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Reading the room: an air of change in Australian construction

Sustainability By Willow Aliento, Corporate Journalist – 17 May 2022

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Willow Aliento

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Sustainability leaders have been saying for over a decade that the Australian construction industry needs to aim higher than code-minimum compliance if we are to successfully reduce emissions and transition to net zero. It appears the message may at last be getting through.

At DesignBuild and Total Facilities in Melbourne, net zero was a significant element of many of the thought leadership sessions including presentations by Cundall’s Mathuran Marianayagam, Garrit Schot, Jay Dee Dearness and Michelle Jagger.

Clear links were drawn between the goal of dramatically reducing emissions and the techniques for achieving it, including smart building technologies, energy-efficiency, improving building design and addressing materiality and embodied carbon.

A feature of Cundall’s presentations was a focus on existing buildings, not only design for new assets. This resonated strongly with many attendees. Heads nodded, and notes were being taken. There were also some very productive post-presentation conversations.

Over recent months, we have been seeing commentary from within the property sector that there is a growing proportion of work in construction and engineering coming from retrofit and refurbishment projects as commercial tenants make what Corrs Chambers Westgarth term a ‘flight to quality’. The high level of interest in improving building performance I saw at the events also indicates betterment beyond a superficial refurb is on many asset owner’s radars.

The stands at the expo itself reflected this with multiple companies showcasing energy-efficiency technology, building management system platforms, low-energy lighting and urban greening solutions.

One of the urban greening infrastructure businesses explained they are currently in the process of obtaining third-party certification as a carbon positive company through the company’s head office in Europe. Their nifty product combines glass composite pole structures and the same connectors used for tensile stadium roofing to create a trellis and shading installation that can be retrofitted anywhere there is an empty space without needing significant disturbance of existing ground or any modifications to buildings to provide support. It was impressive also to hear them talk about the biodiversity thinking that has gone into developing a repertoire of climate-adapted vines specifically for each of the ecotones they operate in.

Of course, not all of the supply chain is aboard the sustainability journey. Another company had a product that sounded like it had some kind of eco dimension – but was a vinyl composite of stone dust and plastic. I somewhat hopefully asked if they had an EPD – after all, it might be reclaimed waste stone dust or recycled plastic? It might be VOC-free? It might have end-of-life product stewardship?

“What’s an EPD?” they asked, and I’ll admit my heart sank a little. I explained what an Environmental Product Declaration is, and when they commented they didn’t need one of these, it also signalled that their product is not being sourced for any Green Star, WELL, Living Building Challenge or other sustainability-minded projects. A litany of missed opportunities.

One of the more unexpected aspects of the event was the number of exhibitors offering coffee. Everywhere I looked – coffee machines and coffee pods. The usual trinkets of calendars, tiny model hard hats and stickers were scarce. Instead, it was freebies of hand sanitiser, masks and cups of coffee. Even physical business cards were barely in evidence, with the organisers having encoded people’s contact details on the event pass so people could scan each other instead of handling physical cards.

The digital piece was further elevated by the types of businesses at the expo. From digital project management, BIM, digital WHS, sign-on systems and energy software through to robots, the past two years of working and collaborating virtually has given a boost to the cloud-enabled segment of the industry.

An interesting chat with one of the energy efficiency tech providers also showed the appreciation of technology as a means of improving building performance is no longer confined to commercial property. The company has been doing substantial work not only in commercial buildings but also increasingly for primary producers. He said that to his surprise, over the course of the event many inquiries he was getting were coming from people wanting assistance with their residential buildings.

Residential is not an area his company had yet ventured into, and it poses some unique challenges. For a start, the built form of small roof area to large multi-level floorspaces makes simply installing solar PV on the roof a non-starter in terms of making a significant difference to energy costs for individual occupants. It can make a difference to base building common property costs, but even then, energy-efficiency of the common property and building systems should ideally come first.

The other big hurdle for multi-res is the governance structures of strata properties. To achieve a decision to engage an energy-efficiency auditor requires a majority vote at a Strata committee meeting – and each stage of tendering for any recommended improvements will also require majority agreement.

So why right now are people keen to navigate the challenges and potentially invest in expert advice?

I suspect after being mostly at home for the better part of two years, many have discovered just how poorly their code-minimum apartments perform in both hot weather and during Melbourne’s frigid, damp winters. Coinciding with this, they have also realised how incredibly expensive it is to have heating or cooling operating for much of the day and night. Back when people departed for offices or could escape to airconditioned shopping centres or venues, the cost of being comfortable was likely to be far less onerous.

Perhaps one of the unlooked-for legacies of COVID lockdowns will be a much broader appreciation of the tangible benefits of designing and delivering better buildings.

I also had a chat with one of the Facilities Management Association representatives who said that for many attendees, net zero is now accepted as inevitable. What they are looking for now is information and support to get there.

Improving the indoor environment quality of the buildings they own, operate, maintain and occupy is also high on the radar for most people, he said. Ventilation and high indoor air quality are the new must-have. This is challenging for many buildings, particularly those constructed in the 1970s-2000s when non-operable windows and 100% mechanical ventilation became business as usual.

This is where I believe engineering will find major opportunities to mitigate the design mistakes of the past (honestly, what WERE they thinking with those fully-sealed glass boxes?). Knock-down and rebuild is not sustainable, not from an embodied carbon perspective and not from an urban fabric and community value perspective. We simply must fix what we have – and if the conversations and presentations of the recent event are a sound litmus test, the wider industry is starting to see the benefits of evolving beyond business as (was) usual.