The ARBS trade exhibition

22 May 2014 – Safeguarding buildings against extreme events presents a huge business opportunity for Australian industry, a UK environmental expert at the ARBS trade exhibition in Melbourne on Tuesday said.

Speaking on the panel: Adapting Buildings for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, professor of architectural engineering at Heriot Watt University, said smart money was now going into climate-ready buildings.

Professor Sue Roaf

“The noughties were about sustainability and waste. The teens are about resilience – I think this is really where the business opportunities will be – and, of course, at the heart of it is understanding what makes people comfortable.

“We cannot expect the 20th century blanket 22 degrees centigrade approach anymore. It is a multiply complex thermal landscape out there, and it is going to become more extreme so resilient design thinking is really breaking the mould.”

Lessons from New York

Paul Stoller, managing director of Atelier Ten’s Australian office, said there has been a lot of work in Europe and the US, especially after Superstorm Sandy, to figure out how to make our cities safer.

“Resilience anticipates disturbances – we can’t anticipate that we will be living in a typical meteorological year and have reliable utility power our whole life,” he said.

Extreme events include the short term such as power and water failures (often ageing infrastructure), fires, floods, heat waves, cyclones and tsunamis, and the long term including sea-level rise, temperature rise, more extreme weather and more utility failures.

“We are going to have more extreme events and the critical point to us as designers is, if our buildings were to lose electricity, few buildings would perform as well as a typical backpacking tent for keeping us comfortable,” Mr Stoller said. “You need to anticipate your building going through an extreme event and work out how it could survive that more manageably.”

A series of resilient design principles has emerged from the New York City resilience taskforce to assist planners. For example: diverse systems; simple, elegant, passive systems; locally available, renewable resources; and anticipating interruptions and a dynamic future.

Mr Stoller said it was important to clarify the functionality of the building during and after an event. “Does a building need to house people? If so, it has a very particular set of safety and comfort requirements that it needs to maintain,” he said. Does the building need to be fully functional, such as a hospital, or just be able to ride out the event?

“You can then apply a set of organisational strategies to implement a resilience strategy,” Mr Stoller said. Buildings need to be designed with protected/conditioned zones that could work even if the rest of the building doesn’t. Solutions may include supplying water faucets in common areas or running sleeves outside buildings to temporary power generators.

Designing for resilience is about thinking how to protect the building, people and equipment. “A lot of simple, cost-neutral strategies are about making safe perimeters within a building – locating critical equipment in a safe part of the building,” Mr Stoller said.

Don’t put expensive or critical equipment in the basement

A hospital lost close to $1 billion worth of medical equipment during Superstorm Sandy because it was in the basement of a building located on a floodplain.

“Don’t put switchgear in the basement; it will flood. Move it up to the second floor.”

The lemons you won’t be able to insure

Dr Karl Mallon

Dr Karl Mallon, director of Climate Risk, said insurability will soon become a hot topic with a report about to be released by The Climate Institute that will assist property buyers to “find the lemons and avoid them”. The report will identify areas that are susceptible to insurable events such as bushfires and floods, and hazards such as storm surges or soil movement that are not.

“Homebuyers can be faced with insurance premiums that are 10 times the norm,” he said. “For hazards that are not insurable, buyers must be prepared to cope alone.”

Dr Mallon said climate change could result in an almost doubling of premiums over the term of a mortgage. “Exposed buildings can be expected to experience large decreases in value,” he said. He warned property owners to ensure they had adequate cover, allowing for higher costs in the future for short-term circumstances like a trades shortage.

Communities need a plan to cool down, cheaply

Professor Roaf advised communities to “get a plan”.

“Work with the city councils, local community councils, of course, national action plans.”

She championed the concept of climate refuges, such as cool fog guns, which spray a fine water mist into a crowd, and in Osaka and Arizona draw people to a central area to cool down.

Investment in research and exploring emerging trends, such as new ways to use natural ventilation, could keep people cool for a fraction of the cost, Professor Roaf said.

“There are huge opportunities in the big building market… natural ventilation being part of a controlled solution seems to make a lot of sense.”

Time for self-reliant buildings and communities

Professor Roaf encouraged planners to design autarkic – self-reliant – buildings, communities and cities. In Melbourne, Synergetics Environmental Engineering has applied its computer skills to create office buildings with energy consumption so low that they can generate more than they consume.

Positive energy buildings

Director and principal environmental engineer Dr Dave Collins said Positive Energy Places in Spencer Street was Australia’s first “positive energy” commercial office building. The building has 117 solar panels that power the entire building and the electric car.

Dr Collins said Synergetics finds low-cost changes that deliver large benefits.

“In Melbourne, buildings are responsible for 50 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We need to open our minds to greater possibilities – instead of climbing the You Yangs, let’s climb Everest!”