Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Stubborn architecture

There are not many architects who pursue a dogged commitment to architecture as primarily social activism, while earning the esteem of their more conventional peers.  That said, it isn't surprising that the work of those few is also of profound significance in properly defining a sustainable architecture.  Australian practitioners who have earned their place in that rarefied company include Paul Pholeros and Robert Morris-Nunn.

The Forest EcoCentre by Circa Morris-Nunn
Morris-Nunn practices in Tasmania, the island state at the end of the world, south of the Australian mainland.  I have just read an unusually perceptive profile piece on him in the local online trade rag, Architecture and Design.  The following excerpt particularly caught my eye:
For me, architecture is the principal way that we hand on the values and aspirations of our current age to become the most tangible evidence of what is effectively our cultural inheritance for all future generations. Working here in Hobart, I am very aware that the current projects add but a very thin veneer to the already built cultural fabric, and this ‘fragility’ gives my work a strong focus and with it a desire to be quietly inclusive where necessary rather than create egotistical and essentially self indulgent edifices.
If only more architects espoused such a view of architecture, and if only more architects expressed themselves in such clear language.  What more can you say?  Well, read the rest of the article!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

No ifs or batts on the banned wagon

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 March 2012, by Tony Wright, national affairs editor of its sister publication The Age of Melbourne.  A relatively short opinion piece about the state of play with government schemes to promote better insulation of Australian homes.  Read it here.

The Age article is what passes for informed discussion these days, and I can hardly be bothered to think about it.  Except that it probably accurately mirrors the knee-jerk, poll driven, emotive, catchword foundations of much of what in turn passes for policy formulation in all levels of politics….and of that I need to be reminded sometimes.  

So what is the bottom line?  If I am kind, the journalist is saying that we can’t have an intelligent conversation about insulation or home energy efficiency, because in the wake of the infamous 'Pink Batts Fiasco', senior Labor Party hacks in our present federal government will panic at just hearing the word 'insulation'.

Energy-efficiency: building code star ratings

I don't know why it has taken me over a year to catch up with this report from the Master Builders Association of Australia. I found myself spitting chips all the time while I was reading it, for all the serious work someone obviously put in. 

The report begins with a rhetorical stance, that trying to force further improvements in predicted energy efficiency for heating and cooling of homes  is bad for the home owner, and bad for the rest of us.  And it never lets up, even when some of the figures it tosses around look absurd.  

I don’t actually have too many problems though with the methodology, so much as with the total absence of any proper discussion of either building industry/real estate context, or a decent bit of economics analysis that looks beyond an unrealistic system boundary.  

I mean, if a mandated energy efficiency compliance measure imposes a cost that is not recovered as an energy saving in financial terms, that is not ipso facto a damaging cost to both the individual and the rest of society.  For a start, it is likely to be offset in the first instance by foregoing some other discretionary spending on the dwelling construction, hopefully related to size.  I am not an economist, but I am sure even a semi-literate professional economist would be able to describe a model, in which expenditure on the ‘marginal improvements’ for energy efficiency would be suitably considered in whole of society terms. 

How on earth could you build an entire framework of ‘optimum’ star ratings, without considering that (at least in new build) it may be contingent on changes in what is a typical house, rather than incremental tweaks to existing house designs?  That is the dead give-away.  That the MBA would want such a study is obvious and even understandable.  They have a vested interest in making $10K look like it’s going to bring the home building industry to its knees.  They don't want anything interfering with the punters chasing ever bigger MacMansions, or fitting them out with ever more exotic granite topped kitchen cupboards.  But for the authors of the study to take the same position a priori, is intellectually offensive.

Notwithstanding all of that, I also think the star ratings scheme based on the AccuRate simulation software is a fatally flawed way of getting policy traction on domestic energy consumption, and anything that prompts a re-examination is welcome.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Restrictions on 'Design' ratings strengthen Green Star

I will keep this short, with a pointer to the recent announcement by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

From 1 January 2013, Green Star – Design ratings will be valid for two years, as the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) introduces time restrictions to strengthen the robustness of Australia’s environmental rating system for buildings.

The significance of this initiative by the industry based voluntary ratings organisation cannot be overstated.  Probably the most strident and valid criticism of LEED from the USA, and its derivatives like GreenStar in Australia, has been that they created a marketing tool of 'proposed' high performance, without ever delivering any checks and balances to expose under-performance of rated buildings.  This latest announcement addresses that criticism.

Of course, issues remain related to the balance and value assigned to different parts of these 'multi-indicator' ratings schemes.  Because they simply total up credit points, they can still let you get good ratings even while your building scores poorly on some aspect of sustainable performance.  

But given that the GBCA is demonstrating by this initiative its willingness to eliminate abuse and confusion in ratings, I can foresee that they are very likely to tackle other big issues sooner rather than later.  OK, let's just say that in the context of how slowly market transformation towards genuinely more sustainable buildings actually occurs, the GBCA seems to be acting both quickly and with surprising rigour.  I have to revise my standard lectures on rating schemes!!