3 April 2014 – The Australian Construction Industry Forum this week called for an uncompromising stance on the urgent need to change industry approaches to improve productivity, address climate change and create a more sustainable industry.

In a move that will make a strong impact on the construction industry, the ACIF’s 18 member associations, including Consult Australia, the National Precast Concrete Association and the Airconditioning and Mechanical Contractors Association, signed off on its new Design and Construction for a Sustainable Industry policy.

The policy urged urgent action on climate change and said the viability of the industry itself was linked to its ability to deliver sustainable buildings.

“Urgent action is needed to address the challenges of climate change,” the policy said.

“The ongoing viability of the industry is linked with its ability to deliver environmentally sustainable buildings. It is imperative that we change the way we approach the design and management of the built environment.

“We must continually improve the efficiency of buildings through design and use, and innovate in our design and procurement processes to move progressively toward a built environment that positively contributes to natural systems and truly sustainable communities.”

John Held

Chair of the ACIF sustainability policy working group, Russell and Yelland architect John Held, who is also South Australian president of the Association of Consulting Architects said the policy involved representation from all the stakeholder member organisations and struck a high level of agreement.

Strong agreement

“With this set of policies it is surprising how much unanimity there was around ACIF about all of the [sustainability] measures. The main differences of opinion were about who is driving sustainability,” Held said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

After six months of discussions formulating the policy, it became evident that to achieve sustainability, “it has to become a more collaborative industry [in terms of design], rather than following a sequential design process.”

Held said that part of the issue is the construction industry is not seen as a cohesive industry. The need to maintain a competitive edge often meant that firms that innovate publicise it broadly, but might be reluctant to share the actual expertise with other firms in the same field.

Housing lags…but could now change

While sustainability is advanced across the commercial office and health sectors, the residential sector has time and again been rated as behind on adopting the agenda.

As the Housing Industry Association and the Master Builders Association both had representation on the working group as ACIF members, The Fifth Estate asked Held if he thought the new policy would impact on sustainability in the residential building sector once the members of those key associations start implementing the policy in their approach to projects.

“I would hope so,” Held said. “The housing sector will have to look at workflow and design. And they will see an [increasing] push from consumers who want to save money on their energy bills.”

While some items on the sustainability agenda are well-advanced, there are issues which require a concerted effort towards improvement.

“The Green Building Council has done a lot of the early work around energy and design. And while a whole lot of work has been done, [many things] get forgotten – waste for example.”

BIM can help

There was a positive expectation that Building Information Modelling reduce waste through the technology’s ability to reduce the amount of rework required, and to improve design coordination.

“The [impetus] for BIM is coming from tier one firms, and also from [firms like] the two-man teams who can pre-fabricate. The people finding it most difficult are the firms in the tier [of project values] from $5 million to $15 million.”

Held said for those smaller builders, finding the time and money required to invest in new technology was challenging. Many firms working at this level are lean, have restricted capital to draw on, and work to narrow margins from project to project, he said.

Held said for those smaller builders, finding the time and money required to invest in new technology was challenging. Many firms working at this level are lean, have restricted capital to draw on, and work to narrow margins from project to project, he said.

The policy document says, “ACIF recognises the importance of making the way people work on projects more productive and satisfying. Optimal use of BIM requires project teams to be appointed before design is finalised. More highly integrated project teams including contractors and suppliers work with designers to achieve best results, minimising design changes and wasted effort.”

Held said that fundamentally there needs to be a focus on quality, with time taken to develop designs and get the briefs right.

“For that, the client has to be an educated client, so they are not making [less than ideal] decisions,” he said.

Modular needs to be prioritised

The policy also says that off-site fabrication and modular approaches should be prioritised.

Held said this also had workplace safety advantages, and again, BIM was seen as a technology that enabled a greater degree of off-site prefabrication through improved documentation and specifications.

There was, for example, a saving in the obviated need to redesign pre-cast panels due to error.

“Offsite manufacture is one of the things that can change the industry,” Held said.

“The imperative [for it] is coming from all directions – but you’ve got to have clever clients for a start.”

Held gave the Defence Department as an example of an educated client with sound thinking about good design.

The sustainability policy supports calls for the appointment of a government architect, who in Held’s view would have the responsibility of ensuring good design.

Other actions required to advance sustainability outlined in the policy include:

  • The industry will promote the concept of sustainable communities.
  • The industry must continue to promote to all clients, public and private, whole-of-life costs and benefits.
  • ACIF will continue to support the work of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) in defining and measuring progress in sustainable design.
  • It will work with ASBEC to establish policy frameworks to achieve greater energy and resource efficiency in the building sector and to facilitate innovation in building design and procurement.
  • Governments should provide incentives to encourage the alteration, retrofitting and rebuilding of our current building stock to achieve more sustainable outcomes.

Held said that from an architect’s point of view, part of the task ahead is maturing the tools available to assist with sustainable design and construction.

“The materials science and energy work is being done, and it is [increasingly] becoming easier to model the building and the lifecycle and check performance. A lot of tools are not mature enough yet, but that is coming,” Held said.

“The integration of all these [sustainability] tools and design processes and collaborations is coming.”

In a statement released with the policy launch, ACIF executive director Peter Barda said, “trying to do things differently can involve risk. The construction industry is used to taking and managing risks.  Many of the assets we build, particularly non-residential buildings and engineering infrastructure, are in effect prototypes.

“Designers and constructors are used to managing the delivery of prototypes. What they are not comfortable with is taking risks to deliver enhanced functionality without the potential costs of doing so being recognised by their clients.

“Designers and constructors are understandably reluctant to advocate innovative approaches – whether to design, material selection, or construction processes – when the risk of additional costs is to their account, but benefits all accrue to their clients. Particularly when the result of innovation that is less than optimal is for the designers or constructors or both to be taken out to a paddock and shot. Figuratively at least.

“The ACIF policies suggest many ways in which clients and the industry itself can innovate and make significant improvements to productivity. They will be promoted widely in the hope that we can stimulate an ongoing critical review of how we do things. Let’s acknowledge that if we all keep doing what we’ve all been doing, we are all going to get what we have all been getting.”

Find the full ACIF policy compendium here.