Ninotschka Titchkosky, BVN on screen with Tim Schork, UTs looking on

Thanks to our event partner BVN

How good was our Printed City event at the BVN offices in Sydney on 17 June?

The best indication, we reckon, was the energy and buzz of conversation after the main event finished – much focused around the content everyone had just heard about. Some people had to be almost levered out of the studio space quite late that evening.

On stage and seeded throughout the near 120-strong audience had been a great cross section of influencers – from developers, investors, builders, government, finance, science, academia and design/innovation leaders. Together they galvanised a show full of cross-firing ideas and challenges. 

From BVN’s co-chief executive officer Ninotschka Titchkosky and University of Technology’s Tim Schork we heard in detail and through demonstrations on the studio floor about Systems Reef 2, or the SR2 concept for an air diffusion system that promises to be superior to the traditional metal ducting, with 90 per cent less embodied carbon massive savings in energy and conditioned. Even better, it’s been designed from waste plastic to offer greater flexibility, ease of installation and greater comfort with thousands of “pores” that release air in a mist-like pattern much like the way a coral reef “breathes”.

Also a highlight of the evening was Professor Veena Sahajwalla with her green ceramic tiles, now used by Mirvac in prototype for an apartment at Olympic Park. Again big emissions reductions come as part of the package with waste fabric and glass as inputs.

Our purpose for the event was to discover “how to take brilliant ideas (such as these) out of the lab and into commercial reality”.

As a media outfit we get a lot of exciting news about the latest invention that promises to slash emissions or some other sustainable breakthrough. And then… radio silence.

So what happens?

Where do the concepts get stuck and fail to make it into our daily lives the way solar panels did or the Iphone? If the federal government has its way, we’ll be looking to technology to get us to net zero and convince the rest of the world it should not carbon tax us for our failures.  

What we discovered on the night and in the lead up research is that we need a delicately balanced recipe or eco system to come into play to ensure good results survive the lab and make it out into the real world.

Manifesto for an innovation ecosystem

Some key agenda items to success might look like this:

1.
Money

If you thought money was a key ingredient, you’d be right. As important as the genius of great ideas is in creating the tension of possibilities, so too is what the “big money” people think and what they’re looking for when they choose the start up they will back – sometimes to enormous value a few years down the track.

A surprising and exciting thing we discovered was the need of the capital markets and impact investors for a “good story” to tell around ESG investments.

Of course these “big money” people want good financial returns – as always – but they also want to show their investments are helping the transition to net zero and other ESG dividends such as better standards around modern slavery, equity, gender parity, healthy workplaces (physical and emotional) and of course the big clean up job we need to process the detritus that trails the more indulgent nations among us.

As James Tayler from Ellerston Capital said, this is a lesson any start-up should remember – tell the good story early and don’t forget to measure and map your impact. It’s much easier to get into good habits when you’re small; too late to retrofit measurement practices when you’re a billion dollar outfit listed on the stock market!

2.
Collaboration and partnerships

Another important need to scale up innovation is good collaborations and partnerships between those with the ideas and those with the technologies to realise the concepts, the skills to build the methodologies and disciplines to test the innovations and provide proof of concepts. 

BVN’s Ninotschka Titchkosky says it was clear early on, a partnership University of Technology Sydney was critical for the development of her concept, especially for the robotics skills the university offered.

Professor Sahajwalla says it was the already established partnerships with multiple stakeholders and manufacturers that were critical in making her green ceramics products ready to be demonstrated in situ.

3.
Government

And you need government with enough sensitivity and foresight to create an environment that nurtures fledgling ideas and gives them the space and protection to thrive. Such as protecting spaces for instance and not letting the market subsume almost all available square meterage of land that might be available under the holy grail of “highest and best use”, (code for residential, because the resi market always pays so much more than other sectors).

SGS Economics and Planning’s Jeremy Gill thought innovation needs a new story.

“This idea of manufacturing being either a thing of the past, or on the edge of the cities, is proved very wrong, I think,” he said at the open mic. “Who would have thought we’d be manufacturing something in Pitt Street on the 11th floor of a building?”

Tina Perinotto

Managing editor, The Fifth Estate

4.
Industry

Critically the broader industry needs to be the ultimate and final ingredient, the willing manufacturers and end users to build the market demand that makes the product viable, for the simple reason that it’s better than what we had before and needed. Pricing of course depends on how those qualities are perceived in depth and urgency.


Printed City – the wrap

By Duncan Murray

Kicking off the Printed City event, held at BVN headquarters in Sydney on 17 June, was BVN co-chief executive officer, Ninotschka Titchkosky and Tim Schork from UTS’s Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building providing an introduction to the SR2 and where the idea came from.

“In our mind this is not an evolution, it’s a revolution.”

In brief, it’s an alternative for traditional air ducting that not only functions better, but is made of recycled plastic bottles and capable of on-site manufacturing by way of 3D printing. (Guests were able to take a close look at both the ducting and the 3D printing machine in operation on the night during the exhibition and networking part of the event).

“We think this is the world’s first robotically 3D printed air diffusion system,” Titchkosky told the nearly 120 people gathered.

“In our mind this is not an evolution, it’s a revolution.”

Titchkosky had earlier spoken with The Fifth Estate in briefing interviews about the persistent problem of how to deal with building services in refurbishment work and the twin need to urgently cut emissions from the built environment. The SR2 she said, was ideal for retrofitting existing buildings – that make up the vast majority of our building stock.

With partners UTS, the studio has taken the product from the drawing board to a promising prototype. After two years they were ready to share their journey, and the challenges of innovative design and commercialisation with others in the building sustainability sector.

“We really started with a deep dive into the industry so we could understand

‘what are the impediments?’ What are the constraints with this?,” Schork said.

“We visited manufacturers, we met with experts, with people who do R&D and created great partners within this world to really understand more about it.”

The design team at BVN listened to concerns over inefficiencies in current designs, such as air travelling poorly at 90 degree angles, and the downfall of air being emitted only from select points in an air ducting system, which can be very uncomfortable for those sitting beneath the vents.

From their research came the blueprint for an air diffusion system that has pores built into its structure, making it capable of evenly distributing air and “breathing” like a coral reef. 

“Out of that came a lot of experimentation about what it means to actually embed this additional functionality of diffusion within a skin or within a piece of material, and we did a lot of extensive studies just to actually understand how porous these need to be to produce better air quality,” Schork said.

There were many tests and also verification of results. “We did a lot of physical tests, load tests within the lab so we could see if what we were doing there and designing and making actually is how air really moves.” 

The team also investigated how it could make the SR2 out of recycled products to help eliminate them from Australia’s excessive waste stream.

Around 3.5 million tonnes of plastic is consumed in Australia every year, with just a small amount recycled. This comes at an estimated cost to the economy of $419 million in unrecovered PETG and HDPE.

The company landed on recycled PETG which is widely used to make drink bottles and medical trays, to create their innovative ducting.

This could be “crushed into a small pellet and then that pellet can actually be fed into large scale 3D printing devices, robotically enabled, which then allows us to produce a variety of different forms,” Titchkosky said.

“It was really important to us to make sure that this was a real world solution to what we considered to be a real world problem.”

Innovation in the round

Kicking off the panel discussion and Surround Sound “hot mic” component, moderator and sustainability guru, Maria Atkinson wanted to know what the next step was, in moving the product towards commercialisation.

“For us it really takes partnership,” Titchkosky replied, “I think we’re at the point where we’ve basically designed a concept car … we really do think this is a scalable opportunity.”

What’s needed at that stage were partnerships with “probably two kinds of people – someone who would be a great guide at navigating the process of creating something new like this and bringing it to market, and also someone who would be willing to invest in the fabrication of it.”

The initial partnership with UTS was born out of the need for specialised robotics knowledge, of which there is no overabundance in Sydney or in Australia in general. Both contributed funding and time to the initial research stage out of a shared belief in the project.

But what drives an architectural firm to get deep in the weeds of research and development? It’s not exactly usual.

From the panel, BVN principal Matthew Blair said the process involved discovering how the company “fit within a bigger idea about research and architecture practice and what it means, and how we as minnows in the industry can have some kind of influence on what’s happening.

“Really we’re asking ‘how people use buildings, how can we then make them better and then how as architects can we create buildings that actually perform how we said they would?’ We want to work with all the universities, not just in Sydney, but everywhere to answer those questions.”

Working together 

Atkinson wanted to know how Australia’s model of university-industry collaboration works, compared to some overseas models.

Schork said the academic model was quite different, in Australia, Europe and America.

Australia’s R&D climate was more competitive than collaborative and he gave the example of Germany, where the major manufacturers came together to reform the industry and overcome major issues.

“I think it’s a really successful model and I would love to see something like this in Australia,” he said. It was possible to work with each other to “actually change our industry by working closely together”.

Impact Investment and the snowball effect of capitalists starting to take a serious interest in ESG

Projects, even sustainable ones, don’t get into the market without financial backing.

So it’s a good thing investor interest in sustainable products and initiatives is on the rise and that sustainability and ESG is being factored into decision-making alongside financial returns.

Again from the panel, head of ESG for Ellerston Capital, James Tayler said what he’s seeing in ESG is a “sort of snowball effect”.

“As much as we are capitalists, there’s a growing interest and a growing amount of capital, being committed to responsible finance, and ultimately that’s reflecting client’s wishes” he said.

“Clients are working out that perhaps in the past their banking or their finance has not reflected their own values – super funds investing in coal mines and so forth.”

The good news for innovators and people with great ideas is the cutting edge of responsible finance has taken the shape of impact investment. This means capital providers are starting to become less sensitive to the financial return they expect from an investment, if along with the return is a tangible and positive contribution to the environment or broader society.

“We’re seeing an ever-growing level of interest in committing capital to those kind of ideas,” Tayler told a keenly listening crowd.

Kerry Series from investment firm, Inspire Impact, took the soapbox mic and went one step further saying that environmental and social outcomes were just as important as financial returns.

“I guarantee that in the case of at least 90 per cent of investments in Australia, they are investing in things which are destroying the environment, they’re investing in things which are destroying social fabric,” Series said.

“So I think it is incumbent on all of us to start saying we want to fund ideas like this one, we want to fund circular economy, we want to fund businesses that are doing great things in the built environment.

“And then we’re going to put pressure on all of the participants in the financial sector to stop focusing solely on financial return, pay the proper price and put the right products into buildings.”

While this is true, to get there requires a good story, Tayler said. Innovators who are seeking capital need to be able to express not only the financial value of their idea, but how they measure the additional social benefits.

“When we can see that and measure it we’re naturally going to be more comfortable accepting a lower expected return from our investment,” Tayler said. 

Measurement in particular is critical, he said. It’s a good idea for innovators to factor this into their business from the very beginning to increase the chances of success.

“If you’re a founder, or you’ve got a great idea and you’re at the beginning of your journey, start to think about the narrative. Including not just how great an idea is, how great the financials might look like, include the impact, because it’s much easier to embed that in the culture of your company at the very beginning.”

“Don’t leave yourself having to retrofit talking about your environmental credentials or your social credentials at a later point.”

Regulation

It’s not just venture capitalists who decide the fate of the built environment. Even they are at the behest of legislators, who hold considerable scope to facilitate and encourage sustainable innovation.

“Incentives normally inform outcomes in a capitalist system, but also, so does legislation. If the law tells you to do something, you do it,” Tayler said.

NSW Circular Board Member and strategic adviser with Grimshaw, Tim Williams also took the mic from the audience floor to point out that regulation can be directed to create markets for innovation, such as the Dubai requirement that 25 per cent of buildings be 3D printed.

“I think that creates a gap in the market for people like entrepreneurs and product creators to do it,” Williams said.

Why not pressure Australian governments, he suggested. For example, to mandate and require an element of 3D innovation in future developments.

If innovators are creating products that actually help builders and that the construction industry actually wants to use, they will begin to act as advocates for change, Williams said.

Big end of town and the value of clustering to create the land component of fostering innovation

Lendlease’s head of development NSW and panelist, Jeheon Son offered the perspective from the top of one of Australia’s largest developers, with a $110 billion pipeline of work around the globe.

“We deal with a lot of institutional capital who want to join us as capital partners to fund our developments or join us as partners,” Son said.

“But we’re seeing a very similar trend at that scale as well – that there’s value being placed on social and environmental value not just economic value.”

From this perspective, innovation was being driven by “agglomeration and clustering” and that was something the company was looking to encourage.

“We’re trying to…enable and encourage clustering. The clustering of people, human capital, financial capital, centralised infrastructure, and cultural amenity, to allow people to gather to innovate, problem solve, be creative, and create value,” Son said.

“Economic value, social value and environmental value. We used to think that those three things were mutually exclusive, what we’re now learning is that they can actually be symbiotic – and I think our investors are learning that as well.”

In terms of precincts and partnerships it was clear the role of the government as regulator  was important.

“When we try to get a foothold on land, to deliver our precinct development capability, we generally participate in a government process. And that process historically has been very linear. It’s been about asymmetrical risk allocation. It’s been about highest price, and lowest cost,” Son said.

If innovative ideas are to be given the best space in which to flourish then partnerships between public and private need a framework in which they can partner and collaborate with innovation as a goal, not just the maximisation of short term economic returns.

Innovation from the ground up

Veena Sahajwalla director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology was both on the panel to lend her views and on hand to display her innovative “green ceramics” made out of recycled fabrics and waste glass.

Through partnerships with industry, Sahajwalla’s tiles were used in one of Mirvac’s recent developments to cut down on embodied carbon and to prove that recycled materials can be both practical and aesthetically desirable. The developer is exploring how it might scale up use of the tiles across its development portfolio.

Sahajwalla said government funding was important in helping take the product from the lab to a finished home furnishing

“The funding that came out of the NSW Office of Chief Scientist and Engineer actually enabled us to take all of that fantastic science and technology and bring it into the realm of commercialisation,” Sahajwalla said.

“Also, it’s that notion that we’re all really in this together. When we’re talking about recycling and waste resources. It’s about recognising that we can keep waste items out of landfill and actually reform them and bring them back to life in the form of green products.”

Toby Long, General Manager Residential Development NSW at Mirvac, who helped see the company incorporate green ceramics into its development shared some insights into the decision making and collaboration process.

Through its sustainability initiatives, the company was seeking to design out its waste and was recommended by a board member to approach Sahajwalla for collaboration.

“We were doing pretty well designing out our waste. We get about 90 per cent on our construction sites, which is pretty good. We want to get to 100 per cent,” Long said.

He said that while Mirvac was taking initiatives of its own, the trend was for clients becoming more aware and more demanding that buildings take a sustainable approach.

“The market is changing and their expectations are that we should be doing things that actually sustain the one earth that we have,” Long said.

“It’s the change that the world is seeing in terms of the customers, in terms of investors and everything else. And it’s also a change in ‘how do you start something small, to then actually make it more streamlined and actually more common?”

Innovation from the ground up

Veena Sahajwalla director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology was both on the panel to lend her views and on hand to display her innovative “green ceramics” made out of recycled fabrics and waste glass.

Through partnerships with industry, Sahajwalla’s tiles were used in one of Mirvac’s recent developments to cut down on embodied carbon and to prove that recycled materials can be both practical and aesthetically desirable. The developer is exploring how it might scale up use of the tiles across its development portfolio.

Sahajwalla said government funding was important in helping take the product from the lab to a finished home furnishing

“The funding that came out of the NSW Office of Chief Scientist and Engineer actually enabled us to take all of that fantastic science and technology and bring it into the realm of commercialisation,” Sahajwalla said.

“Also, it’s that notion that we’re all really in this together. When we’re talking about recycling and waste resources. It’s about recognising that we can keep waste items out of landfill and actually reform them and bring them back to life in the form of green products.”

Toby Long, General Manager Residential Development NSW at Mirvac, who helped see the company incorporate green ceramics into its development shared some insights into the decision making and collaboration process.

Through its sustainability initiatives, the company was seeking to design out its waste and was recommended by a board member to approach Sahajwalla for collaboration.

“We were doing pretty well designing out our waste. We get about 90 per cent on our construction sites, which is pretty good. We want to get to 100 per cent,” Long said.

He said that while Mirvac was taking initiatives of its own, the trend was for clients becoming more aware and more demanding that buildings take a sustainable approach.

“The market is changing and their expectations are that we should be doing things that actually sustain the one earth that we have,” Long said.

“It’s the change that the world is seeing in terms of the customers, in terms of investors and everything else. And it’s also a change in ‘how do you start something small, to then actually make it more streamlined and actually more common?”

The role of government

Sahajwalla said it was important to credit the third element of innovation as federal and state government and the part they play not only in fostering partnerships, but funding key research.

“For example you’ve got the Australian Research Council in Australia, that’s funding research, collaborations and partnerships. And I think, to me, that’s an important component.

“Because had we not done all of that fundamental science, we wouldn’t be sitting in this position here today. We’re joining the dots between that science technology demonstration, and ultimately getting it into the hands of end users.”

Chief executive of government body, NSW Circular, Lisa McLean said her organisation was founded around helping to achieve these outcomes.

“We’re a unique collaborative framework that brings together industry with researchers and looks at how we can solve these problems of circular economy,” McLean said.

McLean explained that in terms of regulatory settings and government incentives, and the part they play in the transition to a circular economy, currently many in government were focussed on zero carbon but were neglecting the importance of circular economy.

“It’s not enough for us to be getting to zero carbon anymore in our economy. We need to be creating an economy that’s regenerative in nature, it’s protecting our biodiversity, it’s keeping…valuable materials in the economy longer to extract more value,” she said.

According to McLean, NSW Circular’s purpose was to act as a mechanism to bring together research and industry with the aim of solving these issues.

“We are focusing on agriculture, we’re focusing on the construction industry as well. What we’re looking at is, how do we create some new circular supply chains

“We’ve got circular buyers, circular suppliers, manufacturers and researchers and our role is to bring them all together, and to actually create new supply chains that can be scaled. It’s a very gritty but exciting new platform.”

“So we are encouraging organisations and businesses to do what BVN have done, to do what Mirvac and Lendlease and other case examples have done, if they want to come to us, we can help match them with a research partner and we can also look to support that program in a way that’s going to solve circular economy.”

Is it financially viable?

Representatives from the big developers were asked if innovative products were likely to be squeezed out by budget constraints, particularly towards the end of a project.

Jeheon Son from Lendlease said that ultimately the use of green materials was driven by market forces.

“I think a fundamental issue in our industry is the tendering process, which is really a race to the bottom. My personal view is that if you want societal change and structural change, you need to change the system,” Son said.

“What you need is better regulation.You need cooperation between the public and private sector where government mandates certain products that have environmental benefits and the private sector are aligned with those mandates.”

“And then when you’re delivering, particularly public projects, there isn’t that opportunity to value-engineer or to maximise profit at the expense of other variables.”

Son described the multi-billion dollar wave of public investment being directed towards projects in the wake of the pandemic as a “once in a generation opportunity” to change the way things are done.

Planning, employment lands and the idea we could be manufacturing on the 11th floor of a building in Pitt Street

Jeremy Gill from SGS Economics and Planning from one of the soapboxes on the floor said there was a distinct spatial element to the idea of research and development that planners could greatly contribute to, by creating the spaces for collaboration and innovation to happen.

“(Enabling innovation is) often talked about in the language of commercial floor space, but I think it really needs to be talked about in terms of the future of industry as well,” Gill said.

“This idea of manufacturing being either a thing of the past, or on the edge of the cities, is proved very wrong, I think. Who would have thought we’d be manufacturing something in Pitt Street on the 11th floor of a building?”

Gill explained the concept of precincts was highly important but should be expanded to include, for instance, the future of mixed industry or inner city industrial precincts.

“I think the focus of just assuming Australia is a knowledge economy is too simplistic. We need to be thinking of the circular economy, not just as a product, but also as a precinct,” he said.

“What role do those precincts play in capturing waste, recovering waste, feeding that back into advanced manufacturing and prototyping precincts.”

However, when push comes to shove on the matter of land usage, often the outcome is dictated by highest and best use.

In the case of Barangaroo, Lendlease’s Jeheon Son said in 2009 when the company made its bid to government, the decision was that commercial floorspace would deliver the best outcome for the Barangaroo precinct.

“If we and government don’t change the way that we procure, design, develop, and deliver precincts, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to continue to get the same singular outcome,” Son said.

“I think we need to have a conversation around how do we plan for these precincts? How do we master plan? And how do we genuinely engage, not just with institutional companies and institutional capital but with small entrepreneurial companies, the community, broader society to think about what is the best outcome for the city both economically, socially and environmentally.”

“And if we don’t change that what we will do is we’ll have the same process of highest and best use delivering the same product, which will be commercial towers, it will be residential buildings.” “If you want a different outcome you’ve got to change the system.”

Whole systems change

BVN’s Ninotschka Titchkosky said that as it stands the construction industry requires a major overhaul and for different sectors to join forces.

“It’s no good coming up with an idea if we can’t implement it and what we really need is for everyone to come at the problem together and be willing to make change,” Titchkosky said.

“We can’t do it as architects, builders can’t do it on their own, developers can’t do it on their own, planners can’t do it on their own, we have to work together.”

“If we can do it together we’ve got a genuine chance.”

Massive thanks to all who participated to make this event so successful, exciting and important.


Reporting by Duncan Murray