transformed or reconstituted and redeveloped because their form is past its use by date.
They will come from landfill that we will dig up with the same avariciousness with which some of us once dug up coal and precious metals. They will come from new forms of things already among us. Such as algae to power buildings, according to Paul Stoller from Atelier 10, or perovskite, a kind of mineral with a crystalline structure repurposed to produce high efficiency solar cells that can be painted onto surfaces, as Professor Anita Wing Yi Ho-Baillie told us.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla made the quest for new materials and new forms of materials accessible and entertaining. But then she would, as UNSW SM@RT Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology director, and a former television judge on The New Inventors.
Some of our worst materials will be made carbon free, such as cement we heard from Michael Lord, of Beyond Zero Emissions. Some are running out. Copper, for instance, we heard is already in short supply. On the other hand Christiana Figueres former UN climate boss told us recently that Australia has some of the most precious raw materials that will power a sustainable future and that we are sitting on the “golden eggs” of wealth and prosperity (we just have to decide to seize the day and not rue the ruins of filthy coal.)
Heading the session “Sci-fi has arrived” was robotics expert Dagmar Reinhart whose presentation we will cover in more detail in our ebook, but who told Lynne Blundell for a big feature piece that robots will be able to go where no human would dare or want to tread, such as into volcanoes where they can make bricks out of volcanic ash for us.
Key to remember, she said, is that robots are here for us (hold that thought).
“I’m not sure we want to take humans off the construction process. I’m more interested in how we can used 3D printing for sophistication of parts such as structural trusses or complex curved features. We can use it to produce modules, joints and moulds for concrete,” Reinhardt says.
“Production can be done in a tenth of the time and for a tenth of the cost.”
Reinhardt also tells us that robots can go into forests “where they can do a data scan of the raw material – the trees – and then harvest them very efficiently.”
Caroline Noller from The Footprint Company told the T’land audience that the equation was simple – we needed a carbon budget to build what we want and we need to stick to it. So if we really want a marble bench-top, fine, but give up the something else to keep within the equivalent of your share of one single single beautiful planet we want to keep, Earth.
Again we’re saving most of this for the ebook but it’s interesting to share how far this idea has travelled from Australia. Ahead of the event Noller picked up the phone from London. She was visiting Foster + Partners offices where the 1500 architects who make up one of the world’s leading architectural firms, and are leaders in 3D printing of concrete, possibly whole buildings sections and much else that is “quite incredible” and “top secret”, have become a tad smitten with Noller’s cabon metrics.
“They really like the One Planet philosophy, “ she told us. “How many planets does this development take? Because it seems to resonate with how big buildings and master planned cities need to be designed,” she says.
So they’re using it not just on big buildings but on cities, such as the one for six million people they are masterplanning in India. They want to know the sustainability properties of every component: how much food they need to grow, how much solar they need to generate, she says.
The investor panel
Now this stirred some serious interest, so annoyingly we’re not going to tell you too much here because we want to do a deeper dive into this.
First red flag was the conversation with Liam Timms from Lendlease. Property trusts, those Goliaths of the industry that so many people tried so hard to make a thing, in order to create stability and steady returns for superannuants, turn out to possibly be the opposite of what we need for the flexibility our fast changing world is demanding, or as the sub-text of our event ended up being, “ the need to design for the unknown”.
Michelle McNally of ISPT was first on the panel to speak and she made it plain that superannuation clients who were the ultimate investors in property trusts, wanted their money to be invested wisely.
This means managing risk, which is tricky in itself, she pointed out: “ there is the risk of doing something and the risk of not doing something.”
Timms, went further. “We operate in a highly structured environment,” he said, “highly regulated”. What REITS face, he said was the tension of people wanting flexibility and dynamic behaviour “moving up the operational curve” as he put it, balanced against the additional risk that brings and the nature of trusts, which must restrict themselves to passive income lest they incur the wrath of the tax lords in Canberra (our descriptor, ATO…)
“We’re not a business, we’re a trust for reasons that must be protected,” Timms said.
He quipped it was fine to point to Airbnb as unregulated and free to exploit the gaps in capitalism that leave excess capacity unused, as someone pointed out during the day, but in the end Airbnb was faced lax to non existent regulations; the most of which came via local councils.
By contrast, “We’re dominated by tax law that came out of the 80s in Canberra.”
At the end of the day it’s a risk rated return.
Investa’s Michael Cook thought sustainability was a commercial play.
“Part of the reason we’ve embraced sustainability is because it makes money, it saves money.”
He was glad companies such as Mirvac and Dexus had “knocked us off our perch” because it meant Australia now had five or six of the most sustainable property companies in the world.
But there were limits.
Tenants didn’t want natural ventilation; they wanted to keep the temperatures even and keep out pollutants and noise. Timber buildings were good, but could they go to 80 storeys?
Peri Macdonald from Frasers Property said that as pretty much a privately owned company (Singapore listed but owned about 99 per cent by a private family) there was more room to move. (Such as the amazing Brickworks site in Melbourne, that we wrote about here.)
“Our perspective is a bit different and it’s been a transition. When we’re looking at investing now we’re very much looking at long term, 20 to 30 years.”
Impact Group’s Andrews Coutts said his company wanted sustainable outcomes “that were pushing the environmental envelopes” but also those that could deliver very good returns.
Peter Morely of Dexus said it was important for buildings to be flexible and pointed to the mistakes of the past such as blackwater recycling systems that were not used water from them “cost four times” than water from a tap and to trigeneration plants that were never turned on because of the cost of gas.
But there is so much more to report on the investors… both from the event and what remained unsaid because time was against us. So we will be jumping back into this space soon.
After all this is the most important sector becasue it’s where decisions are made and if sustainability wants to make its mark there is no better place to concentrate.
More investor panels are Go!