Thursday, 11 September 2008

Green is the new black: architects take on sustainability

My day job is teaching in a university architecture program. I teach a studio every semester, yet I seem to rarely offer a special 'sustainability themed' project. This is partly because for many years, the architecture profession itself has managed to make it clear to its members, through its writings and awards, that any building that was recognisably concerned with being sustainable was not likely to be real ARCHITECTURE. And while I didn't ever toe that line, most of my students have been fatally influenced by it.

So recent events have surprised and delighted me. This semester, I offered a studio with two 'sustainability themed' competitions as projects. I wrote the brief to challenge my students, to explicitly consider the perception problem I describe above. Well, the first project is submitted, and we have just found out that all four of the schemes selected for the final judging in the
Sustainable Buildings 08 international conference Student Competition are from my studio. In fact, every student in the class is a member of a premiated team! That is thrilling.

But much more thrilling is that as soon as I wrote the introduction to the studio, lambasting my profession for not merely ignoring, but demonising architects who try for more sustainable buildings, the local NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects announced its 2008 Awards. And they were notably dominated by buildings with profound sustainability sensibilities.

The highest accolade, the Sulman Medal for a public building, went to a small, exquisite education centre, not only scrupulously exploring a number of energy and water conserving technologies, but rigorously reusing the disassembled components of existing temporary classroom buildings already on the site.

The Wilkinson Award for a single house went to a rammed earth building. An Architecture Award was garnered by adaptive reuse of a progressively modernist 1960's university building, whose concrete cancer riddled facade would otherwise have condemned it to oblivion. Another went to the imaginative reuse of a historic railway carriage works as a setting for all kinds of unconventional theatre.

official press release is well worth reading. It is an affirmation of faith in architecture that is simply good, sensitive, enduring and even self-effacing. Without saying so outright, it is a challenge to the aggressive posturing, unbridled scramble for novelty, the size, profligacy and expendability of the placeless objects that have so dominated the architectural hotspots of Beijing and the Gulf states for so long. For a change, I am proud of my profession.

I had to issue a revised version of my studio handout.

Carbon trading profits | Investing in energy efficient homes

In all the discussion of what are meaningful carbon abatement targets for Australia’s proposed carbon trading scheme, most of us have missed one of the Government’s most radical initiatives. It would seem that the Australian Government has decided to link carbon trading profits directly with investment in improving the energy efficiency of Australia’s stock of existing dwellings.

Both the general principles and the specific details have been kind of dribbling out, mainly in speeches by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett. On August 2, at the Appropriate Technology Retailers Association of Australia conference, Melbourne, he outlined a commitment of more than $1 billion to household and community energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Government’s first Budget, stating:
This is about deploying technologies where they are needed most, for example the $150 million Low Emission Plan for Renters, providing rebates for installing energy-efficient insulation in rental homes.

It’s about helping households make smarter choices for energy efficient products by expanding, accelerating and strengthening energy rating labels and standards for appliances, like televisions.

It’s about transforming markets away from the most inefficient and costly products, for example through the accelerated phase-out of inefficient lighting, through rebates for solar hot water systems to replace inefficient systems, and working with the States and Territories to phase-out the most inefficient systems over time.

And it’s about integrating these approaches with innovative financing arrangements, like Green Loans, a $300 million commitment to deliver Green Renovation packs, sustainability assessments, and low-interest loans for energy and water efficiency – including solar PV - to up to 200,000 households from early 2009.

By August 29, in a speech to the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors (ABSA) National Conference, he hinted at the most important investment the government is proposing to make: subsidising or perhaps paying in full for energy ratings and advice to householders. After speaking about the benefit of solar hot water, adding insulation, and other well proven strategies, he went on:
It begs the question – if we know it’s so good, why aren’t we all doing it already? And part of the answer is Australian households need advice – professional, impartial advice - on the most effective ways to reduce their energy and water usage and financial help to make those changes. That’s why the building sustainability assessment profession has a critical role to play in helping Australian households make effective and practical changes to their homes to reduce their energy use and save on energy bills.

Through the Government’s $300 million Green Loans program, from early 2009, Australian families will be able to access a high quality subsidised expert assessment of their home’s energy and water use.

They will sit down at their table with a trained professional and receive tailored advice, based on their home and their circumstances.

They will immediately benefit from energy and water savings from the Green Renovation Kit that will be delivered.

They will be guided to low interest finance options to undertake the improvements recommended and to rebates for which they’re eligible.

They will understand which appliances incorporate cost-saving energy and water efficient technologies through efficiency labelling.

And they will know what small changes they can make in running their home – like curtains, door seals, energy efficient lighting and low-flow showerheads – to save even more energy and water and reduce costs over time.

Later in the conference, one government official suggested that the real plan is to go a lot further: to introduce quite quickly the mandatory declaration of home energy ratings at time of sale or letting ─ as has been the requirement in the Australian Capital Territory for some years. The government is clearly committed to all of us being better informed about saving energy in the home, and is willing to overcome consumer and industry resistance to the up-front cost of that extra effort. By paying for it directly from its profits from carbon trading.

I wait with bated breath for the official announcement.

Going green creates more jobs

I have long admired those few governments that have taken a 'whole of society' view when doing the sums on sustainability, rather than caving in to simplistic lobbying that we can't afford to spend on going green. As usual, the US comes late to these sorts of ways of thinking, but when it does, it does it with a bang of big bucks.

New Scientist reports that the steelworkers' union has submitted a report to the government pointing out the economic benefits of improving the performance of buildings and infrastructure, rather than directing similar spending on other economic stimulus measures. Leo Gerard, international president of United Steelworkers proposes that:
A $100 billion US government investment over two years could create 2 million "green" jobs in such industrial sectors as steel and construction, according to environmental and labour groups.
The information comes from a report commissioned by a think tank called the Center for American Progress. John Podesta, president of the think tank and a former Clinton administration official, is quoted as explaining: $50 billion of the investment would be tax credits to help private businesses and homeowners pay to make their buildings more energy efficient; $46 billion would be in the form of direct government spending on retrofitting buildings, expanding mass transit and freight rail, making "smart" electrical grids and new investment in renewable energy; and $4 billion would be in federal loan guarantees.

To put the amount in perspective, Podesta compares it to the stimulus program put into place in the US in April 2008 to boost the economy by providing tax rebates to taxpayers and tax incentives to businesses. That initiative was costed at US$168 billion.

Much as I cringe at the apparent simplistic arguments, I know that Al Gore did more to put climate change on the international agenda than the previous twenty years of pleading by more sophisticated experts, and some responsible governments. Therefore, I am pleased to see sentiment in the US beginning to line up with the irresistible logic that spending on sustainable development is a much better way of managing the future than persevering with boosting economies by gratuitous consumption.

Read the original article at

Monday, 1 September 2008

NABERS update

The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) is a voluntary rating system for the property industry providing a reliable measure of the actual environmental impacts of buildings on an easily understood scale of one to five stars.

The home rating tool, NABERS Home, has been available in variously improved forms for some time, providing householders with a measure of the water and energy performance of the home. It has also been trialled by local government and state housing authorities as a ‘snapshot’ of community sustainability.

More recent is the performance-based rating system for office buildings, NABERS OFFICE. NABERS OFFICE allows existing office premises throughout Australia to be benchmarked for their operational impacts on the environment. Importantly, it now incorporates the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating (ABGR) scheme to measure and rate energy and greenhouse efficiency. A water rating component, using the same methodology, is used to benchmark water efficiency. Other environmental indicators are currently being developed within NABERS OFFICE to provide a complete environmental performance benchmark, including waste, indoor environment, transport and site management.

According to a recent news release by RICS Australia, since the energy rating scheme was launched in 1999, 478 buildings have rated their greenhouse performance, making up 31% of the commercial office space in Australia. Since NABERS OFFICE Water was launched in April last year, 134 buildings have rated their water efficiency, making up 8% of the available national office space.

Building managers, owners and tenants can self-assess the energy and water performance of their base building, whole building or tenancy at no cost using the on-line NABERS OFFICE performance rating calculators. However, any public use of NABERS or ABGR must rely on an official rating done by a government-accredited assessor.

NABERS Energy and Water ratings for Hotels now available, beginning the expansion of the range of NABERS rating tools to handle variety in building types.

The alternative GreenStar rating scheme promoted by the Green Building Council of Australia has expanded rapidly since its much later inception, by offering a number of additional tools, including an ‘as built’ version of the original GreenStar Office. However, it is probably still fair to say that this industry sponsored scheme remains focused on providing a rating of intended performance of buildings. This ‘declared performance’ can serve very well to position projects in a competitive marketplace, but may or may not be eventually realised in practice.

In contrast, NABERS and ABGR ratings are based on the actual environmental impact of offices over a twelve month period and they are valid for one year. The premises need to be assessed annually to keep their accreditation and continue to promote greenhouse and water efficiency credentials.

It is worth taking another look at NABERS. It may not be as well backed by publicity and promotion as GreenStar, but in spite of its long-delayed full commercialisation, the government promoted NABERS now shows promise of matching and even overhauling the development industry scheme.

Click here to read more about NABERS generally, and to link to the web-based tools.