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Net zero through time, space and change

Sustainability By David Butler, Consultant, Sustainability – 09 June 2022

Greater Curtin University Masterplan

Aerial view, artist's impression of the completed Greater Curtin University Masterplan.

Authors

David stood in a blue shirt and grey suit jacket in a soft focus street setting

David Butler

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Daniel stood smiling to camera in an indoor shopping parade

Daniel Lia

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When people think of net zero they often picture a static building or tangible product where every parameter is known and fixed. But with net zero at the heart of everything we do at Cundall, we also design for the permeable, unknowable and uncontrollable human element at a precinct scale.

This means we look across the broader urban fabric both spatially and through time. We also consider how a decision made today may transform the building supply chain tomorrow by creating demand that did not previously exist.

When we look at a precinct where public events and community uses are fundamental to the purpose, we embed net zero approaches from the outset. What may have been classed as a long-term plan of 20 plus years is now the short term, because the net zero target of the Paris Accord is fixed in time. A project in early design stages in 2022 will still be operating in that post-2050 decarbonised world.

So just as we future-proof design for unexpected natural disasters or changes in social needs, it is also a core fundamental principle that we design to future-proof planning and delivery of new precincts and buildings through implementing the net zero approach, today. This is a conversation we need to keep having internally, with clients, and with the broader community.

That broader community is the reason we design and deliver any public place or property asset, so understanding the end user experience, and incorporating this into our design led thinking, is vital. This means considering a precinct beyond spatial proportions and what built forms and infrastructure will go into that area, but looking towards the operational vision. How will the precinct serve, protect, and improve the lives and experiences of those in the community? What events will be held and what transport modes are considered? How do we make the site accessible to all and connect it to existing public transport and low-carbon active travel opportunities? We may need to look ahead also and see what future public transport links are planned.

We also need to consider how a precinct will function and how it can be delivered as a set of spaces.

This enables buildings to operate from on-site power as the first option, drawing on the grid only when absolutely necessary. Planning for precincts where outdoor events or transient retail or hospitality occur also means thinking through opportunities to power vendor set-ups like food trucks or artisan retail stalls, outdoor concerts without the use of fuel generators.

Optimising passive design and maximising onsite renewables is a given - but is only half the equation. There must be a strategic approach developed for operations and management of spaces and infrastructure. Too often we see projects designed well and then operated in a lacklustre manner. As a result, performance falls far short on intent.

Building technology including a smart controls strategy is an important tool for bridging the gap between design and performance. The strategy for controls also needs to form part of the asset handover approach. This approach should survive changes of management, owner and operators and ensure the smart building can be operated effectively and efficiently now and in the future.

The human dimension is crucial. We create buildings and precincts for people, and it is also people who use energy, not assets. By being thoughtful in design it is possible to consider how to encourage and support the sustainable behaviours across energy use, water use and waste that align with net zero goals and other sustainability plans. The passive operation of site and buildings should be an easy choice to make. This may translate as adopting a mixed mode ventilation strategy, installing flyscreens, including adequate shading, and ensuring functional layouts are optimised for daylight, ventilation and even temperatures. There might also be cues for circular economy or other waste reduction measures such as facilities for washing reusable cups and crockery and loose fit furnishings that are adaptable for multiple purposes.

While circular economy is an important part of any overarching sustainability approach, the footprint of sending materials offsite for reprocessing or remanufacture will almost always be larger than the footprint of on-site re-use. Reducing the number of energy-related, water-related and transport-related interventions between one use and another is the goal.

This principle applies at the building scale also. One-use buildings are not ideal unless they are occupied continually. Sports venues or arts venues can be co-located within the one shell if it is designed for flexibility. Interiors that are fluid and adaptable result in venues that facilitate responding to community needs for gathering places at a range of scales and crowd densities, including having a role as safe places in event of an emergency or natural disaster. With the ability to operate in off-grid mode designed into them, this is the epitome of planning for climate resilience.

Thinking through time and space also brings us to embodied carbon, which is inextricably linked with the communal emissions footprint.

If we create places that are long-lived, flexible, adaptable and operate at net zero, the impact intensity is reduced. Furthermore, when a project is at precinct scale, there is an opportunity to generate a level of demand for low-carbon products push the supply chain to transform. Given notice, a concrete manufacturer may be able to deliver lower carbon concrete if the size of the order is sufficient to justify the investment in new materials and processes. This is a positive impact potential that major projects can use to benefit the entire materials sector through enabling positive, transformational change.

Precincts and major projects also help bring the community along on the net zero journey. It has been easy for climate change naysayers to gain traction in the public mind where people have not experienced the impacts of climate change personally. This is similar to the default reaction of many developers to proposals for Passivhaus or net zero approaches – the defensive reaction is often “but it costs too much” or “it’s just not do-able” or “people won’t like it”. Not having first-hand experience of how those approaches can be delivered and how the end result operates makes it easier to take this position.

The tangible experience of a net zero place and net zero spaces can’t be beaten. It overcomes resistance by giving occupants, owners, operators and visitors a first-hand insight into how the concept translates into a lived reality. In turn, this contributes to bringing those stakeholders along on the decarbonisation journey that is essential for averting climate disaster.

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