News from the front desk, issue 489: In exciting news, it looks like builders and tradies might finally have a way to collaborate and learn from each other.

Over recent times, we’ve become intensely more aware of how important the construction industry is to sustainability and the entire climate movement. Strange? Well, we’ve been concentrating on the more business, investment and design end of the built environment – strategy, logic, design, policy, sustainability, social change, and so on to improve our planet’s prognosis.

But no amount of great design or noble intent matters a jot if the end product is a law unto itself. Construction as far as we are aware is still responsible for a massive 30 per cent of global waste and around 40 per cent of global carbon emissions.

That’s our built environment sending us in a direct line to our own metaphoric landfill. In another of life’s grand ironies, it means our love and need of buildings and other structures that we lump onto Mother Earth to make us more comfortable are the very things that will make us severely uncomfortable in the long run.

But there’s now growing frustration with poor-quality buildings that lead to even greater waste than business-as-usual – of resources, money, people’s time and often sanity. In NSW, at least, the state’s building commissioner David Chandler is tackling that issue and it looks like he’s encouraged the state to back his ambitions with legislation and some clout in terms of resources to turn this Titanic around.

Other states are eyeing off the changes and watching closely, perhaps a little envious of his role and wondering how to motivate their own industries to tackle the systemic change needed to shift the dial towards better.

Several have contacted him to glean some insights. Or collaboration. Chandler is busy though. He’s got a massive task in front of him to deal with just one state.

Clare Parry from Grun Consulting, a stalwart of the Passive House movement who spoke to us in an interview (coming soon) last week from her family’s new PH home, says that her favoured building technique is in large part a response to widespread poor building quality. In 20 years, she says, quality has deteriorated dramatically.

Why? It’s not just in buildings. It’s in everything, she says. We want faster, bigger, cheaper. We’ve lost the art of the one well-made thing that lasts a lifetime and yields joy and instead opted for the consumer/advertising led fantasy that more is more.

In terms of our homes, you only have to look at the beautiful jewel of a house in Sydney’s inner-city Darlington by CplusC Architectural Workshop (the videos are highly recommended) on less than 100 square metres of land to see how exquisite design and natural textures can trump vast spaces.

You don’t usually need a lot in terms of volume – which uses hard natural resources – if you substitute instead the soft resources of creativity and brain power, which have a much lighter footprint on the earth.

But how do we move on from a construction industry in a deathly spiral of cost and quality cutting, responding of course to the demands that clients and our whole economic and social models place on it? After all, the builders give us what we ask for. And if not explicitly then implicitly as we turn a blind eye to their solutions to our pressure to cut costs.

What this has led to, we gleaned from our growing conversations about this sector and also from the NSW building commission during his feisty panel appearance at our Tomorrowland event last year, is that the industry is a tough cabal to break into. It’s sealed shut.

Its members don’t generally collaborate. They don’t trust each other and certainly don’t share notes to learn from each other anything like the property investment industry does, which is possibly one of the best examples of co-opetition in business – essential for forward momentum.

Construction businesses are focused on their own intensely personal interests, and for good reasons. They work under massive pressure: tight deadlines, cost pressures, workforce pressures, skills shortage, and so on. They probably have very little headspace left to consider bigger picture issues of how to move the industry forward on gigantic issues such as sustainability or climate impact.

But now, in news that is probably the most encouraging we’ve heard for a long time, the builders are joining the growing Declare movement. They’re putting up their hands and saying they too want to be part of saving the planet, not putting it in our metaphoric landfill.

In thrilling news, we bring you the story this week of how a group of 10 passionate building and construction businesses declared climate and biodiversity emergencies.

These brave builders – first for Australia and, they believe, the world to do so – are going to create the most fabulous blueprint for others to follow. It will be a wonderful story to watch unfold.

Already there’s now 70 signatories and counting and it’s expected that European builders will follow, with tier 1 global construction company Multiplex a driving force behind the climate emergency movement in that region. Well done!

On behalf of all of us, here’s a massive thanks and congratulations to the people who kicked this off: Aligned Building, Sustainable Homes Melbourne, Granted Construction, Positive Footprints, Michael Limb Builders, Sanctum Homes, G-Lux Builders, RICCON Development & Construction, Green Building Institute and Crisp Green Homes.

Green Building Institute’s Daniel Wurm told Poppy Johnston that what inspired him was the lack of tradespeople sighted at the climate strikes in September last year.

“Purposefully flying the high vis colours himself as he marched the streets, Wurm asked a few tradies still working on sites why they weren’t joining the march,” the story goes.

“Their response? ‘Well, what can we do, we can’t just stop driving our utes?’”.

Wurm says that might be the case but two things counter the sense of impediment to change.

One is that utes might soon be all electric and two is that, as Wurm says, “Even though it’s a declaration of the climate emergency, it’s not a negative message. It’s recognising that there’s something we can do about it.”

In the words of Simon Clark, a founder of Sustainable Homes Melbourne, builders get a “brains trust” to unlock best practice.

There’s a caveat here. We’ve seen architects, planners, engineers and now builders in the Declare movement. We have yet to see developers do the same. There is much commitment to sustainability and climate action at the corporate level but not an outright industry commitment.

Come on Aussie developers: lead the world!

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  1. Part of the climate movement and upskilling of trades should be universal design and accessibility in all new homes. Think of the saved embodied energy in building materials going to landfill because the occupants MUST have renovations or modifications to their home. They must have them because they can’t function without them, and for older people it would mean going to an institution sooner rather than later. The ABCB Consultation RIS on accessible housing has missed the point.