Patrick Bellew

Let there be columns, said Patrick Bellew, founder of Atelier Ten. “They’re not dangerous. No-one’s yet been killed by a column; people easily walk around them!” And they can save 20 per cent of a building’s carbon.

We’ve been banging on lately about people not talking to each other – nearly enough. We know everyone’s busy. But still – the planet is on fire and to save it depends on chat – formal, informal and incidental, as much as anything else.

The best click-throughs to that special part of the brain that drives change happen at live events. This is where the magic of human interaction sparks new stuff – energy, confidence and endorsement. It’s where you can test your fledgling ideas and see if they set off lights in someone else’s eyes.

At the Atelier Ten gig on Wednesday night, at the Cox Architecture studio at the northern tip of George Street in Sydney, founder Patrick Bellew mentioned that termites keep their mounds at a steady temperature of 30-31 degrees Celsius, via a kind of pheromone of communications. It might be the first known AI, he quipped.

Humans and events, same, maybe.

There were several almost audible “ahh” moments as Bellew, a guest of the Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, spoke and challenged the audience with innovative thinking and examples of the outstanding work his studio had done. This included taking cues sometimes from 16th century villas in northern Italy; sometimes termites, which inspired his labyrinth cooling system that he trialled in his early architectural days in the UK and later at scale at Federation Square in Melbourne.

Innovation is a challenging thing on its own. He noted a client who claimed to love innovation. “He just needed to see where it had been done before”.

Bellew seems to specialise in that wonderful gift some people have of breaking apart embedded thinking, which is possibly the key to our future. For instance, column grids. Developers love their floor plates big and airy and loose – so do interior architects but this adds massive numbers to the embodied carbon count, he said.

Instead, let there be columns, he said. They’re not dangerous. No-one’s yet been killed by a column; people easily walk around them!

“So a 12 by nine [column] grids or nine by six, means you’re saving 20 per cent in carbon for the whole building.”

And they can even be beautiful if you care to look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.

“And you know, it’s actually costing no extra to reduce carbon, which is usually the reason that people don’t do things.”

This was a master telling his story of how he took a small ambitious practice from Tottenham Road in London and turned it into a “family” of 300 or so at several locations around the world including to the Australian office managed by Paul Stoller.

The audience – 100 from our reckoning – listened carefully. They were an informed and engaged bunch of professionals working at the top of their game. And they seemed ready to be disrupted.

And why not? It’s where the rewards are increasingly agglomerating. Partly, thanks to the sustainability pressures from the top end of the investment universe meeting the bottom up grass roots movement, and creating an uncomfortable pincer movement for those caught in the middle.

And Bellew was offering solutions that would meet planetary needs while keeping clients happy.

The termites almost stole the show of course. These insects use the cool thermal updrafts below ground to regulate temperatures by opening and closing earth pores and bringing up drops of water from metres below their mound – to create a perfect environment “all without any formal architectural training at all” Bellew said.

It’s what the labyrinths do.

At Fed Square even with the rising Melbourne temperatures now hitting 45 degrees Bellew has been informed the comfort levels are still good.

But more needs to change.

Patrick Bellew founder of Atelier Ten in Sydney November 2023

“There’s a fundamental need, as we all know, to deal with the climate change issues,” he said. “And to rethink the relationship between different aspects of our design toolkit.”

But though the past 30 years have been focused on operational energy to slow the pace of global warming (or heating) the focus now is on embodied carbon.

The switch in thinking was “correct and logical growth”.

And if you really want to change, we humans have amazing powers of persuasion that can get super creative.

The British Land company, for instance. When it wanted to improve the carbon profile of its property portfolio it tied management bonuses to the carbon performance.

“That’s a game changer”, Bellew said.

“Because it suddenly means that the decisions that they’re going to make around embodied carbon are what they’re more interested in, shall we say.”

But the carbon intensity of the grid needs to be taken into account. In the Australian market, he knows that the carbon in the grid goes from about 280 grams per kilowatt hour on a sunny day to 680 at night thanks to coal dominating power supply but in the UK that number is about 150 on average.

But embodied carbon is more complex. “As an industry we don’t  really understand yet how to fix the embodied carbon properly.”

In London the Lord Mayor set targets of between 550 and 800 per square metre “and the whole industry pivoted to spending almost every meeting talking about nothing else.”

That’s one way.

Another way is the different kind of thinking that Bellew already mentioned.

“Once you know where the carbon is you can start to make very different decisions. You start to think, ‘Actually, I can make this super easy’.”

For instance, basements. These can add 25 per cent to the carbon in a building. Strange that so many basements are built to store bicycles, in order to avoid transport carbon, he noted wryly.

“So, this is my simple Idiot’s Guide to how to reduce embodied carbon in buildings. The first thing is, don’t knock them down unless you have to.”

Then don’t build basements.

As part of a panel discussion later Philip Oldfield, head of school at the University of New South Wales Built Environment Faculty Design and Architecture, said embodied carbon measurement was still very difficult in Australia.

A test on a one sq m brick wall yielded five results ranging from 26 kilograms of CO2 to 69 kg.

But these difficulties do not deter places such as France where there seemed to be no fear of regulation (as exists in this country).

France has set a carbon limit for a house of 700 kg of Co2 a sq m, Oldfield said.

Along with that is a 10 year trajectory so that every three years the amount of carbon allowed drops by 10 per cent so that by 2031, carbon in buildings will be 50 per cent lower.

In Denmark, he continued, “Every building’s got to have lifecycle analysis. Every single building has an annualized emissions cap of 12 kg CO2 per sq m.”

By contrast, he pointed to Australia’s building regulations, where NatHERS, the rating system used for energy efficiency in housing “sat at six stars for what, 11 years.”

Where Australia has “jumped a little bit ahead”, he said, is in the Sustainable Building State Environment Plan for NSW, which is a “lightning leap forward that to understand something, firstly, you need to measure it.”

At least that’s something.

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