Buildings and how to do them better

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Australia’s top commercial property developers are talking about “radical sustainability”. But – as the audience at Tomorrowland19 heard, last month – if these ideas are to reach the mass market, the building industry needs to consolidate, cut costs and better train construction workers.

Panel members: David Chandler OAM, NSW Building Commissioner, Fred Holt, 3XN, Peter Poulet, Western Sydney University, and Robert Saidman, Arup. Moderated by Chris Nunn, AMP Capital.


As a panel of building experts expounded on the merits of the circular economy, material passports and digital technology, Tomorrowland19 attendees had a bird’s eye view of the construction of a new commercial building that is reshaping ideas about the design of high-rise towers.

Built in the 1970s, the AMP Centre at 50 Bridge Street in Sydney’s CBD is undergoing a major revamp that will add life to a tired part of the city, while setting new benchmarks for sustainable commercial property development. 

“The circular economy is inevitable if we are to survive.”

Danish architectural firm 3XN, which is undertaking the project with engineering firm Arup, has called the design for Quay Quarter Tower (or QQT as the building is now called), an act of “radical sustainability”. 

The design makes the most of the embodied energy and resources in the old building by incorporating two-thirds of the existing structure in the new building. It will be made of five volumes “stacked” upon each other, each connected by a large atrium. The rotated volumes help shade the northern façade, dramatically cutting the amount of energy used for cooling.

The project demonstrates the kind of integrated thinking that is needed to make commercial buildings more sustainable, said Professor of Architecture at Western Sydney University (WSU), Peter Poulet.

“This sort of thinking is essential,” Poulet told the Tomorrowland 2019 audience.

“[The trend] is taking design a bit away from technology and high-end systems and going back to basics for a passive sustainable approach.”

“The circular economy is inevitable if we are to survive.” WSU emphasises the value of collaboration between material scientists, engineers and construction managers so that its students emerge better equipped to meet future challenges in the construction industry,” he said.

Top end takes notice

The trend among top-tier builders and architects is increasingly to place a high value on retaining embedded carbon, and on less glazing and lower window-to-wall ratios to cut energy consumption, among other sustainability measures.

Parramatta Council in Sydney’s west, for example, has stipulated that facades on commercial buildings need to be shaded to protect against an increasingly hot external environment.

Fred Holt, 3XN

Building codes around the world are also changing in a bid to minimise energy use, according to architect and 3XN partner, Fred Holt.

“[The trend] is taking design a bit away from technology and high-end systems and going back to basics for a passive sustainable approach,” Holt said.

But New South Wales Building Commissioner David Chandler warned it is not easy to translate top-end designs like that of QQT to the mass market. 

“We pay a really high price for trading off getting it done right versus just getting it done.”

“It is early days but to put some scale on it… NSW registers about 1800 new strata titles a year, or about 27,000 apartments, year on year,” Chandler told the conference. “It is a challenge to translate ideas from one building [QQT] across 1800 of buildings.”

David Chandler, NSW Building Commissioner

Chandler, who is responsible for investigating misconduct within the NSW building industry and driving legislative reforms, among other things, said the construction sector faces systematic challenges around design, procurement and building operations.

Beware of building fads

“We pay a really high price for trading off getting it done right versus just getting it done,” he said.

He is wary of highly-engineered materials, questioning whether Australia has people with the depth of understanding to deploy those materials. He said also we need to think about the durability and functionality of materials and components, and he warns against building “fads”.

“If you have engineered solutions in the wrong hands you are playing with fire,” he said.

Will off-site prefabrication be part of the solution? Only if the market consolidates, Chandler said.

“One of the problems we have in Australia is that we have [a lot] of small businesses that supply large markets and markets that are far apart. It is different from the challenges in the Northern hemisphere, where there are big companies close to their markets. 

“If you [start building design with technology], you will inevitably just be throwing bells and whistles at the something that you don’t actually use.”

“No one has come up with a way of scaling up [offsite manufacturing] here. I don’t see a solution any time soon of Australia having a viable offsite manufacturing platform. That is the big challenge we have.”

He says the only example he knows of in Australia of a home builder manufacturing prefabricated components is Japan’s Sekisui House. That builder is even thinking about the waste generated on construction sites and what to do about it, he said.

“They really have a system in place where before you draw a line on a piece of paper… someone has thought about whether there is any wasteful by-product as a result of the way they are organising the building.

“I think they have it right.” 

What difference is digital technology, 3D modelling and building information modelling (BIM) making to our commercial buildings and housing stock?

3XN’s Holt says digital technology is just another tool and is only as good as the user or the data input. It can enhance user experience of a building – say, optimising room temperatures or making it easier to navigate through a high-rise tower – but as his colleague Robert Saidman at Arup noted, the design must come first.

Robert Saidman, Arup

A lot of the work the QQT team did around digital technology was on “how we make sure the infrastructure has the capability to handle whatever comes in the future, which isn’t defined yet,” says Saidman. 

They used journey mapping, for example, to see how people arrive at the building, access it and move around it. That helps them design a smoother journey, removing any “stickiness”.

But you don’t start with the technology, Saidman said. “If you do, you will inevitably just be throwing bells and whistles at the something that you don’t actually use.”

“Frankly, I think our educational institutions really need to lift it!”

WSU’s Poulet said BIM has been the “holy grail” for years and has huge potential to help manage and reduce waste and energy.

“Designers and engineers are using it,” he said. “The next stage is building managers. So it is as live as it should be.”

Peter Poulet, Western Sydney University

Construction workers need retraining

Chandler didn’t agree: “We are now 20 years into this century and I can’t see any sign of life coming to improve the performance of buildings through BIM … Our TAFEs and unis are not preparing our construction workers of the future.

“I think BIM has a long way ago. Frankly, I think our educational institutions really need to lift it!”

There are about 300,000 construction workers in NSW but Chandler said the state needs another 50,000 by 2030, “and we need to retrain the existing workforce by another 30,000 to 50,000 by 2030. We haven’t even started to climb that mountain!”

He also worried about the big gap between the top end of town – premium builds – and the bulk of construction for the mass market. It is the “elite” builders who are making submissions to his commission. 

Chris Nunn, AMP Capital – moderator

“So, we don’t know what is happening in the mass market. The small end of town doesn’t represent itself in those places.”

He wants to see, but wasn’t hopeful, Australia’s large materials manufacturers starting to add value to their manufacturing.

“Their largest take is project home builders so they sell plasterboard and bricks and cement and concrete to these people. As long as [the market is] still consuming at those rates… they don’t see a way or a need to change and they are not even interested in how much rubbish is generated on site… and that is a concern.” 

The one hope may be that construction workers will price themselves out of the sector.

“We have a general labour rate running at about $100/hour for a construction worker on site and it is about to go up to $120 if the new enterprise bargaining agreement gets through,” Chandler said. 

“The cost of labour will be the twist point here. I think within the next two or three years …  we will need to lower the number of man hours required to build a project on site” and that will accelerate the offsite manufacturing of components. 

“I am certain digital [technology] has a part to play but we need consolidation,” he said. 

“We have too many players out there, we have too many small players… when you have more mature, more sophisticated players – companies that build about 100 homes a year should be the bottom of the market – once you have that, we can start to grab on to the digital opportunities.”

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