We’ve all seen the maps and graphs and other terrifying infographics of what happens when we get to over 1.5 degrees warming.

All sorts of irreversible triggers are let loose and create a tipping point of  cascading ugliness. It’s not an extinction threat, said one social post this week but a planetary threat – everything, everywhere all at once. Goes up. In smoke. And fire.

Who amongst us is not bracing for another wicked summer? Evil in fact.

But buildings, those giant silent deadweight things we plant all around this beautiful planet and then proceed to inhabit and beautify and objectify and apologise for, contribute a whopping big part of the 75 per cent of emissions generated by cities. Buildings and transport are the worst offenders, says the United Nations Environment Programme.

After a while you might start to look at our big city buildings like you might cast a sidelong glance at Darth Vader.

Unless we do something to reverse their energy source – what they’re powered by.

Look, we know that big property portfolio owners and their managers love these big vertical beasts as much as the rest of us love our safe place on the planet, whether it’s a dream home or nook.

But with the big emissions profile that they have you can see where we’re going here.

We – all of us – have created this problem by our needs and wants.

Therefore, we also have the ability – the super power, actually – to do something about it and try to reverse a big chunk of the damage by simply switching our energy sources and tightening up the loose fiddly bits that lead to bad outcomes (we wouldn’t dream of running a car engine with so many gaps and fissures).

Instead of passive inert piles of concrete and glass, we need to see our buildings as living things –  soaking in energy as we do food, breathing out fumes as we do. If we treat our buildings like the doctor says we should treat our bodies, we can do this thing.

Yes, there’s a touch of madness in such words: who do we think we are, yadayadayada.

Luckily, we dreamers are not alone.

There is a bunch of other dreamers who are not ordinary folk like us wishing upon a star. They are smart, highly educated, alert, interested, engaged, observing and dedicated people who have studied the problem and are starting to grapple with an answer.

It’s tough stuff. There is so much riding on this group of quiet doers and thinkers.

And yet their ambitions are growing and so is their determination.

When we started cooking up the concept of our Festival of Electric Ideas we were hoping to coax out some of these wonderful people to share their work and what tomorrow could look like.

We ran the first masterclass #1 The Good Bones did this in spades.

The videos are now processed so all of you who are members of The Fifth Estate can soon see for yourself what happened and absorb the fantastic work that our panellists put in on the day: Frankie Muskovic from the Property Council of Australia, David Palin from Mirvac, Margot Black from Investa, Joe Karten from Built and Claire Bowles of i2C.

On Monday someone amped up the energy level again with an amazing briefing we held for the people who will present for Masterclass #2 Kit and Fit.

If you thought this might be a tad on the academic, engineering, nerdy side, sideline those views.

The entire hour (we had to put a hard stop to it eventually) was electric (pun not totally unintended).

Steve Ford and Dale O’Toole from GPT, David Clark from Net Positive, Andrew Bagnall from A.G. Coombs were so good someone suggested the session was a masterclass on its own.

Questions were raised. For instance: should we really put all the electric vehicle charging stations people want into basements of buildings? Is the upgrade to the infrastructure, the grid worth it?

Another question: who else attended the fire professionals’ conference the other day where the discussion included the 450 electric bikes and scooters that have caught fire in just the past 18 months?

Imagine if these were in the basement of a large CBD building. What kind of air extraction would you need to deal with lithium fires that are extremely difficult to quell? And then there are the people who proudly bought their $5000 ebike setting them up to charge overnight next to their work stations.

Maybe the future is one where we leave our cars charging safely on the street and catch the autonomous vehicle to work and use the basement for something more fun. Or lucrative.

Then there’s the harsh reality that to retrofit a major building and electrify it, maybe you slow down on your grand and glamourous plans and do things in the old fashioned step by step way – change the heating and cooling systems, the hot water, the cooking facilities in a planned and orderly way.

Maybe some buildings can’t be instantly transformed.

There was a question about all the mid tier buildings.

The glamour buildings at the top of the premium list have owners and managers who care for their assets – and their impact on planet and value. But how do we get to the mid tier building owners and get them engaged – that famous cohort of the 80 per cent who “don’t know don’t care”?

Maybe that’s where Masterclass #3 The Winners and the Finance kicks in.

The scope 3 reporting frameworks mean everyone from property owners to tenants and – most importantly, the banks –  need to know what the impact of their customers and suppliers is. How much energy they’re consuming; how much gas?

There are countless moving parts as scope 3 reporting extends its tentacles. The questions will end up as digital data but those numbers will underpin and give shape to the analogue world we want to continue to love and enjoy.

Transitions indeed.

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  1. Quote: ” Maybe the future is one where we leave our cars charging safely on the street and catch the autonomous vehicle to work …”
    or maybe we catch public transport to work, because most CAVs (connected AVs) are going to be single occupant. Mass transit is the transition we need.

    1. How about evaluation Local Government? Especially with Climate Emergency Declaration, they make much fuss that people in our community need to reduce emissions. But do they actually set good example? Engage with them so they can engage with the rest of us?


  2. Great to see a focus on thinking about buildings as living things, as carbon sinks and moving away from fossil fuel dependence. In this, there has to be the question of – should we simply be thinking that electrifying an ever-expanding infrastructure is the answer? Entire swathes of lands are being earmarked for lithium extraction to feed this market, being identified as ‘sacrifice zones’ to cater to the needs of already wealthy nations.

    Depressingly, this is replicating the same old patterns of rich nations extracting minerals from colonised, usually Indigenous, lands and leaving a trail of destruction, including the loss and displacement of human and non-human life. Here are some articles of relevance: https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2021/07/20/green-extractivism-and-the-limits-of-energy-transitions-lithium-sacrifice-and-maldevelopment-in-the-americas/ and https://www.nrdc.org/stories/lithium-mining-leaving-chiles-indigenous-communities-high-and-dry-literally.

    1. Thanks Louise. There is so much hidden, so much we don’t understand. I really appreciate this additional insight. The biggest most exciting thing I’ve heard in this whole retrofit/electrification masterclass series we’re running is that big new electric kit is not the magic bullet we would like… one unintended consequence is the heat that’s pumped into the surrounding outside air with heat pumps. However sealing up our buildings properly Passivhaus style dramatically lowers the amount of energy/electricity etc we need to run them and the size of the kit. And that even big commercial buildings can be retrofitted to near Passivhaus or close. Floor by floor, internal insulation. So many clever minds out there… it keeps me optimistic.