Sid Thoo

12 May 2014 — Association of Building Sustainability Assessors chair Sid Thoo recently spoke at the DesignBUILD conference on “the future of sustainability”. Following is the first part of an edited transcript of his presentation, where Sid talks about his thoughts on the term sustainability, why it needs to be thought of as more than an added extra, and why an article in The Fifth Estate means he’ll probably never be invited to speak at a Green Cities conference.

My name is Sid Thoo and I’m the chair of a non-profit organisation called the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors. My seminar is entitled “The Future of Sustainability”, but it should actually have a question mark on the end of the word sustainability.

That doesn’t sounds anywhere nearly as sexy when you say the future of sustainability, which implies a lot of forward looking and stargazing.

But in this presentation I was hoping to do a little bit more introspective navel gazing, because I think there’s some big questions about sustainability that we still haven’t answered and, hopefully, I can shed some light and provide some opinion or thoughts on what they may be.

I’m an architect by trade in addition to being the chair of ABSA and I thought given that it’s DesignBUILD we would have quite an eclectic mix of occupations and professions attending today.

So I thought I’d start with some definitions and why not start with the key professions in our industry? So I’ll start with myself being an architect. So an architect is someone who knows a little bit about a lot and goes through their career knowing less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

An engineer, on the other hand, is a person who knows a lot about a little and goes through their career knowing more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.

And then there are, of course, builders who start off knowing something about everything but end up knowing nothing about anything because of their association with architects and engineers.

So if you humour me in my introspective navel gazing, I thought I would start at the beginning, that is, the beginning for me in terms of where my journey of sustainability began. So I studied architecture at the University of Western Australia. I graduated with Honours. I hated it.

I did something else for two-and-a-half years. I came back to the profession and I began working as an architect. I worked for a boutique, quite exclusive architect who designed houses in the very rich and affluent western suburbs and I guess I learnt my craft of being an architect designing houses for rich people.

So this [image] is a house – the house was already designed. I designed that carport at the front of the house. Would you care to hazard a guess as to how much that carport cost?

Audience member: “If you designed it, $200,000.”

Two hundred thousand? I can do better than that. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I designed a $300,000 carport.

No. That really doesn’t deserve a round of applause. I am told – because I actually left the practice before this underwent construction – that the final build cost came up closer to $400,000. The doors on the front of the garage, the carport, cost $90,000 and I don’t tell you this anecdote to impress you but rather to impress upon you – as Anthony Robbins would say – that I just woke up one day and looked in the mirror and said, “What the? Like really? Is that the most positive contribution that I can make as an architect to the built environment?”

And so that started a series of questions, very difficult questions, that I didn’t really have an answer to. And at the time, I guess I had always had an interest in the environment and sustainability and I was part of the school environmental group and I did paper recycling. All that kind of stuff.

But I studied architecture and no one, bar one of my lecturers, talked about sustainability – and he talked about it in terms of how we improve building performance. He was my architectural science lecturer. And apart from that it wasn’t discussed and I came to the wrongful conclusion that sustainability wasn’t important. That it wasn’t an issue. That is wasn’t something that we as a profession had to be responsible for.

I got out into practice, started working on projects like this and eventually had to say, “Well, hang on a minute, maybe there is something here that’s not being discussed that does need to be discussed.”

The beginning of the sustainability journey

So about the time when I started my journey on sustainability, this amazing thing called Green Star started to rear its head and make its presence known to the industry. And I’d read about Green Star and I thought about becoming a Green Star-accredited professional. And I guess I asked myself a question when I started hearing about all the fantastic things that the Green Building Council of Australia was doing, where I said, “What if I’m too late? What if they’ve already worked out everything we need to know about how to design sustainable energy efficient environmentally friendly buildings?”

Boy, was I wrong. So last year – end of last year – I was interviewed, very kindly interviewed by The Fifth Estate, which some of you might be familiar with, and they interviewed me for this article here: Sid Thoo: real sustainability in buildings a long way off. And I made some fairly outlandish and audacious claims where I said that there’s no such thing as sustainability in buildings, that Green Star is a victim of its own success. And, needless to say, I made some very important people not very happy. And the alternative title for this article is “Why Sid Thoo will never be invited to speak at a Green Cities conference”.

This was before I became involved with ABSA. I joined the board and subsequently got nominated as chair. And I guess it was a response to some of the things that I’d been thinking at the time, so I’ve come full circle.

I’d now started to become a jaded, cynical bastard when it came to sustainability. And I guess I – to try to find the middle ground – so where I started, where I ended up, coming back to where it is that we need to be in order to move forward.

And that’s what today’s presentation is on. We know how to design sustainable buildings. We have the technology, we have the knowledge, we have the experience. We know what we can do in order to improve the environmental performance of buildings and to minimise the impact on the environment. But the big question is, why are we not doing it? And by that I mean, why is that not every single building that gets built in Australia and around the world not a more sustainable building?

And I guess there’s two anecdotes that I’m familiar with that I think are relevant here. I was listening to this podcast and they cited two examples of where, perhaps, sustainability and the discussion around sustainability has gone a bit awry. First of all was in Japan with buildings that have wind turbines – that those wind turbines have little motors built into them that make the fans turn or the blades of the turbine turn when it’s not windy so that it looks like they’re moving. So they’re actually using electricity to drive a wind turbine that’s not generating any renewable energy

Secondly, there was an economic paper published by a fairly prestigious university in the US that observed the phenomenon known as conspicuous conservation, where they surveyed a bunch of households in the US who had installed solar PV on their roofs and found that a significant portion of those houses had installed the solar PV not so it had the optimal orientation for collecting solar radiation but so that it was visible from the street so that people could see that they had solar panels.

So when I heard stories like that, that made me think, “Well hang on a minute, there’s still a question here that remains unanswered. If we know how to do it, why aren’t we doing it?”

And I’ve realised that knowing how is not the same as knowing why. So for me, the word sustainability or sustainable and all of its various metamorphoses and variations, it has lost its meaning. And I think it’s very important that we bring meaning back to that word.

Banning the s-word?

I’d like to read a brief quote from a blog post that I found on the Arup website. You may know Arup as a very large multinational, multidisciplinary consulting firm, very strong in area of environmental design and sustainability. And this was by one of their project managers, personal thoughts, and they pretty much reflect my own.

So the article was called “Time to ban the s-word” and this is an excerpt.

“It’s time to stop talking about sustainability. Sustainability as a word has come to embody everything from reducing carbon emissions to increasing profit. It is a word that has become amorphous and increasingly meaningless through overuse and misapplication. It is a verb, a noun and an adjective. It is an aspirational lifestyle and a quasi-religion. It is an unwelcome cost and an administrative burden. It is also a principle.

“As the ideas it embodies have increased, the references to the term have multiplied, so that now it encompasses everything from urban drainage systems to improving education. As a result, no one seems to be exactly sure what it means or what it includes.

“In today’s business world, the principle of sustainability should be synonymous with the best design and good business practice – with ensuring the long-term economic, environmental and social success of an organisation, its products and services.

“But having a single, separate word that can be applied to everything perpetuates an inaccurate notion that sustainability is something that can be finished – a box that can be ticked – as opposed to an approach that requires ongoing review and effort.

“Ironically, as the word sustainability continues to grow in use, and the important concepts it covers multiply, its perceived value and reputation diminishes.”

That resonates quite strongly with me. And for a very long time, I thought that we needed to get rid of the word sustainability; we need to find another word.

But there’s nothing wrong with the word. The word means what it means and it means to be able to do something over and over again without bad stuff happening or as a result. And I think, fundamentally, the word still hasn’t changed. It’s just that we’ve gone through this overuse and misapplication of the word, which has, therefore, derived it of its original intent and meaning.

So I think it’s about consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with the word, it’s just that we use it so flippantly and we go, “Oh yeah, we’ve done that because it’s sustainable. We’ll make it sustainable. That’s all about sustainability.” When really we’re not saying anything and we’re not actually objectifying or quantifying what it is that we mean to be sustainable. So for example, if you notice that I tend to use the word more sustainable. I don’t see sustainability as this end destination, this thing that will definitely be achieved at the end of the project. I believe that we should aim for more sustainable, better sustainability, improved sustainability, because it does imply that there’s always something more that we can otherwise do.

Having established that we need to bring meaning back to the word, it’s not an optional extra. It’s more like a steering wheel than a sun roof or a nice set of rims on your car.

I was involved in a project, a mixed use commercial residential development in Perth, and it had a quantity surveyor who’d prepared the cost estimate for this project. It was a $20 million project. I was one of the architects bidding for the work. The client was interested in using me as an architect because of the things that I do – sustainably, environmentally – there I go, I’ve just gone and used the word meaninglessly… but because of my reputation with trying to design more sustainable buildings.

And I was looking through the quantity survey and the bill of estimates and they had this line item – ESD features add 20 per cent. And that’s how ESD and sustainability and attempts to make buildings more sustainable are generally understood by the building and construction industry.

It’s an extra cost – end cost – that you add to the project after you’ve done everything that you otherwise normally do in order to get a building up and off the ground. And if that’s the way we see sustainability, if that’s the way we think about ESD features then we’ve missed the point.

Because if it’s an add-on, if it’s something that you tack on at the end of the project or you think that it’s not intrinsic to the design and the way you approach the design, then it’s always going to cost more; it’s always going to be difficult to justify the cost benefit analysis. And more often than not, it actually reduces or produces a perverse, not beneficial outcome.

So I think that line of thinking needs to change. So back to that original question – why is it that if we know how to make sustainable or more sustainable buildings, why are we not doing that? And for me, it’s come down to this. I think it’s ultimately a moral choice and that we have to be ethically justified to ourselves why it’s important.

Now, there’s a lot of debate and philosophical conjecture about the difference between morals and ethics. And I guess the way it is for me is this – morality is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing; ethics is the way in which you justify and demonstrate your understanding of the principles behind why you stand with those morals.

So I guess first of all we have to say, well, we do it because it’s the right thing to do and then secondly is now we understand why we think that’s important.

Change is slow: look at the chimney-sweep

And let me cite an example, no doubt many of you will be familiar with this character from the famous Walt Disney film Mary Poppins, Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, and he plays this quite affable and very genial chimney-sweep.

But if you know anything about Victorian England and Victorian times, this was actually more the reality of people that worked sweeping out chimneys. I’d just like to read some historical information about the practice of using young child labour in the sweeping of chimneys in Victorian England.

So the life of a chimney-sweep in Victorian times was nothing like what you see in Mary Poppins. It was a brutal dreary existence for Victorian chimney-sweeps. Some were as young as three years old. Their tiny size made them a popular choice for going down narrow chimney stacks. Being sent down a chimney would cause the child’s arms, elbows, legs and knees to be rubbed and scraped raw. At times their knees and elbows looked like there was no skin on them at all. Their bosses would then wash their wounds with saltwater and send them down another chimney without sympathy. Falling down a chimney was a major occupational hazard and death for young children stuck in chimneys was not uncommon. The constant breathing of soot caused irreversible lung damage in many children. There were a few reported cases of children getting stuck in chimneys and no-one ever even knowing about it, leaving them to die alone of exposure, smoke inhalation or worse. Quite often children were underfed in order to make it easier for them to fit down chimneys and it wasn’t actually even necessary to use child labour – you could clean a chimney just as effectively using brushes and the tools of a sweep rather than having to actually send child labour down there.

So the first law that was enacted in Victorian England was in 1788 which was the Chimney Sweepers Act where they banned the use of children under the age of eight. Awesome. Before that, children as young as three or four could be used in the act of chimney sweeping. They brought in new legislation in 1840 and then in 1875 they brought in yet more legislation after a child died sweeping out a chimney hospital, and it was because one fairly influential lord took to Parliament and got the Act through.

The point I’m getting to here is this is that you and I in 21st century Australia wouldn’t even contemplate sending children down a chimney to sweep it. I’ve got a four-year-old son and that really resonates with me. But as you can see with the history, it took 87 years of changes in legislation for the moral compass of English society to shift to say, “No more; we shouldn’t be sending children down chimney sweeps.”

It took 87 years to stop us from exploiting child labour. How long is it going to take us to realise that a building needs to be made more sustainable?

In many respects, we’ve only just begun this journey towards improved sustainability and we still have a very long way to go. So I guess until the moral compass and the ethical reasoning of society has shifted, we can’t really expect sustainability to be readily embraced by the population and by our culture and society.

Because we know – despite a few pockets of resistance – that the climate is changing. We know the temperatures are increasing. We know that sea levels are rising because glaciers are melting.

And we talk about glacial change being very slow and almost seemingly unmoving but the scientific evidence is showing that it’s moving at an accelerated rate. And it’s, perhaps, not a question of are we too late to do anything or can we do anything to stop it but, perhaps, we’re already too late. How do we mitigate the impact of our changing climate.

The four phases of green

You might be familiar with the work of an author by the name of Jason McLennan. He’s an architect and he was also the founder of a program known as the Living Building Challenge, which is another program that I’m involved in. He wrote a book called The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. And it was one of a few rare works where it wasn’t about all the techno-babble knowhow about making buildings high performance and energy efficient and double glazing and that kind of stuff. But actually it was about philosophical thoughts about how we move forward with a sustainable design agenda. And he came up with this concept that there are four phases of green.

So we start off at brown/green and that’s where you only know a little bit about sustainability; it’s not really something that factors into your thinking. In fact, if you didn’t have to think about it at all, you wouldn’t.

And then you move into the light green phase where you start to develop an interest in sustainable design, in green building concepts. You learn the buzzwords so you can sound like you know what you’re talking about. And I guess it’s, possibly, learning to know out of fear of not wanting to appear ignorant.

Then it moves onto the green/green stages when you start practising what you preach and you start changing the way you live your life, the way you operate your business and the way you do things from day-to-day in order to be more sustainable and to have less of an environmental impact.

And then eventually you reach what’s called the deep green stage where it informs everything that you do. And something I added to that, this concept of deep ecology where you start to understand that sustainability is more than just what’s good for us as a society, because I think, at the moment, we’re on the cusp.

We still have a lot of people that are still at the brown/green stage and that’s okay. I’m not making a judgement. We have very few people who are at the deep green stage and we’re all at stages somewhere in the middle. I jump between light green and green/green myself to be absolutely honest and self-aware about my own sustainability position.

But when you get to the deep green or the deep ecological thinking stage, you understand that it’s not just about what’s good for us as a society but what’s good for the planet as a whole in terms of the ecosystems, the biodiversity and the plants, the animals.

Things that, I guess, we often don’t perceive as having the same value as our human culture, society, human life, but we want to preserve them not because, oh well, we want to have trees to look at in the future, but because we should preserve trees because it’s good to preserve trees irrespective of whether we as humans are going to enjoy them for future generations to come.

Chasing sustainability

I like this thinking and it informs some of my thoughts as I develop through my understanding of sustainability. Though, I guess, the conclusion I’ve come to is that sustainability for me is like ascending a spiral staircase and I just made some notes that you’re rising up out of the darkness and you start moving towards the light. It’s not straight all the way up. It’s still an upward progress but it’s very slow going. Each time you pass around the spiral, it looks like you’re entering familiar territory but it’s actually a new terrain or landscape that you’re navigating. Occasionally you’ll stop and say, “Should I have taken the lift or is it really worth it?” But the end will always appear tantalisingly close, but it’s always just beyond your reach. As Dr Who would say, it’s a little bit wibbly-wobbly but you’re generally moving upwards and you’re generally moving in the right direction and it’s not meant to be an easy journey. It’s meant to be fraught with a little bit of difficulty and you’ll make a few missteps along the way.

Sustainability doesn’t care who you vote for… So I guess the thing for me is that it doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are, sustainability should be above and beyond politics. We do it because it’s good, not because it’s left or because it’s right or because it’s green. It’s because it is what we need to do if we are an enlightened mature developed society and culture.

But I guess swings and roundabouts, we are seeing a bit of a shift towards right-wing governments at the moment, at both the state, territory and international level. And the perception I have is that it seems that people of that certain political persuasion seem to not put sustainability high on the agenda because they have come to believe that sustainability is at the cost of economic activity, of productivity, of jobs, of what’s good for working Australian families. And I try not to buy into that rhetoric because I’d like to think that sustainability can be holistic and that when you get the sustainability right, well then it’s not an add-on feature, when it’s not the 20 per cent extra on top of business as usual then you actually have a chance of starting to transform our understanding of productivity, of economy, of good welfare, of creating opportunities for Australian families.

Sid Thoo is an architect, consultant and educator. He is chair of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors. This is an edited transcript from an industry insights seminar he gave at DesignBUILD 2014 in April.

2 replies on “Sid Thoo: The future of sustainability”

  1. Thank you Sid, I really appreciate your honest and humble sharing. Also like Dick’s comment. You have both highlighted the need for personal reflection and action…quite agree.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful and very lucid paper, Sid. I like your thinking! I like your imagery, and I really like your call to rise above politics.

    I have spoken about the need to simply make it a life priority – to move on, not wait for governments and regulations. To “rise above” in your words. Encouragingly, I observe people and organisations doing exactly this – being exemplars, whose attitudes, choices and practices will surely ‘trickle down’ or ‘ripple out’ into the whole of society.

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