Welcome to the Jungle House, Clinton Cole’s own home in Darlington, Sydney.

We need to fast track the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) by governments, even for smaller projects, in order to efficiently capture all the opportunities around construction. And especially for life cycle analysis (LCA), argues one Sydney architect. NSW may well be ahead of all other jurisdictions to get there if Building Commissioner David Chandler gets his way. 

There has been considerable discussion among architects in Australia over the past 12 months about carbon footprints in buildings – in design and construction and across existing buildings and new projects.

And while many within the field more broadly agree that it’s relatively straightforward to measure (and reduce) operational carbon, the pathway to measuring (and reducing) embodied carbon – the energy in the materials used for construction – is less clear.

Architect and builder Clinton Cole of CplusC Architectural Workshop in Sydney believes that Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) tools offer the best way of addressing embodied carbon, and he argues that such considerations should be integrated into the design phase for all new buildings, across all project types, over a certain value threshold, using BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology.

Clinton says that two key changes will be necessary to achieve that goal:

  • Statutory authorities need to mandate the use of BIM for all new approval documents for projects over a certain value (as has been for up to 15-plus years in some European countries, such as Demark, Norway and Finland, Clinton says);
  • Government regulators should mandate minimum LCA standards

Cole says what we build and what we design is highly codified and regulated, so why should construction industry documentation be any different?

The benefits of BIM at a micro level (costing, programming, clash detection, buildability, engineering and services integration, manufacturer file integration, thermal, solar, fly through, turntable, 3D render, VR, internal library growth, etcetera) and macro level (such as regulatory assessment, code compliance, LCA, integration into local, regional and national models, infrastructure) are almost limitless, he says.

“While there is software other than BIM that can layer information and capture data libraries, pure design software used for design’s sake only (non-BIM or similar software) has severe limitations regarding the listed outputs above, often with zero interoperability.

We’re currently software suited to school children: time to step up

He bemoans the current state of play. “Why some tertiary educated professionals continue to use design software more suited to primary school children is another discussion altogether,” he says.

BIM is the new Word or Excel software for the built world, or should be.

Clinton Cole, CplusC Architectural Workshop

“It’s not a question of whether a firm or should or should not, it’s a question of how soon or how late the transition will be.”

Cole says governments at every level – local, state and federal – should all mandate the use of BIM for approvals and tenders.

Medium- to large-scale projects are already on board but he says there is a case for BIM software developers to provide entry-level access; already it’s available free to students. Solid support from our peak industry bodies in the area of education and re-training would be essential.

“I believe that with financial barriers lowered (if not removed completely for a certain period for new entrants) and education and support provided, the transition to BIM could be made a smooth one.”

This pick up should extend to universities, however, many continue to “swim against the cold hard reality of the way the industry operates”. Students are trained in design-centric hyper-theoretical courses and find that often the only places they can then find work is in “the very university that taught them,” he says.

“The fact is, when BIM libraries and families are built with rigour from the ground up, the software can produce all the 3D visualisations those universities need to sell their degrees, with the same seductive graphic Kool-Aid they’ve been drinking for many years now.”

BIM closer than people think, particularly in NSW 

The design and construction industry’s broadscale change to BIM may be closer than many people realise, particularly in New South Wales. NSW established a new Building Commission in 2019 headed by David Chandler and started debating the Design and Building Practitioners Bill 2019 in the lower house last week. The legislation is expected to be passed later this year.

This Act outlines six “reform pillars” with the fifth aiming to: “Digitise the NSW Building Industry to move away from analogue record keeping”, to result in “shared industry wide platforms that build confidence.”

Designed to restore public trust after a string of recent high-rise apartment block failures, these reforms will have the added benefit of improving knowledge around – and decisions related to – embodied energy in new projects.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate recently, NSW Institute President Kathlyn Loseby called upon the government to fast-track this new legislation alongside fast-tracked economic stimulus projects.

The institute also recently published a formal response to the legislation; which you can read here.

CplusC Architectural Workshop has already adopted BIM and LCA tools, although Cole admits he doesn’t personally use them.

“I do all the high-level design work in my office myself. I do this on a drafting board, by hand,” he explains. “I have limited skills in digital design and documentation software, and I have done so very deliberately.

“This has allowed me to maintain an objective view of technological advances impacting the industry. It is a position that allows me to consider the experience and feedback of peers who have worked in all scales of practice and with all manner of software.” This has allowed the studio to remain ahead of the industry in this regard, Cole claims.

He adds that by using interoperable LCA software with BIM, the firm ultimately removes the need for additional star ratings, certification processes, assessment criteria, (and, to an extent) expert consultants from the carbon calculation field.

The software allows for design decisions to be made on the basis of embodied energy and LCA in real time, and removes the vested interest greenwash many manufacturers now rely on to sell their products, some of which are facing a grim future when the truth about their embodied energy, calculated on a holistic independent basis, is more widely known.

The studio also uses BIM for costing and programming construction, and it can also be used for post-occupation benefits such as maintenance and cleaning.

“This is the future,” he says.

“The gaping hole in our current system allows those with vested interests to spread self-interested misinformation, like the heavily government-subsidised aluminium smelting industry does in Australia.

“Draw an equivalent aluminium window and a timber window in BIM and measure the LCA of each using One Click LCA, and there is no longer any doubt about making a decision on an informed basis. This is literally a two-minute exercise and clients can make their decision on a globally accepted evidence basis.”

Architects Declare has huge opportunities

Cole suggests that the Architects Declare movement could bring together the Australian Institute of Architects, the Association of Consulting Architects, ArchiTeam, the various Building Designers Association in Australia and the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia to lobby government to mandate BIM and LCA in all projects over a certain threshold, perhaps $500,000.

Such a threshold would ringfence the bulk of the project home industry and the Housing Industry Association (which have significant influence) largely out of the debate with government.

“This would need to be enforced by local and state governments,” he says. “The LCA data is everyone’s business. Everyone has a right to know who is creating CO2e, and how much they are creating in their projects so they can make informed decisions about the authors or the project itself.”

Local governments already post “absolutely everything” about projects submitted for development approval on their websites, he says.

“Isn’t one of the most important pieces of data in this day and age the LCA and CO2 in a project? Allowing the public and the industry to access BIM models to interrogate the LCA is inevitable in my view.”

Rachael Bernstone is a Perth-based freelance journalist and communications adviser to architects, who runs Sounds Like Design, where an earlier version of this story appeared.

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