Sunday, 27 January 2013

Engineers try to lead towards a greener future

The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Airconditioning and Heating has apparently decided that they can take a leadership position in working towards a low emission future.

It is easy to see any such initiative as simply jockeying to protect livelihoods in an industry that is popularly perceived as the villain in climate change.  But that would be grotesquely unfair for two reasons.

It is all the rest of us who demand the comfort and productivity that increasingly sophisticated environmental controls in buildings can provide.  And the truth is that AIRAH has for years promoted a much more vigourous commitment to upskilling and the spread of knowledge related to sustainability amongst its members, than have comparable organisations such as the Institute of Architects.

So it is in interesting to read what they have to say in their Draft Discussion Paper, Transition to Low Emissions HVAC & R, Issues and Solutions.  It would be fair to say that nothing the paper is really new, or even for that matter any more sophisticated than the concepts taught to undergraduate architecture and engineering students.  A relatively experienced reader would be constantly disturbed by the unavoidable inference that many (or even most) professionals and technical personnel in the industry clearly are not up-to-date with either the rapidly developing technology, or with good practice.  But in spite of that, it is refreshing to have the issues brought out into the open.

For instance, the conflicts of interest associated with advocacy of passive design.  As the paper says: “Changes that reduce the size and complexity of HVAC & R equipment will reduce revenue for the industry. Fees for ‘low carbon’ advice and analysis need to be separated from HVAC & R design activities,” the paper suggests.

Other highlights of the paper include an exhortation for emphasis on systems rather than equipment, placing the emerging skills shortages in the industry in the context of both the longevity of typical building HCVAC systems and the poor connectivity between design and commissioning, and the need to encourage uptake of building information management (BIM).

 For a relatively brief and supportive review, including an interview with Phil Wilkinson, chief executive of AIRAH, try these two articles in TheFifthEstate (from which the image above is taken):

For meatier reading, try the real thing here even if it is too late for comments after February 1.

Obscenity makes me turn green

I am planning a quick trip to Mumbai in three weeks to take part in teaching a short course on conservation.  It prompted me to get an update on what should be the most morbidly fascinating building in the world.

The Antilla is a $1 billion family home built for India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, his wife, and three children.It is 27 storeys, but really the equivalent of a conventional 56 storey building approximately 170 m high, because of the owner's ambitious ceiling heights.

Well, apparently the building was completed in late 2010.   writing for Inhabitat to mark the occasion, rightly comments:
Constructed within a country estimated to have one-third of the world’s poorest population, the Antilia truly exemplifies the disease of excessive consumption, extreme wastefulness, and unsustainable living that is permeating today’s society.
My question is: How come in the nearly five years since the original renderings by architecture firms Perkins+Will and Hirsch Bedner Associates represented this obscenity as the 'Greenest of All Buildings', it hasn't been the subject of much more critical comment and deservedly strident condemnation in architectural discourse?  Even in those early rhetorical images, the proposal was typical greenwash covered in gratuitous airborn vegetation, which has clearly been dispensed with in the final steel and glass fantasy.

There is another way of looking at it.  The building employs a staff of 600, and you could say it isn't a bad way to ensure a trickle-down effect, a form of social sustainability. A version of this argument crops up almost every time I get involved in conversations about conservation or sustainability in India.  I am not suggesting that this is a definitive balancing argument, but it does highlight the need to engage in much more vigourous, but also much more subtle discussions of just what we are trying to achieve in the name of sustainability.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

2013 - Year of Climate Decision

That is the title of a long and dense post by Kevin Matthews on Architecture Week. Ho hum, seen it all before? No, you haven't.  And you really should make the effort to read it.Why?  For several reasons.

The first is that the editorial box associated with the article reports the alarming drop of time dedicated by mainstream media to the discussion of the impact of climate change, and commits this specialised architecture newssheet to maintaining a useful and urgent level of discussion.  It puts architecture and architects at the forefront of the necessary effective action. 

The second is that at the core of the article is reference to a new discussion of a well understood and frightening principle, which advisers to governments have been trying desperately to communicate.  Namely, that the cost of doing anything effective is rising exponentially with every minute we waste.  That paper from Nature, titled Probabilistic Cost Estimates for Climate Change Mitigation, now pins down the timetable to this present decade.  To quote:

If we wait until 2025, then there's no realistic level of effort modeled by the researchers that would have a reasonable likelihood of preventing devastating (and multiplying) impacts. 

The third reason to make the effort is that while the material is completely USA centric, the article describes in detail the difficulty of getting the various sectors of the economy to nominate effective action, even while their agree on the scale and the urgency of the problem.  Just one of the poignant examples lucidly explained is why effective action on mitigating climate change might involve for instance leaving 50 to 80% of the known reserves of nonrenewable carbon fuels in the ground.  You can imagine how hard it is for an oil industry executive to recommend that, yet in the bigger context of the truly staggering carbon price that will have to be attached to that energy in quite a short run, it doesn't seem to be such a hard policy decision at all.

Neither this article, nor do more authoritative papers it cites may tell you as an individual, as a professional, as an industry player, or as a policy maker what specifically you should do.  But, as the article concludes:
Activating local, state, and national elites in government, business, and media is absolutely critical to achieving this decisive change. With huge institutional inertia to overcome quickly, it will probably take everyone, who can help to make the case for change, each giving their own best push, to break things loose.   
This means us — in our work as design professionals, and in our engagement as citizens. And this means now.
To read the article in full, and to access at least a few of its new scary graphs, click here.  Unfortunately, unless you are a subscriber to architecture week, the remaining collection of graphics are not available in full size view.