Tuesday, 22 November 2011

How good is BASIX?

This is actually old news, but with a bit of a new relevance.

The NSW Department of Planning (now also Infrastructure) runs an on-line planning approval instrument for all dwellings constructed in that state of Australia, dedicated to aspects of sustainable new construction.  To the best of my knowledge, this Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) is unique in the world, not because of the comprehensiveness or stringency of its requirements, but simply because it is on-line, with no alternative ways of getting the required certificate.

One of the advantages of an on-line system is that it is so ruthlessly good at capturing data - you don't have to do surveys with sampling, you are constantly taking a rolling, up-to-date census of all dwelling construction in the state.  

Periodically, the Department releases reports on the 'outcomes' of the BASIX regime.  Available now are reports on single dwellings, multi-residential projects, and alterations.  They are getting a bit old, with the critical multi-residential review being only up to 2009 - so why do I choose now to draw attention to them?  Well, as I blogged a few days ago, there is a review going on, of the highly influential Residential Flat Design Code.  One of the great unknowns in that review is what relationship is there between that Code, and the outcomes hoped for through BASIX.

The first important news is that the reports are easily accessible.  This was not always so; for a while you couldn't actually find them on the BASIX web site, or anywhere else.  Almost as if someone was embarrassed by the content, and wanted to bury them.

Secondly, the BASIX Outcomes Reports are an extraordinarily rich source of data on all the physical characteristics of dwellings being constructed, as well as all the choices designers are making for construction, glazing, landscaping, dwelling sizes, common area lighting - you name it, it's there.  There are exhaustive tables of how those dwellings are rating against the metrics. The data could keep some researchers going for entire academic careers.

So what is the bad news?
It's rather subtle really.  The possible problem with the original two reports on single dwellings was that for all the bluster about how effective BASIX has been in improving the thermal efficiency of building envelopes, each had in it a single telling graph.  Which showed that per household energy use had continued to rise. That was the elephant at the table noone really wanted to talk about.  They solved that problem in the report on multi-dwelling outcomes.  While the report tells you in gory detail what the applicants are telling the Department they are going to do, nowhere in the report is there even a hint of what they actually do after they get their planning approvals, or how those buildings are actually performing.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Project wins award for best apartment building

A project on which I worked over a number of years has recently won the Australian Institute of Architects highest award for multiresidential architecture.

The name architect is Candelapas Associates, already known for a number of previous awards for this building type. But the project is interesting for a much more complicated history than the conventional architectural attribution would tend to suggest.

My involvement began just after the preliminary development application for the site. That design had been prepared by an altogether different architecture firm, PTW Architects, more famous for the Watercube at the Beijing Olympics.  The scheme already contained most of the fundamental attributes for which it would be eventually recognised. But the development of the design was subject to critical re-evaluation of two amenity compliance issues which are characteristic of the residential flat development regulatory settings in Sydney — solar access and natural ventilation for apartments, and preserving solar access for its neighbours. That is why I was consulted.

Achieving the numbers required by SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Design Code often requires several reworkings of an initial concept. Much of that work was carried out by a small architectural practice Frost Architecture, which to the best of my memory had spun off from PTW. We went through at least three major variations of the original design, introducing innovative ways to tweak the apartment mix, and of some of the apartment types, before obtaining development approval.

Finally, the developer brought in Angelo Candelapas, with whom he had worked fruitfully on one of our previous projects. Angelo has a special touch, especially with the material palette. Almost as a last transformative gesture, we turned a number of the open verandas into wintergardens, offering the approving authority an appropriate description of their beneficial climate control performance, and achieving undoubted improvement of livability of the smallest apartments.

Hard work, often seemed like trying to deal with obstructions, but a lovely feeling when careful attention to the regulations intended to produce enhanced livability pays off.

Review of SEPP65: Design Quality in Residential Apartments

In 2002, the State of New South Wales in Australia introduced regulations intended to improve the design quality of multi-residential architecture. Known as State Environmental Planning Policy No. 65 (SEPP65), its major instrument in achieving its purpose has been a model code called the Residential Flat Design Code. A performance-based code, well structured around issues ranging from regional and local urban design to detailed considerations of building performance and amenity, it has been a significant influence on the residential architecture of Sydney.  An excellent and instructive document, it is well worth downloading by anyone interested in multiresidential dwelling design.

But the experience of working to the code has also been frustrating for many developers and architects. Those frustrations arise mainly from the way it is treated by planning staff of the local authorities who are vested with the powers of approving developments. Untrained in building design, these professional officers tend to look for simple rules, and have generally come to treat the rules of thumb incorporated in the model code as if they were mandated development standards.

A review of the Residential Flat Design Code has been overdue for some time, and is now underway. A comprehensive discussion paper can be downloaded on the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure website at http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/Development/Onexhibition/tabid/205/ctl/View/mid/1081/ID/62/language/en-AU/Default.aspx

It is tempting to assume that negative experiences with the implementation of the code will be relatively easy to fix. Personally, I have significant doubts. The best thing about SEPP65 is that it lays emphasis on merit-based evaluation of development applications, and accordingly the code is scrupulously performance based. To interpret and apply performance-based criteria, and to make good merit-based determinations requires appropriate training and professional expertise. It also requires trust between the applicant and the determining authority, that they are collaborating in producing meritorious outcomes. This approach does conflict with the more usual expectations of certainty in the development environment and the approval frameworks. In seeking the latter, we are likely to lose the former.

Let's hope I'm wrong. The bathwater may be dirty, but I don't want to throw out the baby.

Where are the people?

It is an old beef about the way architects present the buildings in the architectural literature. But it was enough to prompt me to think about picking up this long abandoned blog.

I look in on that excellent architecture and design site Dezeen quite often. I find the coverage of buildings around the world both timely, and relatively more comprehensive than many other such sites. The one that piqued my interest this time was
Protected Collective Houses in Toledo by TASH
The byline reads “These four concrete apartment blocks by Spanish architects TASH were only completed last year, but they already look strangely abandoned in these photographs.”

I didn't know whether to anticipate some sort of esoteric aesthetic judgement, or a candid but not very kind reflection on the architecture. But I'm interested in apartment design, social housing, and in particular the bioclimatic design principles claimed to have informed this project.

The first thing that struck me, was that the editors made no further reference to the teasing byline. Perhaps they were allowing the images to speak for themselves. Indeed in all the photographs, there is no sign of habitation, and not a single person. An exaggerated response to the propriety of protecting the privacy of the less advantaged? I hardly think so. I think it's actually back to the bad old days where a human being would spoil a good architectural photograph.

Nevertheless, the project is worth a little bit of study. As usual, Dezeen reproduces some architectural drawings which help a great deal in understanding the buildings.

As far as bioclimatic principles are concerned, there is indeed a notable clarity reminiscent of the solar access geometries of the early 80s. Lined up on an east-west axis, the four building blocks display the expected asymmetry between the north and south facades. To an antipodean eye, it is the detail that is slightly disconcerting: the glazing ratios on the southern (sunny) side are much lower than you would find in Sydney apartments responding to a somewhat similar climate. I suspect that the Spanish example is more rigourous as an outcome of an energy efficiency driven code environment, and it is the Australian examples that are overglazed from that point of view.

However, rigourous passive solar design is but one part of an appropriate sustainable response. The real reason the detail is disconcerting is that the imagery makes very plain those verandas on the sunny side of the building are unlikely to support the sort of rich use of private open space, and equally rich potential social interactions, which one would hope to see in this kind of housing development.