News from the front desk: After a full day of robust discussion about redirecting the built environment along a less wasteful and carbon intensive path, on Wednesday morning The Fifth Estate woke up to NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet’s jovial hit list of Sydney buildings he’d love to demolish.
It took a moment to realise that this was not satire, something published in The Betoota Advocate or some other satirical publication, but a real article penned by Mr Perrottet himself (or more likely his media team, going into overdrive to turn his initial disparaging commentary about the White Bay Power Station into a big ol’ joke. Ha ha.)
The article caused a stir, as was no doubt intended, with some pleased to see the merits of building design up for public discussion at all.
But while the discussion centred around aesthetics, heritage and cultural value – which are all very important, The Fifth Estate agrees – what got little more than a passing mention was the environmental cost of demolishing these buildings to rebuild with something better suited to our apparent modern tastes.
Planning minister Rob Stokes did call for a balanced approach to knitting the old with the new, including assessing the potential for adaptive reuse for buildings that have fallen into disuse or disrepair.
Keeping our old buildings was a key takeaway from The Fifth Estate’s Building Circularity event on Tuesday, which assembled a diverse crowd of experts to discuss the transition away from a linear building and construction industry that is content to churn through fast-diminishing materials, spewing out carbon emissions in the process, to make way for the new and shiny.
A huge thanks to out co-lead sponsors, BVN and The Footprint Company, and supporting sponsors Built and Atelier Ten, as well as our star-studded lineup of speakers and moderators:
Chris Trott, Partner, Foster + Partners
Muir Livingstone, Partner, Foster + Partners
Paul Stoller, Atelier TEN
Sjoerd Post, Jasmax
Ashleigh Morris, Coreo
Simon Wild, Lendlease
Nicholas Wolff, Transport for NSW
Ninotschka Titchkosky, BVN
David Chandler, NSW Building Commissioner
Dennis Else, Multiplex
Lisa McLean, NSW Circular
Caroline Noller, The Footprint Company
Jonas Bengtsson, Edge Environment
Monica Richter, WWF
Glenn Carlton, Guardian Glass
Kim Bowden, Guardian Glass
Veena Sahajwalla, Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology, UNSW
Jason Zafiriadis, Wagner’s Earth Friendly Concrete
Robbie Svars, Vistek Engineers
Philip Oldfield, UNSW
Brendan Condon, Australian Ecosystems, Biofilta, Melbourne Skyfarm, The Cape Sustainable Housing Project
Caroline Pidcock, Architects Declare
Amanda Sturgeon, Mott MacDonald
In fact, speakers in our final session called for a serious rethink about what we are building, and where.
The concern is that if we are to have any chance of avoiding looming climate and biodiversity crises, we need to go further than “do no harm”. Instead, we need regenerative design that actively restores and heals our scarred and polluted landscapes, which will include drawing down more carbon into our urban spaces through greening, rewilding and other intriguing strategies, such as using biochar.
Achieving these regenerative outcomes is isn’t easy with extreme, high rise-level density, our speakers told us, which makes the Covid-generated shift back to our residential neighbourhoods an opportunity to reconsider where, what, and how high we should be building.
The reality is, however, that some new buildings will need to be built to accommodate our growing populations and evolving needs.
The good news is there are some great minds working hard to decarbonise the building fabric without sacrificing operational performance, and to keep building materials in perpetual use rather than ending up in landfill.
And much of this innovation, we heard, is driven by clients.
We learnt that the big tech companies are leaving others for dust when it comes to level of ambition, with our home grown Atlassian one of the best examples. For the software giant’s new Sydney headquarters, it’s aiming for 50 per cent less embodied carbon than a conventional build.
In New Zealand, a legacy of bi-culturalism makes sustainability a no-brainer. The government has granted the Whanganui river the same legal rights as a person, for example, which means you can be sued if you damage it.
We were reminded that technology holds so much promise to strip unnecessary material out of buildings and reduce the mountains of material offcuts and plastic wrapping found on construction sites.
Prefabrication is one way to improve efficiency and precision but we were told a failure to adapt the model to the Australian environment – a smaller market than Europe and with longer distances to travel – had been fatal for some of the pioneers.
We also heard that while robotics, AI and building scale 3D printing can unlock amazing circular opportunities – such as organic, aerodynamic ductwork made our of recycled plastic beautiful enough to be left on display rather than hidden under more materials – this sort of research and innovation is virtually non-existent outside a few leading companies.
In our Spanish-ish Inquisition into materials, our speakers put our most popular building materials through their paces. We know a lot of architects love concrete (and we’re pretty sure we heard NSW building commissioner David Chandler profess he loves the smell of concrete), so it was no surprise to see our “green judges” from the Inquisition keep to put Wagner’s Earth Friendly Concrete through all its paces. (Sadly, we didn’t manage to extract the secret recipe for this low carbon concrete, or the “secret sauce” as its ambassador put it).
The judges also turned up the heat on glass – another much-loved material – new high-tech materials such as green ceramics and engineered timber, which holds so much promise as the new-ish kid on the block but needs some refinement as a product and an industry to deliver on its sustainability claims (more on this in our upcoming ebook).
Our speakers also revealed that circularity is tough to achieve on an individual building scale – it’s far easier on a precinct or neighbourhood scale. We heard about the sustainability ambition of Sydney’s new Central Precinct (to be anchored by the Atlassian headquarters) and what developers can do to improve the circularity of existing building stock, with the “servitisation” of industries such as airconditioning one way forward.
The take away from our event ws that we have a long way to go to decarbonise the built form, and that there are still gaping big holes in our knowledge about the circular economy. One challenge is to define what it means with more than 100 various definitions cited at one stage.
And, as one speaker pointed out, it doesn’t help that most of our green building tools and rating schemes fall short of the circular ambition. Nor that prominent NSW politicians think aiming the wrecking ball at buildings they deem ugly is a wonderful opportunity to showcase their personality.
That’s why we’re calling on our readers to help us with insights or contributions to our new ebook on ways to accelerate circular and regenerative practices in the built environment, due early next year.
The ebook is a chance to dive more deeply into the issues we touched on at our event and create the industry guides we think are so valuable to carving out the future we want for this space.
We’re interested in expert contributions in particular. Send your outline to firstname.lastname@example.org.