Green not Green

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By Architect Don Bunting

 

I recently attempted to reduce the amount of old information on my library shelves. As someone once said: your library should be an art gallery and not a museum.

During this process I discovered a folder containing the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ (NZIA) Environmental Policy of 1992. This was a series of articles on sustainable issues of the time.

I recall that there was an accompanying chart listing a range of common building materials, their pathway through the manufacturing/supply process, and their embodied energy rating. However, this seems to have been lost.

I also found that this information is no longer held on the NZIA web site. The only survivor of this once red-hot topic was a short Practice Note titled Environmentally sustainable design in residential buildings.

I wonder if today there is too much emphasis, at least in the public mind, of climate change, and what to do about it in the broadbrush sense, and far less consideration of what can be done about it on a practical level — ie, is there too much emphasis on the dire result rather than practical solutions?

Alongside the NZIA Environmental policy papers on my shelves was a real relic — the Values Party manifesto of 1975.

For those who don’t remember, the Values Party was the precursor to the current Green Party.

Their manifesto contained a number of gems, such as a conscious commitment to stabilising the population level. This, as a major plank of their environmental policy, was one of the more outlandish.

They also believed that “there is nothing wrong with man altering the environment, but it must be done carefully”. Those were simpler times.

 

Going green

I remember with some personal pain the attempt to create an online resource of useful data on sustainable construction products under the name Greenbuild.

Like all small businesses, it was always vulnerable to failure. However, what is more critical to survival is timing. If you are too far ahead of where society or technology is currently tracking then your chances of success are greatly reduced.

And in 2007, sustainable building products was a concept more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Beacon Pathway (www.beaconpathway.co.nz ) is one of the few shining lights in attempts to put sustainability at the forefront of construction industry thinking.

However, it is not clear whether they are seen by designers and contractors as a useful design resource, or how well they are able to influence government thinking. Nevertheless, they deserve your support.

 

The big question

The New Zealand construction industry is still unfortunately based on a “cheapest is best” mentality.

As recent history has shown, contractors are also being tied into fixed price contracts and are left scrabbling to save cash wherever they can.

Another over-arching factor is the use by most designers of minimum standard acceptable solutions.

This is often done to avoid an exhausting battle during the consent process rather than believing that minimum standards are necessarily right for their particular project.

Our building consent process has a lot to answer for in terms of the industry taking an automaton approach to design.

And if the anecdotal stories of egregiously low fee levels for designers are true, then who can blame them? The environmental baby is being discarded, along with the low-cost mentality bathwater. How sad is that?

 

A different viewpoint on concrete

Concrete as a building material has a less than stellar environmental reputation, mainly due to a focus on the high levels of carbon dioxide generated during cement production, with the cement industry emitting as much greenhouse gas as aviation.

It is also seen as not renewable, and relatively inflexible to amend or demolish a building at the end of its life.

However, crushed concrete is increasingly being used as a source of aggregate for non-structural new construction.

For a building product in use for at least 12,000 years, it is often unfairly viewed as a lesser alternative to steel or timber.

Tim Harford, author of Fifty things that made the modern economy, talks about a social programme called Piso Firme (Firm Floor) in the Coahuila state of Mexico.

The Mexican Government allowed poor families to apply for $150 worth of ready mix concrete.

Workers would then drive concrete mixers through poor neighbourhoods, stopping outside the homes of needy families and pour out concrete onto the living room dirt floor.

Economists found that the advantages arising from this simple programme were immense, including improved children’s education, less disease and happier families.

 

Be very afraid

A recent TV news programme showed Auckland Mayor Phil Goff standing at the base of one of the City Rail Link excavations in Auckland’s Albert Street.

He said during the interview, “we are operating in a cost-sensitive environment”. This is politician’s code for “we are expecting a significant budget overrun”.

Auckland and national tax payers should be very afraid. My 2017 view that the much-vaunted City Rail Link was more likely to exceed $6 billion than the estimated $3 billion is, unfortunately, looking more and more likely.

When did estimates on construction projects become just a rough guess rather than a considered attempt to establish a maximum future cost?

Sadly, politicians prefer minimum estimates for their favourite projects as it makes it much more likely they will be approved. Light rail schemes, look out!