From the Editor
You get a sense when you read enough sustainability media of what are the trending topics in the field. In 2012 I'd put my money on new urbanism, regenerative design and life cycle thinking. All have been around a while, of course, but you feel the momentum behind them is gathering.
New urbanism is the opposite of tree changing. It's putting back into the city the things that people have traditionally fled the city for want of: e.g. community and human scale.
Regenerative design is a kind of stretch goal (implied in the name Living Building Challenge); it's design that aims to increase the capacity of environmental services, rather than simply draw down on them. It encompasses biophilic design and biomimicry.
Life Cycle Thinking is about whole-of-life design, including such things as design for disassembly, cradle to cradle and extended producer responsibility.
All three themes crop up in this issue of EDG News, and will also be the subjects of forthcoming design notes. Not so much by editorial design, but simply because their time has come.
The Not-So-Secret Life of Leyla Acaroglu
Leyla Acaroglu is a director and founder of Eco Innovators, a sustainable design consultancy in Melbourne. She lectures in sustainable design at RMIT, is creator of The Secret Life of Things animation series (exploring the hidden environmental impacts of everyday things) and was developer of one of the first online life cycle assessment tools. She also makes frequent public appearances and media interviews, where she is a champion of Life Cycle Thinking. We spoke in Melbourne one January afternoon.
What is Life Cycle Thinking?
"LCT - Life Cycle Thinking - and life cycle assessment are terms that are used by the UN Environment Programme. They're about looking at the whole of life of a product, system or service and managing its environmental impacts across its life from the producer's perspective.
"LCT is thinking holistically about the life of a product. But what Tim [Tim Grant, an LCA expert who collaborates with Leyla] and I do is take it to the next level: we provide people with the resources and capacity to use LCT in a decision-making framework, to be able to build up a stronger intuition based on science, so that they can make more informed - environmentally informed - decisions."
EDG has several notes dealing with Life Cycle Thinking, and will be publishing more shortly.
Because people's intuition can often lead to wrong conclusions, can't it?
"People's intuition is often flawed. Most people rely by default on environmental folklore. I say it's that fuzzy feel-good feeling that you get when you do the right thing. But most people are not environmental experts. And often the information they receive is from someone pushing an agenda, or random stuff they pick up from friends, family or the media.
"So these terms - biodegradable, natural, reusable, recyclable - while they're all very valuable environmental credentials, at the end of the day they do not guarantee an environmental benefit: because it's how those products are extracted, manufactured, used and disposed of that ultimately dictates their environmental impact.
"What we do in Life Cycle Thinking is break things down to their delivery of functionality, because it's delivery of functionality that dictates environmental and social impacts. So with a plastic or paper bag, you have to carry a certain amount of items home: that's the functionality that the bag has to achieve. And each kind of bag requires a different material input to achieve that functionality. That's why the paper bag is more damaging: because it requires four to ten times as much paper, per functional unit, to deliver its functionality."
Why should companies be using Life Cycle Thinking?
"Well, sustainability is ultimately about efficiency, and efficiency is about doing the same things with fewer resources. So in most cases, if you do Life Cycle Thinking well, it'll save you money. Most of the time what you're doing is identifying inefficiencies.
"The problem in Australia though is the whole tall poppy syndrome. People don't like being leaders or pioneers in things. We have a problem with stagnation in a number of industries.
"Innovative leaders set the benchmark. Not being strategic and not thinking about environmental issues as an opportunity is basically going to mean that companies in the future are going to have to follow their competitors."
Are there examples of companies that have used LCT to become market leaders?
"Oh! InferfaceFLOR. Their whole business model changed 180 degrees from ordinary plastic flooring to having a fully integrated sustainable modular flooring system, and now they're one of the leaders in the world flooring industry. Recently I was at a conference where one of their head product developers was talking and he said 'We have some of the best people in the world working for us. If I asked any of you in the room if you would work for a carpet company I bet none of you would say "yes". Well I have a colleague who came over from Louis Vuitton. He came from Louis Vuitton to work for a carpet company because he is aligned with our values.' So you have a better workforce, a higher retention of knowledge, more capable people who are excited and drawn to your brand."
(Leyla is one of the few designers I've met who is not a fan of Apple.)
"One of the problems I have with Apple is an inherent level of product obsolescence and technological obsolescence around the choices that the company makes in taking the products to market. You just have to look at what happens every time they release a new iPhone. Nobody wants the old design. Nobody. It's like a fashion faux pas to have the old model. And they make it completely impossible to change or upgrade the product.
"What they've done is they've actually created a new kind of ownership. You don't own the product. You have no consumer sovereignty over that product. You can't fix it: how many people have you seen using their iPhone with a broken screen? And they say 'I can't get it fixed. It's going to cost me more to get it fixed than to replace it.' So you essentially don't own the product: you own the service embodied in the material product. And that is really problematic from a sustainability perspective because people become really complacent about the value of that material product. You're just owning that service and that service is prioritised, not the material inputs - because to get a new one is so easy and cheap.
"The argument that people make - that if we create long-lived high-value products we'll just be doing ourselves out of business - is just completely preposterous.
"One client I had did fit-outs for shops, and they had a five-year cycle after which the client would chuck out the old fit-out and get a new one. So we looked at them in terms of offering the service of shop-fitting, where clients would agree to have the fit-out decommissioned by them at the end of life and in return get a discount on their new fit-out. So the fit-out company would get an ongoing customership; they could also manage the life of their materials, so they could design for disassembly, reuse materials and get a guaranteed job every five years."
So you're building incentives into a design for disassembly approach.
"Yeah and not just DfD but design for reuse. It's creating long-lasting, high value materials that they know they're going to get back at the end of life instead of just cheap chipboard that they know is going to crumble - and they can design around that."
Could architectural firms be taking a similar approach, where instead of just building designers they become building custodians, responsible for ongoing upgrades of a building?
"Well for some architectural firms that might work and for others it might not, but by no means should they not be asking themselves that question."
Designing for Biodiversity
By Emilis Prelgauskas
Keeping habitat connected and viable. Brushtail possum using arboreal rope bridge, Karuah town road project, NSW (Image: Prelgauskas)
For about 30 years my practice has operated in Monarto in rural South Australia. To live in the presence of plants and animals, mixed in among people and their stuff, fills you an awareness of your place in nature. However that kind of living system thinking is normally tangential to mainstream practice, and can be difficult to align with conventional architectural commission themes.
The symbiotic congruence between humans and living systems in built environments is often achieved by accident. Vermin and opportunistic fellow travellers find human constructed space to be very attractive: from mice, rats, cockroaches, foxes and feral cats, to pigeons and noisy miners. Weeds from trees to bushes to grasses; moulds, mosses and fungi.
Then there are companion animals - cats, dogs, bunnies, chooks... Plants, for purposes of decoration, food, to cover surfaces or create shade.
But making these individual connections is a long way away from incorporating living systems holistically or comprehensively into the built environment. None form part of an ecosystem. As a result biodiversity is not secured in buildings or the city, no matter how many score points appear on engineering checklists.
Urban environments are designed with primacy of human utility and short-term profit in mind. Space for biodiversity is a totally different paradigm.
There are sound reasons to bring living systems into built works as a matter of normal design activity. It fulfils the professional's broader societal responsibilities beyond just satisfying client needs and thereby probably profits the client in the medium-term by aligning their project with emergent societal values. Companion animals succour the human spirit - their needs should be accommodated. If designed properly, plantings can provide shade, oxygen and moisture expelled into the air, they can moderate local microclimate and soften the hard angularity of built form.
But biodiversity aims at higher goals still. Wildlife reminds us of our connectedness with living systems. Everything humans can claim as resources for their use ultimately comes from the natural world. Oil originally came from whales, then from geological formations, then from palm, and is now being produced from algae. Biodiversity is the well from which continuous improvement can be drawn.
Connections between natural systems and the built environment can be fostered by recognising and then create formal ties between urban areas and natural resource depositories further away. Such as recognising that metropolitan Adelaide is only able to exist while it draws for its water, energy, and food sourcing on the whole state of South Australia, in places such as Leigh Creek, the wheat and irrigation foodbowl, and the Murray River.
Aspiring to true sustainability outcomes on an individual building site or across an urban area means integrating living systems into the more usual design parameters. Diverse vegetation selections where the outcomes are complementary plant associations which resist insect invasion and form habitat and food sources for beneficial animals. Linkages through in-ground and on-ground streams, and wildlife paths over roadways and similar urban "desert" areas.
It is only once the urban context is built to the levels of complexity as is found in the natural world that buildings and cities can aspire to being sustainable, where human needs are matched with resources shared across the city and beyond. It is only by creating space for biodiversity that true sustainability can be accomplished.
No Better Time to Retrofit
The Empire State Building retrofit is a poster child for the worldwide retrofit movement. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The business and environmental case for the large-scale sustainable retrofitting of commercial buildings just keeps getting stronger. Not only is there "no more cost-effective way to make major cuts in energy use and GHG emissions" (Yale Environment 360) but it could be the key to lifting global economies out of recession, and doing it sustainably. "It's effectively job creation, resilience to future climate change and keeping operating costs low, all at once," according to Karin Giefer, of Arup (New York) and author of a 2011 World Economic Forum report titled A Profitable and Resource Efficient Future: Catalysing Retrofit Finance and Investing in Commercial Real Estate.
And now the environmental case has had another fillip, with the release of a January 2012 report titled The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse. The report's findings, widely reported by environmental and industry media, and can be summarised thus: "when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction".
The missing link in the chain is finance and convincing building owners that the numbers stack up. With luck, that is where government initiatives like the City of Melbourne's innovative 1200 Buildings program will tip the balance - by assisting building owners with obtaining finance, advice and assistance.
One of the many retrofits that would qualify for assistance under the 1200 Buildings program is the installation of a "cool roof" (see following story).
Cool Roofs - Opportunities and Benefits
As is well known, the urban heat island (UHI) effect occurs when infrastructure absorbs and releases heat, making a metropolitan area significantly warmer than surrounding suburbs and regional areas.
A cool roof product (e.g. COLORBOND Coolmax, Dulux Infracool) reduces the amount of heat absorbed and held by a building, potentially reducing both the urban heat island effect and the individual building's energy use.
Dominique Hes of the University of Melbourne has undertaken research to establish when cool roofs would result in decreased energy use and when they would be beneficial for reducing UHI.
The research, commisioned by the City of Melbourne, concludes that commercial buildings represent the greatest opportunity. Commercial buildings generally have a greater cooling load than residential buildings, as they are primarily occupied during the day. A cool roof can reduce a commercial building's energy use by up to 3%, as well as help to reduce UHI.
A reduction in energy use for a residential building is dependent on the level of insulation in the roof of the building and the amount of natural shading it has. New, well insulated residential buildings will generally not see a reduction in energy use from installing a cool roof (though of course they will assist in decreasing UHI). However older, less well insulated homes can reduce their energy use by installing a cool roof.
Industrial buildings which do not have air conditioning, heating or insulation will be cooler in summer with the installation of a cool roof, however the impact of this on the working environment in winter should be considered before installation.
Search is on for Jetsons 2.0
After 18 months of trialling and blogging about their purpose-built Sydney suburbs smart home, Clare Joyce, Michael Adams and daughter Ava moved out of their digs to make room for new tenants.
A cooperative venture between Sydney Water and energy distributor Ausgrid, the Smart House is an experiment in on-site generation and technologically advanced water and energy conservation strategies. "This is an experiment to see how households will use energy and water in the future," said Ausgrid's Paul Myors.
In its first 18 months of operation, the house generated a very impressive 32kW/h a day through a combination of fuel cell and photovoltaic technology. The electricity generated even powered an electric car. Charged an average of eight times per month with an average draw of 2.5 kW/h a day, the car was driven more than 5000 km on Sydney's roads. It was found to have been about 75% cheaper that a comparable petrol car to run.
Smart Home organisers are searching for an "ordinary family" to move in to the house and share their experiences of the home in a blog.
Applications and information about the living in the Smart Home are available at www.ausgrid.com.au/smarthome. Applications close 29 February.
Where Does Crime Go When Public Housing Projects are Demolished?
Turns out some of it just disappears. Such was the finding broadcast by Atlantic Cities, a website devoted to urban design. By dispersing problem residents, says Meagan Cahill, a researcher at the US Urban Institute, you don't just disperse the crime, you actually reduce the total amount of crime.
"If there is crime in an upscale neighbourhood, everybody would come together, people would be up in arms, they'd demand the police pay attention, they'd say 'Let's get more patrols in here!'
"Low-income residents in a lot of poor areas, they've just given up on the police, they're not treated well by the police. They feel like the problems are too large for them to address. This is returning that sense of power to the residents, increasing the community's capacity to do something about their situation."
NZ Students Take US Design Comp by Storm
Verity Campbell, Sanctuary magazine
Image: Ron Blunt
Late last year, 27 university students from Victoria University of Wellington set out for Washington D.C.
The Wellington team had been selected as one of 20 finalists to take part in the US Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon. Held biennially since 2002, the Solar Decathlon is designed to inspire and inform participants and the wider public about the benefits of building green. Staged in the National Mall near the White House, the free event attracts over 350,000 public attendees over its 10 days of judging.
To reach the finals, the Wellington team, supervised and supported by university staff, had to design and build a home that would achieve best practice energy efficiency - essentially a net zero energy house that over a year will make enough or more energy than it needs to run itself. The house also had to be built to a realistic budget and deemed attractive to market.
The Wellington team was comprised of students from a range of disciplines, including architecture, engineering, landscape and interior design, communications, marketing (the team needed to find funding for the manufacture and transportation of the house) and visitor management.
The house design was inspired by the New Zealand "bach", the prototypical low-cost beach shack. The team chose this type of building because of its simple design and ubiquity. Much of New Zealand's housing stock is badly insulated and cheaply made, so the team hoped that by choosing a familiar and fondly regarded architectural archetype, the learnings from the competition could be applied widely in a local context. The name "First Light" was chosen to reflect New Zealand's status as the first country to see the sun rise each day.
Unlike the other finalists, most of whom were collegiate teams from the US, the New Zealand team had to deal with the challenge of transporting the house by ship, requiring a long lead time. Their solution was prefabrication, meaning that most of the work on the house was done before it left New Zealand's shores.
The competition organisers estimate the New Zealand house cost AUD$300,000 to build. To help with costs, over a hundred sponsors supported the cause with expertise, products and services.
The team came third overall - a very encouraging result for a first effort. And First Light returned to New Zealand to find a new home as a private residence.
In 2013, the inaugural Solar Decathlon China event will held in Datong, Shanxi Province, and be co-hosted by the US Department of Energy and China's National Energy Administration. There will be one Australasian finalist: Team UOW from University of Wollongong. Best of luck to them!
First Light: Facebook page
Solar Decathlon China: www.sdchina.org
This article is an excerpt from a piece published in Sanctuary: modern green homes magazine, issue 18: www.sanctuarymagazine.org.au
Defining Zero Emission Buildings
ASBEC Zero Emissions Residential Taskgroup
The report was developed by ASBEC (Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council) with guidance and support from a range of institutions. It's vision is to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive strategy to promote a shift to low and zero emission housing in Australia by 2020.
The report recommends adopting common language and definitions for use in the discussion of low energy residential development and is aimed at equipping stakeholders with a clearer understanding.
A number of low emissions housing projects are underway in Australia, among them the CSIRO's Australian Zero Emissions House, Mirvac's Harmony 9 house with a 9.2 Star+ NatHERS Rating, Climate Positive's Cape Paterson Eco-Village, South Australia's Zero Carbon Challenge, and Sustainability Victoria's Zero Emissions Neighbourhoods project.
Said Mark Allan, Taskgroup Chair, "We are encouraged to see so much work being done in Australia around low carbon homes and this paper will serve to strengthen the discussion on how we bring these concepts into the mainstream market."
Web: Final report
The Victorian Sustainable Architecture Forum (SAF) is hosting the first of this year's Raise the Green Bar events ("Beer, colleagues and topics to tackle") at an as-yet undisclosed Melbourne bar. Tim Angus of Elenberg Fraser will discuss his research of passive architecture and biomimicry that was part of his Masters of Sustainable Practice (RMIT).
When: Wednesday 22 February, 6-8pm
Where: a Melbourne bar (t.b.a.)
Green Cities 2012
Green Cities, the largest green building conference in Asia-Pacific, comes to Sydney in 2012 for three days of green building conversation, innovation and collaboration. Keynote speakers include Mary Ann Lazarus, Senior Vice President HOK, who will speak on biomimicry, and Rachel Botsman, Founder Collaborative Consumption.
When: 5-7 March
Where: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre
Leaks and Seals: Avoiding Condensation Through Smart Design
The drive for energy efficient buildings has led to improved air tightness and insulation, but a building still needs to breathe.
Through a combination of case studies and sound technical information, this seminar, led by Andy Russell of Proctor Group Australia, considers how design and detailing can minimise and prevent damage from condensation.
Length of course: 1.5 hours
CPD: 1.5 formal points
Timber Design, Detailing and Durability
National Seminar Series presentation by Geoff Boughton, Director, TimberED Services
Geoff Boughton explains the environmental benefits of timber use and looks at the range of timber building products and their applications. This course will assist you to correctly specify and detail timber for your next project, and to identify the challenges and constraints of timber use, including hazards and treatment strategies.
Geoff Boughton is an Adjunct Associate Professor and lecturer in Timber Engineering at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. He has authored over 100 technical papers and a number of books including Timber Design Handbook HB108-98 published by Standards Australia.
When and Where: Australia-wide, 12-30 March