If walls could talk…

Our built environment is a significant contributor to carbon emissions, but it also offers plenty of scope to reduce them. The Sustainable Buildings forum in Hobart this week will show how, followed by Tasmania’s premier sustainability event, the annual Sustainable Living Expo. [2 November 2010 | Peter Boyer]

As you read this, the chances are you’re sitting inside a building. At an office desk, maybe, or in the tea-room, or at the dining table at home. With four walls around you and a ceiling above. And the chances are you’ve given none of that a moment’s thought.

TOP: Navan Credit Union, Dublin; designed by Gaia Ecotecture (Paul Leech): winner of Ireland’s LAMA Award 2010. BOTTOM: Australia’s first carbon-neutral office building: Grocon’s Carlton Brewery site, Queensberry Street, Carlton (Melbourne) [PHOTO John Gollings Photography / Grocon Pty Ltd]The buildings that we inhabit are so much a part of our lives that we’re inclined to take them for granted. They don’t move, or talk. They sit there day and night, enabling us to work, play and sleep in comfort, shielding us from sun and wind and rain and any other undesirable elements.

At least, that’s what they ought to do. But most buildings in Tasmania aren’t nearly as good as they should be at sheltering us and our chattels.

Take the houses where we spend most of our lives. The standard 20th century Tasmanian home was clad with weatherboards under galvanised iron, with inner walls and ceilings of plaster, and nothing between but studs, battens and, if you were lucky, a bit of thin foil insulation.

In the second half of the century we replaced our timber window frames with aluminium: shiny, maintenance-free — and a wonderful conductor of heat and cold. Not that it mattered, because we had cheap, abundant electricity to drive all those fans, radiators, air conditioners and heat pumps.

Our offices and factories were constructed in much the same carefree spirit. Using carbon-intensive materials and processes like cement, and air conditioner technology to offset poor design, we produced a generation of “Yank-tank” energy-hungry buildings. And so it goes on today.

As if poor building design wasn’t bad enough, human ingenuity kept turning out flashy new gizmos for all known needs plus others we never knew we had, constantly on standby or charger. Our homes and workplaces became energy dispensaries serving an endlessly-rising appetite for power, and the electricity flowed in only one direction — out.

The Prime Minister’s Task Group on Energy Efficiency, set up by Kevin Rudd in March and reporting last month to Julia Gillard, estimated that a fifth of Australia’s carbon emissions comes from energy consumed within buildings. With the energy used to construct and demolish them added on, they’re the source of about a quarter of our carbon pollution.

But the built environment also offers a huge scope for reducing emissions. The Task Group estimated that making our buildings sector more energy-efficient could cut Australia’s annual emissions by 30 megatonnes (5 per cent) by 2020, but unlocking this potential wouldn’t happen without support from government and business.

Energy efficient buildings make good business sense, especially when they meet other attributes of a “green” building as defined under Australia’s voluntary “green star” system of accreditation, such as good maintenance regimes, use of natural materials and low-carbon operation.

But as the Task Group found, the building market been slow to recognise this. It has failed to grasp that energy-efficiency and other green-star attributes actually translate into real long-term value with a significantly better return on investment.

The Task Group also found a knowledge gap. Australia has too few people with the skills needed to make our buildings more energy-efficient, in both construction of new buildings and retrofitting of existing ones — especially where emerging technologies and systems are involved.

Tasmania’s political leadership has so far failed to engage with the issue. Last year Tasmania was the only State to opt out of a national scheme to phase out old energy-intensive hot water storage systems in favour of new, low-energy heat-exchange and solar technologies.

The government appears to have acted on advice from the home construction sector, which expressed alarm that the measure would put up house prices and place an undue burden on the economy. The result is that in a country whose own national building sustainability standards are well behind Europe’s, Tasmania lies at the bottom of the class.

We in this “clean, green” state need to wake up. We have the wherewithal to contribute usefully to a national push to make our built environment more sustainable. We need to get business engaged in this challenge, and to begin addressing the skills shortfall identified in the Task Group report.

Making our buildings work better at lower cost, while also being better for the environment, is a focus of three connected Hobart events later this week.

Award-winning Irish architect Paul Leech will be the 2010 Richard Jones Memorial lecturer on Thursday evening at 6.30 pm, at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania. The theatre’s foyer space will feature displays on some Tasmanian sustainable buildings and designs.

At the same venue starting at 9am on Friday will be “Sustainable Buildings: Opportunities for Tasmania”, a forum being organised by Future Tasmania, a group promoting transition toward sustainable futures. Leech will be one of the forum’s many key voices from the building industry, State and Federal Government, the research community and the not-for-profit sector.

At the newly-refurbished Princes Wharf Shed, the annual Sustainable Living Expo will kick off at 10 am on Saturday with a full two-day program of exhibits, talks and workshops on living more sustainably. Call 62345566 for more information.

This entry was posted in built environment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, economic activity, energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, local economy, local government, organisations and events, Sustainable Living Tasmania, Tasmanian politics, transport fuel, Workshops and seminars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to If walls could talk…

  1. Phil Harrington says:

    Nice one, Peter! Tasmania has tended to drag the chain when it comes to the quality of our built environment – some sort of cultural cringe, I fear. We were the last State in Australia to move to 5 star, while in WA, right now you can buy a 9-star carbon-positive house with 6kW of PV and solar hot water for…$215,000 on your land! Can’t afford to be green? In Melbourne we’ve just had a commercial building win all 100 pts available under Green Star – it’s never been done before and it’s off the ratings chart – so we can’t say how many stars it is! The building is called Pixel – see the photo above. Tasmania really could lead here – we have fantastic natural assets like (some) sustainably harvested and certified timber (eg, EcoAsh), and long sunshine hours to warm our buildings. But we need the whole building supply chain, from regulators to policy makers, architects, builders, surveyors, mechanical services providers, to get behind the sustainable buildings movement…or risk being left behind. Let’s see some leadership!

Comments are closed.