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The standard we walk past - and why we shouldn't accept it

Sustainability By Simon Liley, Principal Consultant, Sustainability – 09 March 2022

Simon perched on the edge of the desk next to a couple of colleagues looking at a computer screen


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Simon Liley

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Our cities are humming with construction activity – but how many of the buildings have genuinely been designed to provide a healthy, comfortable, and sustainable human habitat? Sometimes I wonder if – as an industry – we forget why we construct buildings in the first place.

We create buildings because, for whatever reason, the outside is not conducive to undertaking a particular activity, be it work, rest or play. Put more simply, buildings shelter us from the elements or keep us from harm.

Design needs to do more than just look great to a prospective buyer. It needs to deliver its most fundamental purpose as efficiently and effectively as possible. This includes providing an environment that enables people to thrive.

There are many reasons I advocate a ‘fabric first’ approach to delivering sustainable, equitable outcomes. It means we get the orientation, spatial planning, accessibility, insulation, glazing and materiality right. These fundamental elements of design can be integrated into the bones of a building, ensuring it provides the level of shelter humans need from the elements both now and under the reality of a changing climate.

This is not just a ‘nice to have’ but a pressing health and equity issue for many parts of our planet.

Take Australia for example. Research including Daniel et. Al (2019) has shown that, every year, Australia has more preventable deaths from cold as a proportion of our population than many places in Northern Europe. That is because homes in those countries are, for the most part, designed and built to protect occupants from the elements.

On the other end of the temperature spectrum, researchers at the Australian National University estimate two per cent of all deaths annually in Australia are related to extreme heat – poor housing energy-efficiency and thermal performance is likely to be a contributing factor. Climate change projections tell us that the frequency and intensity of heatwave events are highly likely to increase. Without consideration in how we design and operate buildings, this increase will inevitably lead to more heat-stress and ultimately more hospitalisations and deaths.

These temperature-stress deaths overwhelmingly impact the most vulnerable in our society, and are completely preventable. Take someone who lives in a poor-quality home and is either elderly, has a disability or is on a low income. These factors may make them more vulnerable to heat stress and less likely to leave the house, and means they will either be exposed to uncomfortable and potentially dangerous temperatures or have high energy costs for mechanical cooling or heating. Sometimes it is expensive to be poor.

By optimising the bones of everything we build, we can bake-in performance, keeping the home as comfortable as possible for the least amount of energy, thereby minimising ongoing operating costs.

There is another set of problems that arise from how we apply building codes. The basic approach is to design and specify something that will meet the code and quantify the most reasonable outcome from a project cost and time perspective will be. This design is then submitted and approved by the Registered Building Surveyor on the project prior to construction. In Victoria, it is then largely up to the project team to ensure that the building is delivered as per the approved design.

However, the reality is that buildings are physical things, and a code compliant design on a page does not necessarily translate into a building that is liveable and energy efficient.

Take three examples from a recent premium development by a reputable and well-known organisation, completed in 2019 in Melbourne, Victoria.

The first, most egregious example, is a 400mm wide, uninsulated zone at the top of the west-facing bedroom wall. This was only discovered after the resident complained about summertime overheating and had an independent builder physically inspect the wall.

Secondly, the project had an admirable target of improving the airtightness of the dwelling, reducing sound ingress and improving overall thermal performance. However, this was done without mechanical ventilation or thermally broken window frames, leaving a legacy of condensation on cold winter mornings and the subsequent risk of mould.

Lastly, and in an example of small design decisions that have big impacts, the sunshade of the apartment stops approximately 400mm short of the top of the banister. This leaves the apartment vulnerable to direct solar penetration in late evening and is one of the reasons the apartment experiences its peak temperatures just before sunset (and is consequently hot overnight).

These examples might be considered small, and certainly pale in comparison to some of the more egregious structural defects that have recently been the subject of extensive inquiries such as Opal Tower in Sydney. However, they are indicative, to my mind, of a certain approach to design and delivery that fails to account for the real experience of people using the space and how its quality will impact them on a daily basis.

Conversely, the lived experience of space can lead to better outcomes. Before the pandemic, many people, including those who design buildings, did not spend days on end in their homes or apartments. Instead, the majority of their days were spent in commercial or institutional settings where comfort is closely managed, and the energy bills are someone else’s problem.

But working from home and being present when it’s overwhelmingly hot, or unpleasantly cold, has made many of us reflect on the place in which we spend our lives.

I hope this becomes a catalyst for us to centre our thinking around our motivation: to create spaces that provide safe and comfortable spaces for people.