The construction industry must deliver buildings that don’t harm people physically, emotionally or economically, and that have a small environmental footprint, if it wants to win back consumer confidence, says NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler, who will be speaking at The Fifth Estate’s Building Circularity event in two weeks.
The industry must start cutting embodied carbon in building projects, and could one day be subject to pricing signals if it continues to score poorly on environmental grounds, Mr Chandler said.
Speaking to The Fifth Estate ahead of the Building Circularity symposium on 24 November, Mr Chandler outlined the four elements of “a trustworthy building,” which he and his team are now focusing on.
“A year ago, when I first came on board, the focus was on taking the risky players to task and holding them to account,” Mr Chandler said.
“I’ve been given new powers to do that … but we have always had in our mind that there would be a time when we would shift the conversation from making risky players the target to asking what does a trustworthy player look like, and how do we start to graduate players into that space?”
He said his “interim” definition of a trustworthy building was a building that “does not harm people while it’s being made or once it has been made; does not hurt them economically; and does not hurt them emotionally”.
“When we talk about emotion, everyone has seen what happens to people in buildings such as [Sydney’s structurally deficient] Mascot Towers, the complete dejectedness of their experience. That is really harmful.
“But also spare a thought for sub-contractors engaged to do sub-optimal work who are then called out as a bad player … when no one has ever engaged them to do good work. People are not in a situation where they can benevolently do more than they are being paid for.
“The supply chain has been harmed emotionally just as consumers have been.
“And, finally, a trustworthy building will have as light an impact on the environment as possible. Our focus here is to reduce embodied carbon.”
Asked if he could envisage a time when sustainability and circular economy concepts were mandated in some way in regulations, he said industry players must first be shown why it’s in their interests to embed those concepts into their business practices.
“We have to realise that people do things when you convince them that it makes sense to do it. At times, we have too lofty a conversation about lowering the carbon footprint of our industry. You have to unpack that for people.”
Take, for example, the generation of waste on construction sites.
“What if we said that within three to five years, we want to reduce that volume [of waste], which costs a lot of money to create … we want to reduce that by 80 per cent.
“You explain to people that they could help reduce the embodied carbon in their building project by reducing the amount of waste that is generated [on site].
“You don’t make that sort of adjustment unless you make a systemic change,” he said, from the design process onwards.
If that change didn’t happen fast enough, other levers could be deployed to drive change, he said.
“For example, if you don’t get there within three years, we could double the cost of removal of waste off the site, and if you don’t get it within the next two years, why don’t we triple it?”
Mr Chandler said a modern building regulator needed to identify future problems in the industry and be flexible enough to handle unforeseen issues.
“The conversation we have started is what harms will we mitigate over the next two years; what harms will still remain that will need more work, and what are the new harms coming that we haven’t yet identified or at least called out and don’t have a plan to deal with,” he explained.
“For example, buildings are getting smarter. We need to make sure they never lose the core obligation, that is, that a building should be trustworthy; they shouldn’t harm people physically or emotionally, or economically, or the environment. The regulator has to be mindful of those oncoming harms and how we are going to navigate them.”
As design and construction becomes more digitally sophisticated, it will no longer be enough to operate a $2 company with a mobile phone and a ute “because that is not what you need to build today’s smart, trustworthy building”, Mr Chandler said.
“Industry players need to think about different capital structures, different governance structures, they have to put their IP under a microscope and say ‘Is this solving a relevant problem? Is this just simply another version of an old widget or is it something that adds to the future?’”
Commissioner Chandler will be taking part in The Fifth Estate’s Building Circularity symposium on 24 November.