Professor Peter Newman

The stranded assets debate surrounding coal needs to be applied to car manufacturing, according to Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute Professor Peter Newman. He believes the focus needs to shift to how prefabricated construction and precinct redevelopments can redeploy the ailing car manufacturing industry’s assets, including its labour force, and become part of some big picture problem-solving.

Professor Newman was recently in Sydney to launch two videos, Modular Manufactured Building and Carbon Structural Adjustment, which outline his team’s low carbon research in collaboration with the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre.

In a phone interview with The Fifth Estate, he said one of his current areas of research was analysing the weaknesses and strengths of property’s supply chain in terms of carbon.

While modular prefabricated construction is showing benefits, particularly in high rise construction, Professor Newman said one of the major weak points was that it hadn’t yet spread sufficiently to other states from Melbourne.

“The Sydney industry could take on a lot more modular construction for high rise developments,” he said.

“The demonstration product is beautiful. It has all the qualities of being smart and sustainable. It is a far more civilised way to build, but it still far too small [a sector] across the country.”

Investing in conventional construction was like “investing in the beta form of video tape”, he said.

“In my view any firm that doesn’t embrace modular will hit the wall.

“Modular is a disruptive approach, it is low carbon, low footprint and low cost. It is disruptive like renewable are a disruptive technology.”

The key is design, “not just getting a lego thing and putting it together”; design also needs to consider how power, water and waste will be managed from the outset.

“The era of adding [renewable power] on to a building is passing, the future is roof integrated photovoltaics with a fully insulated system that is built in from the start. Everything is designed in,” Professor Newman said.

It also supplies a fix for the potential stranding of auto industry assets, as the prefab factories “don’t employ builders, they employ auto workers in spades”.

And it’s an answer to housing affordability.

Professor Newman said the current trend of McMansions in the outer suburbs, tiny units in the inner suburbs and languishing middle suburbs was one we don’t want to continue.

In terms of massive apartment developments in the inner suburbs, which are not delivering liveable, affordable and sustainable dwellings that meet the wide range of community needs, he said this was both a planning failure, and a market failure.

“The market is structured to optimise the value in a piece of land,” he said.

“The banks don’t help as they finance these things. Developers, banks, councils, builders – they all need to work together [for sustainable outcomes].”

“Everybody can see it’s a failing system at the moment.”

Enabling consolidation in the greyfields

In the middle suburbs, or “greyfields”, land value far outstrips the value of most of the homes, but there is currently no mechanism whereby blocks can be consolidated for low-rise or medium rise precinct-style densification unless a group of owners agrees to sell or redevelop together.

This is something Newman and other researchers are working to address with a new model that will enable 15-20 house blocks to be brought together into a precinct that can be redeveloped incorporating new sustainability technologies.

The digital tool, Environs Scenario Planning, will allow the public to engage and be part of the process of shaping the area and neighbourhood.

Precinct redevelopments will also involve upgrading the social infrastructure in suburbs that are often poorly resourced in terms of community facilities, cafes and public transport.

Professor Newman said the CRC for Low Carbon Living and the CRC for Spatial Information, which he is also involved with, are trying to work together and with the market to “make a planning intervention”.

“This is what we’re trying to reinvent for middle suburbs at a time when planning is a dirty word,” he said.

“It’s not anti-market, it’s actually freeing up the market. It’s not merely a matter of saying ‘let’s get rid of green tape’.”

He said the environmental approach had to be coupled with the economic approach.

“Sustainability is a [relatively] new word and it’s the paradigm of our era. We have the potential to improve the built environment and improve sustainability outcomes and our society also.”

An unstoppable force

Professor Nemwan said the momentum behind sustainability had become unstoppable.

“The prime minister’s [recent] statement about wind farms, which is purely anecdotal, sends a signal that climate issues are purely a matter of opinion. That’s not the kind of leadership we need,” Professor Newman said.

“We are talking about a global transition that is well underway. Renewables are winning everywhere, and energy efficiency and new technologies are coming on-stream at a rapid rate.”

He said the leadership gap was being filled by bodies like the CRCLCL, which were “absolutely” part of the global conversation occurring on sustainability.

“[Australians] are good at innovating; we should be proud of our ability to contribute.”

The market is also moving and picking up on trends like prefabricated construction and low carbon approaches, with the forward-thinkers aware they need to invest now and have it pay off for the next 20-30 years.

“The market is now converging around what we [in sustainability circles] have been saying for many years. I am glad I am alive to see it. It’s been a bumpy ride at times.”

Professor Newman said sustainability had shifted to the point where it was “not just an ideological flourish”.

“We are winning.”

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  1. prefabricated construction is a good solution in China as well. It does not only offer affordable dwellings for the public, but also reduce the carbon emissions in construction. It has become the interest and focus as the green building for the research and market.

  2. Utilise stranded auto workers to strand construction workers in a housing bubble? Good plan….