With his plan to build the world’s tallest hybrid timber tower in South Perth, Grange Development’s James Dibble insists he is not trying to revolutionise building in one go but to significantly shift the dial.
As he explains, “We had to redesign this building over and over again, because we refused just to increase apartment prices to justify the increase in cost. The whole intent was to move the needle forward. To take the industry from zero per cent hybrid buildings to 5-10 per cent.”
If the 50-storey tower is approved by the City of South Perth, C6, as it is known, named after the chemical symbol for Carbon, will be Australia’s second carbon-negative apartment after the Atlassian, headquarters under construction in Sydney) and three metres higher than Atlassian.
This means it will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it.
The $350 million Elenberg Fraser-designed project at 6 Charles Street, Perth will include about 7400 cubic metres of timber in its construction – 42 per cent of its total structure – plus steel, concrete and other materials.
It was only recently that mass timber construction and fabrication methods have become a viable option to use at this scale, despite timber being available for centuries, Dibble said.
“Knowledge is power. Right? I think that very few people are willing to invest the time into understanding what mass timber can really do”.
“My favorite saying is how do you know, what you think you know, is actually true. And so there’s a lot of people that are just busy being busy and very unwilling to invest the time into understanding what is true and what is not.”
If you’re willing to do that technical work upfront, he says then “it’s just a matter of hiring the smartest people in the country that have those disciplines. There’s a number of people on our team who have PhDs and that is not by coincidence. We went to the market to find the smartest people.”
One of his experts has a PhD in engineered timber and off-site construction Dr David Bylund, “I don’t know anyone else in the country who has a PhD in mass timber,” and another in fire engineering “probably the most pre-eminent fire engineer in Australia,” James O’Neil at Holmes.
Dibble also has an expert in supply chains, top planners and urban designers such as Bianca Sandri of Urbanista, and Malcolm Mackay of Urban Design who sits on a number of the state design panels reviewing high rise buildings.
The proposal by Dibble’s Grange Development incorporates 245 apartments over 48 levels and an open-air public park on the lower floors that will include an entertainment precinct.
All one and two bedroom apartments will not have a physical car bay, but instead they will have an entirely elastic transport solution on demand through the 80 Teslas that will be provided, each with self-driving capabilities and funded by Grange, Dibble says.
Contributing to its carbon-negative status will be an embedded power network that will harness energy from the wind and sun and the project delivers 3500 square metres of floral, edible and native gardens.
Interestingly the mass timber in this building will be structural “and carries real load” – in conjunction with steel and concrete – this is a different approach to the Atlassian building for example where the building is a concrete and steel building with four storey timber habitats which, beyond the four storeys, are not structural “as I understand”, he says.
C6’s materials will be 100 per cent sustainable national and international timber, including Australian hardwoods.
What about fire risks? ”There are some instances even in Perth, as a great example, where mass timber is used to clad steel for fire protection. Mass timber also outperforms steel on the strength to weight ratio.”
Dibble is a convert to hybrid buildings. While concrete is needed to be used in the tower’s core for example, mass timber actually outperforms steel or concrete, in certain applications. So you ended up with a building that is carbon negative in structure and in operation and is, ”actually a better structural building. ‘It’s super logical once you actually break it down into its components.”
The company has gifted 85 per cent of the total site area back to the public as a public park and discovery centre, which includes a cinema, children’s CLT playground and horticultural zone. Celebrity chefs will feature at the rooftop restaurant and extensive health and wellness facilities are on offer.
It’s about the alternatives in funding sustainability
Asked how the building can be constructed without a huge increase in costs – Dibble says it will be only a 4 per cent premium compared to other comparable apartments but deliver a much better end product connected to nature – given the way the market is now, Dibble said: “Our mandate is to move the needle forward, it’s not to be a purist about every single element.
“It’s to say, ‘hey, developers, you can go from being hugely carbon emitting to carbon negative, and you can still make the same margin that you’re required to. You can still get financed, and your customers will have a better product, in short, a happier, healthier, home.’
“That’s, what we’re trying to do.”
He says it’s a huge failure of the built environment –which accounts now for 39 per cent of global emissions – to do so very little to reduce emissions compared to huge innovation in agriculture and transport.
There was almost an arrogance about our industry, with no sense of obligation to do anything even though airlines, car manufacturers, farmers and more, were committed, Dibble said.
He believes the solution was to hire the smartest talent onto his team and create a new platform for others to follow. The company has committed to providing its entire documentation for the project as open source and completely free.
“Atlassian deserves the credit, not us, for sparking a lot of interest globally, but our intent was slightly different,” Dibble explained.
What we wanted with C6 was slightly different and is to prove it is possible to build a carbon negative building for the same cost as a normal building, and failing that at as close to cost parity as possible but deliver a far superior home
“What we were trying to do is to prove that it was feasible. And so we had to redesign this building over and over and over again, because we refused just to increase apartment prices to justify the increase in cost, because the whole intent was to move the needle forward.”
What motivates Dibble and what bothers him considerably is the reluctance of so many people in the industry to move forward with action on climate change.
“I’m still hearing what I think is nonprogressive statements like, ‘people and buyers don’t really care about it. A lot of buyers won’t pay for it.’
“And my attitude is, ‘well, does that mean that you don’t have any obligation to help the transition?
“Irrespective of whether buyers see value or not, you’re making, in some instances, a significant income from an industry that is now primarily the main contributor to climate change.
“If it’s not about climate and it’s about the customers homes we are creating, hybrid buildings deliver better outcomes on that front too.”
Using biophilic design is a start, he says.
So “instead of just greenwashing brochures,” how about “actually delivering proper biophilia and amenity and then lets consider what we can do around this kind of circular economy around transport.
”I’m someone who thinks, rightly or wrongly, that we do have a moral obligation to do something about climate change.” He believes the three main contributors are the built environment, animal agriculture, and transport.
“Doing the right thing by your customers and doing the right things by the planet are no longer mutually exclusive. We need our own feedstock now. We need to allocate more land for sustainable hardwoods and softwoods.’’
Dibble’s Grange Development, at just over three years old, has a development pipeline worth more than $4 billion with more than 11,000 lots across Victoria and South Australia, plus two high rise projects – the C6 and Numa, a $500 million project with Melbourne based developer Tim Gurner.
Where is the funding from?
That’s not a question Dibble normally answers, he says.
“It’s high net worth Australian individuals. So my first partner was the late Frank Costa’s family office; now we partner with a lot of the large private family offices.”
Surprisingly Dibble who is based on a farm near the Victorian regional centre of Ballarat has no intention of moving permanently to Perth or any other city to enjoy the fruits of his development work. He intends to remain on his farm and continue renovating the 1860s farmhouse he chooses to live in. He will, however, retain a 3 bedroom apartment for his family as their WA base.
But how did he make the leap from technology to one of the most challenging developments in property – a 50 storey hybrid building? First he doesn’t think it’s such a big leap. In addition, he feels the 10 year career in IT before venturing into property nurtured a habit of wanting to solve complex problems and prove they could be achieved.
And that’s the kind of attitude we need to see more of in this industry.