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Architecture’s love affair with extravagant new build must end

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Sydney’s new Barangaroo development may pride itself on its green credentials but the  lowest-carbon building is one that doesn’t need to be built, writes David Ness

While architects may feel proud of their efforts in gaining ‘green’ credentials for new projects, the climate emergency presents a major new challenge. This demands a fundamental change in thinking to reduce resource consumption in building and construction – the highest (40 per cent) of any sector.

A case in point is Sydney’s Barangaroo development (pictured), comprising 535,000m2 of floor space for offices, apartments, hotel, retail and a casino, involving leading British architects WilkinsonEyre and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. To their credit, Barangaroo has attained a Six Star Green Rating via features including recycled water, shading technologies, renewable energy and recycling construction waste, with some effort made to reduce ‘embodied carbon’ associated with material production and construction. An exemplar in the C40 Cities Climate Positive Development Program, Barangaroo claims to be ‘the first precinct globally to be carbon neutral’. Moreover, developer Lendlease is among the ‘most sustainable’ real estate companies in the Dow Jones Index. But is there an elephant in the big green room?  

Advocacy groups are pursuing carbon neutrality by 2050. The World Green Building Council released its report, Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront, last month. This highlights the ambitious goal of ensuring that all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations have at least 40 per cent less embodied carbon by 2030, while operational carbon will be net zero at this point.

The developed world needs to constrain extravagant new construction so scarce resources can be allocated to less developed countries

Recognising that most carbon reduction potential lies at the outset of a project, the report intersects with the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign by urging consideration of options to ‘build less’, to maximise use of existing assets, and even to ‘build nothing’. The lowest-carbon building is one that doesn’t need to be built.

Many in the property industry, though, believe they can continue to erect more and bigger monuments to gambling and profligacy, while claiming to be carbon neutral. In other words, to have their cake and eat it, too. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy is seen as a multibillion dollar investment opportunity, with $250 billion of green bonds expected to be issued this year. However, green building rating tools, which play a major role in attracting such ‘sustainable finance’, usually attach most weight to reductions in operational carbon. These rating tools urgently need to address resource consumption and embodied carbon, with more credits awarded for retrofit, reuse, design for disassembly, and for building less. 

Consistent with RetroFirst, the ‘circular built environment’ promoted by Arup and others offers a way forward, by gaining more value from what we have, stewardship of our building stock, and design for life cycle adaptability. This may be a case of going back to the future, revisiting Alex Gordon’s ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’ (3Ls) concept, featured in these pages in the 1970s. Coupled with Stewart Brand’s ‘layers of change’ from 1995 (the 6Ss: site, structure, skin, services, space planning and stuff), this may help us future-proof new buildings so that, as they age, parts may be more easily replaced and the building stock more readily adapted to new uses.

But circularity alone is not enough. As circular economy founder Walter Stahel said: ‘A key issue at stake is unbalanced resource consumption on a global level, an issue of global ethics.’ This behoves us in the developed world to constrain extravagant new construction, enabling scarce resources to be allocated to the needy in less developed countries.

The RetroFirst campaign provides a welcome platform for urgent reform to capital investment, policies and procurement, which should extend to Australia and elsewhere. The last word belongs to Alex Gordon, quoted by the AJ in October 1974: ‘An architect’s best service to his client and society may be to advise that a new building is not required.’ 

David Ness is adjunct professor at the School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia, and author of The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019 

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  • And another thing - how much jetting backwards and forwards between London and Sydney does this involve for the staff of the two British practices?

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