Dr Nirmal Kishnani

25 February 2014 — Green has become a brand preoccupied with extracting efficiencies, while sustainable is a more local, holistic approach, the National University of Singapore’s Dr Nirmal Kishnani tells Louis White ahead of an Australian lecture series.

In just over two years Australia has had 184 building projects – from schools to shopping centres, hospitals to offices, including both base buildings and interiors – achieve 5 or 6 Star Green Star ratings.

Australia has many standout buildings leading the way for other companies to follow. There is the ANZ bank’s purpose built building (6 star Green Star – Office Interiors v1.1 rating) in the Docklands, Melbourne that is using 12 per cent less electricity annually, resulting in $180,000 savings a year. And the University of Melbourne’s new purpose-built “The Spot” (5 star Green Star –- Education PILOT rating) is using 46 per cent less energy in its first year, saving $200,000.

But where does Australia sit in the wider community of being a leader in green and sustainable buildings, especially amongst its Asian neighbours?

“Many look to Australia for what is happening in green design,” Dr Nirmal Kishnani, programme director for the school of design and environment at the National University of Singapore, says. “Performance figures are of course important but I am also struck by how aesthetically appealing and integrated your buildings are.

“I am chief editor of the FuturArc magazine, which covers green in Asia; we struggle sometimes to find examples that are both well engineered and architecturally appealing. This is something that the Australian buildings do well. There is a strong design sensibility here. A green building should speak to our senses, not simply our pockets.”

Dr Kishnani, currently undertaking an Australia-wide tour to speak about the green building debate, and author of the newly released book Greening Asia – Emerging Principles for Sustainable Architecture, believes it is important we distinguish between green and sustainable, and ensure people and/or companies just don’t copy buildings without doing their research.

“Green and sustainable are not the same,” Dr Kishnani says. “Green has become a brand; it is preoccupied with how we engineer performance and how we extract savings and efficiencies. Green move freely across borders; there is a sameness to assessment checklists in Australia and Asia. We buy the same chillers, the same façade systems.

“Sustainability is much more local in its outlook. It’s about using what one has, what is found onsite or in the region. It’s about learning from where we are, re-connecting with history and ecology. There are many outstanding examples of this.

“The Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipiur, India, for instance, is thoroughly modern; no one will mistake it for anything else. But it derives its ideas from history and climate. In the end it uses far less energy than many green-certified buildings in India.

“I think we must be careful what we export. By ‘we’ I speak of developed countries like Australia and Singapore. Sustainability is about the specificity of location. Notwithstanding the global consequences of how we building, sustainable design should not become a global ‘style’.”

And herein lies the reason why so many green and sustainable buildings are undertaking individual development. The consortium of architects, engineers, builders and the like involved in initial concept through to finished design ensures that each has its owns unique take on how to achieve the optimum building that will not only save energy but utilise nature’s natural conditions to ensure maximum productivity for all parties concerned.

The IPD Australia Green Property Index, which tracks the investment performance of commercial office buildings awarded an environmental rating from Green Star, NABERS Energy and NABERS Water, states that as of December 2013, the green database represents $58 billion of office buildings, reflecting 93 per cent of office assets by value in the IPD database.

Green Star (Design and As Built) rated office assets delivered a total annualised return of 10.3 per cent to December 2013, outperforming the all office market by 60 basis points.

“It’s good that green in Australia speaks directly to buyers and translates to premiums on rent and purchase price,” Dr Kishnani says. “I recently concluded a public survey in Singapore in which the feedback was that the majority of home buyers are prepared to a pay a premium of three to four per cent for a green home. This was, however, only an expression of opinion; I am not aware of data to suggest that this has actually taken place in real-estate transactions.

“My suspicion is that it does not. The players most persuaded by green labelling are multinationals that move to Asia and want their address to be a part of their CSR statement. We are also seeing many hotels and resorts play the green card as it affects how affluent travellers perceive them. Asians themselves are, on the one hand, highly practical. Is the apartment I am buying near a school and amenities? Is the office space I rent near public transport? Green credentials are a bonus that few will actively request. On the other hand, some are terribly brand conscious. We see a lot of buildings promoted as the work of celebrity architects. Here, green seems to matter even less.

“Until green starts to speak more persuasively on quality of life – health, comfort, wellbeing – we will not answer the consumer’s expectations. By ‘speak’ I do not mean just marketing. It is how we define green and what we reward in its name.”

Dr Kishnani worries that the business case for green buildings is entirely dependent upon the country in which you are living. He argues that where utilities and labor costs are low, there is little incentive to do much by the way of how buildings are constructed and operated.

He states that saving, say, 30-40 per cent on utilities bills in a Singapore home would only equate to a saving of between $50-$80 a month, about the cost of a meal in a restaurant.

“In much of Asia, the emerging middle class is aware of global risks like climate change, but appears more concerned with day-to-day wellness and local risk,” Dr Kishnani says. “Is the green building healthier? Can it cope with the next flood? I believe we need to present greening not simply as a way of doing less harm; it must also be a way to do more good. We must make green more attractive to the occupant, to the consumer. This calls for a change in what we recognise and reward.

“The current emphasis on technology and efficiency speaks to one audience – building owners and consultants – but it does not persuade the user necessarily. This group is interested in quality of life. And this, not surprisingly, is about simpler things like access to air and daylight, shade and comfort, connectivity with the outdoors and to nature.”

In OECD countries the built environment is responsible for around 25-40 per cent of total energy use, 30 per cent of raw material use, 30-40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and for 30-40 per cent of solid waste generation.

In addition, in OECD countries, people spend almost 90 per cent of their life inside buildings. In the United States, the annual cost of building-related sickness is estimated to be $58 billion. Consequently, healthy and comfortable indoor environments contribute significantly to human health and wellbeing and offer a large potential for reducing “external” costs to societies through lowering diseases.

The case has to start with ensuring that Australians and the world understand the importance and significance of green and sustainable starts with education.

Universities in Australia are not only teaching sustainable design and a range of subjects around the broader topic but are practicing what they preach by commissioning and completing purpose built 5 or 6 Star Green rated buildings.

The University of Melbourne Energy Institute and the climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions have produced a paper, The Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan, that sets out a strategy to retrofit Australia’s buildings to reduce energy bills, generate renewable energy, increase comfort levels and make workplaces more productive. This is just one of many initiatives going on around the world to improve our daily life.

But Dr Kishnani believes the education needs to start earlier.

“To make a difference through education however we must go further upstream,” Dr Kishnani says. “By the time young people get to university, many have fully formed opinions and values. We need to teach environmental stewardship in early years of schooling. Schools should also be more than classrooms and labs.

“We’ve witnessed interesting models emerge in recent years across Asia. Some schools engage the community through farming. Others generate resources such as water and energy that is shared with the neighbourhood. The Green School in Bali is a powerful example of what can happen inside and outside the classroom. From elegant bamboo architecture to community farming, from curriculum to pedagogy, this is an exciting model of what and how we should teach, if we want young people to become agents of change.”

Louis White is a media consultant for the Holcim Foundation.

Nirmal Kishnani is giving a series of lecturers entitled “Between green and sustainable: Emerging ideas for Asia” as a guest of the Holcim Foundation around Australia between Monday, February 24 to Friday, February 28. Details