Tone Wheeler: Australia’s great innovation and poor implementation

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Despite having an abundance of clever people who know how to make great, sustainable cities – offices included – Australia manages to fall far short on implementation. Tone Wheeler offered his thoughts on why we’re a nation that’s at once both inventive but not good at implementation, and the back story of how we fell into such unsustainable habits. 

“Clever Country, Dumb Nation” is the name of a chapter in a book he’s writing on sustainable cities. Following is an edited version of his presentation.


Here’s a snapshot of things that I’ve been working on after being in the sustainability industry, business, academic research area for longer than I care to admit.

Bear in mind that I really am trying to promote optimism because there’s an enormous amount of pessimism in this area. So I am trying to bring some things that we can hold onto in any design area, but particularly in working offices today.

So what the hell are you talking about? 

That’s been yelled at me all the time, mostly because I didn’t start with the word “sustainable”. It’s really only 10 years old. Prior to that there was alternative technology and autonomous houses, and there was environmentalism. 

Essentially, sustainability has become one of the most commonly used (and abused) words. It’s not useful to look up in the dictionary: 

Sustainability noun (Cambridge Dictionary)

1. the quality of being able to continue over a period of time

2. the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time

A much better explanation comes from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. They were written over 10 years, mostly by a team from Columbia in South America. It’s a really interesting grouping of 17 goals – they haven’t tried to squeeze it into an even dozen or anything – that cover lots of things about life, lifestyle, quality of life, and so on. 

I’m interested in the rise of the triple bottom line. It’s an idea that came from John Elkington only 15 years ago in a book called Cannibals with Forks, yet now pervades the balance sheet of many big corporates. It’s the idea that we should serve people, planet, and profit. We used to only focus on that last one. 

Sometimes it’s called equity, environment and economy. But the triple bottom line offers a much more stable way for how an industry, company or design might work. Obviously, we know that a three legged stool stands up much better than the two legged or the four legged, so this is why the three things are being discussed.

The dark side of modernism: airconditioning

The second thing I want to address is modernism, because I think it’s fashionable now. Mr Modernista, Tim Ross, has made modernism and mid-century modernism a very popular thing now. 

But I think there’s a darker, blacker side to it. What we had for about 2000 years in eastern and western architecture is what I call “building conditioning”. It’s since been replaced by airconditioning.

Let me use two examples. 

There is a 1000 year old building in Japan called the Byodo-In. It keeps people comfortable in that building in all kinds of weather. You can either move inside when it’s cold into the internal part, or it has verandas and airflow and so on outside it. It’s what I call building conditioning. The building does the work to make you comfortable.

Compare it to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the Oscars are sometimes hosted. It’s one of the ugliest buildings in all of Los Angeles (and that’s saying something). It’s a pastiche – a postmodern pastiche. But the interesting thing is it’s the first building in the world to have airconditioning for humans. There was airconditioning before that, but that was mostly to cure tobacco in the American South.

The guy that brought about modern airconditioning was Willis Carrier. In less than 100 years, he’d completely perverted the design of architecture. That one engineer has made all buildings looked like they were airconditioned, even if they were designed before Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. 

Take the Bauhaus, for one. Everyone talks about it. When you visit it, in some ways it’s unbelievably hot. For example, a lot of their classes were done outside because the building looks like it’s a modernist building and had airconditioning.

Consider an even more powerful example from the French godfather, Le Corbusier. He wrote a book called Vers une architecture, which, strangely, is translated in English as “towards a new architecture”, when what he meant in French was “towards architecture”. 

He was going to completely rewrite it. One of his most famous buildings is the Cité de Refuge in Paris, the Salvation Army Hospital for Homeless Men. He designed this building in the late twenties, imagining that it would have two things: what’s essentially a very sophisticated double glazing system, and exact respiration for airconditioning.

There were just two problems. Firstly, neither of those buildings were properly invented by engineers and secondly, even if they were, his clients couldn’t afford it. 

When the Cité de Refuge opened in the spring of 1929, it failed through the summertime because it was unbelievably hot. They invited the architect back to fix it, when he invented the “brise-soleil”, meaning “sun breaker”, which turns up on lots of Le Corbusier’s later buildings, particularly when he was working in India. 

He claims he invented it to solve the world’s problems – however, he actually added to the misunderstanding of airconditioning.

So the change is that he realised the building might need to be the airconditioning, rather than house the airconditioning. But the moment is lost. So we head the long road down into modernism. 

Out of modernism sprung environmentalism – a movement driven largely by women

While Le Corbusier was one of the godfathers of modernism, I like to think it has a godmother too: Natalie de Blois

She was the interior designer and the designer for most of New York’s Lever House, yet never gets the recognition. It’s normally Gordon Bunshaft. Lever House started this idea of city offices as airconditioned full modules.

Think of Buckminster Fuller. Bucky is a hero for many of us. Bucky wanted the whole of New York airconditioned under a dome. In response to that, we got a movement that has only now been recognised for what it is – environmentalism. 

One of its forerunners was Jane Jacobs, who in her early sixties, defied the authorities trying to put a freeway through New York. She protested, and she wrote one of the great books – still one of the best books that urban designers need to read – The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Around the same time the scientist and journalist, Rachel Carson, wrote a book called Silent Spring, mostly about DDT and the pernicious nature of long living chemicals in the soil. 

At the same time, in England, there was a woman not very well recognised (maybe because she was titled), named Barbara Ward. She wrote an extraordinary series of books as an economist, including a key textbook used in the 1980s and 90s called Only Earth

She also coined the term “Spaceship Earth” in 1966 – a term commonly attributed to the aforementioned Bucky Fuller, who wrote his own book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,two years later in 1968. We’ll try and wipe him out of the story.

So it is economists, scientists, journalists and urban designers who are saying that we need to change the way we’re going. It’s pulled together by scientists like Donatella Meadows writing The Limits to Growth.

What’s interesting about this is that the key players who react to Le Corbusier and the rise of modernism, are all women.

Australia is clever country in many ways but also very dumb

That “Clever Country, Dumb Nation” dichotomy is the way I figure out the duality of living in Australia. 

We are a very clever country in many ways. Right from the very beginning, the Aborigines maintained the country for 60,000 years, and they were much more sophisticated about it than most of us realised. 

This is largely because when Arthur Phillip arrived in summer and there were thousands of Aborigines that he wasn’t expecting, because when James Cook arrived, it was winter and they were in the hinterland in their caves and structures.

We wiped out a huge amount of knowledge, which we’re only now coming to understand. In the 1830s, John Glover painted one of the first pieces on an Aboriginal camp. 

Now, there is a wonderful book called Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley by Paul Memmott, who researched all the methods of Aboriginal architecture, looking at the way in which the Aborigines dealt with the climate by building conditioning in the most beautiful, minimalist way. 

He identifies three different ways in which they do it: by windbreak, by shade, and by being able to catch the heat and secure it in a small building. In essence, this is the very basis of what a house should be in Australia. Of course, there are examples of it which we now trawl back to find in old documents, but it’s difficult.

There are two famous books I’d consider the most important from this particular decade. If you haven’t heard or read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, it’s the most enjoyable read to completely change your mind about how Aborigines looked after this country and how they made it sustainable. 

He took it to 20 different publishers who all rejected it. It’s published by a small Aboriginal publisher out of Broome and it’s made them a lot of money. Prior to that is The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage.

These are just fantastic books telling us how pre-history, pre-white man history, and how we were very inventive. Since we arrived here, we’ve been incredibly creative in what we do. 

These are the things that directly impact sustainability in buildings. There’s a whole long list of things  we invented, Vegemite included.

We actually have a long history of being very clever. 

To my mind, Homes in the Sun is one of the most important books in architecture of Australia. It was written by Walter Bunning, an architect from Melbourne better known for designing the National Library where copies of this book reside. You can’t get it anywhere else. 

Published in 1945 right after WWII, it’s now out of print (I am trying to republish it).

Bunning tried to match building type to occupant. He looks at a whole series of different people who would live in houses, and he promotes the idea of a very rich mix. You’ll notice that only one of them down at the bottom is the single dwelling. 

But the double houses are also now coming back as duplexes, row houses, flats. If you doubt how smart this guy is, check out the couples he’s got there – the bachelor couple here is two women. In 1945. And it led to a whole series of things, which the CSIRO and various other organisations do.

Sunshine and Shade in Australasia by Ralph Phillips is another fantastic book that most architects know. It’s about building conditioning, not airconditioning, and the climatic data from when we started to study what Australia was.

Then there were some really quite amazing books like Seeds for Change, a book written by Deborah White at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s. What White wrote about is essentially what we are now trying to do to make sustainable cities.

So we were very clever. We knew what we were doing. We published Energy and Efficiency of Australian Housing. The federal government took the lead in trying to write the text for it – it’s technically interesting but not very well written; it was a long time ago.

But there were lots of things that we were doing, like guides to sustainable cities and how we designed subdivisions. 

Canberra is the most unsustainable city in Australia – the most unsustainable country in the world – and yet there was the possibility that we could have actually designed it as a prototype for the world’s new sustainable cities.

This leads me to the other half of the equation: the dumb nation. We just didn’t follow those guides. 

We have largely ignored this good advice

What we ended up doing was building housing where there’s no difference between the housing in the foreground and the housing in the background. They’re both built in exactly the same way. 

Brick veneer in the rear and same in the front. It’s a timber box lined with masonry to give it the illusion of permanence, but we know it’s rotting from the inside. It’s brick venereal disease.

The federal government is exhibiting the highest level of stupidity that you can possibly imagine about sustainability, right? 

It needs no explanation. But it permeates right down. I used to work at the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra, who were the designers of standard housing. We used to call it the No-Can-Do Club. Think about it. The most multicultural, diverse country in the world has standard housing? It should be just wiped out. It’s more stupid in terms of urban design and planning than you can possibly imagine.

The root of it is actually much deeper. 

These two lines are the tax to GDP ratio in the OECD, which is the black line, of which we are one member among 23 countries, and the red line is us. We do not raise enough tax to do what we want to do. 

The fight at the moment about trying to raise it to 25 per cent, but saying it’s good to get back to where John Howard was, with tax to GDP, completely ignores what the rest of the world is doing. 

The rest of the world is doing better. Only America, the blue line, is below us, and they rely enormously on philanthropy to do what they need to do for affordable housing and so on.

All the other countries that we aspire to, the UK, it’s almost bang on the green line, but the purple and red lines at the top are the Scandinavian countries that we want to emulate in our social programs and our housing programs. 

Yet we just don’t have the money to do it at a corporate scale. So what we do is dumb things. It was a great idea to insulate the roofs because 30 per cent of Australian houses and dwellings didn’t have roof insulation, the very basic thing you need for building conditioning.

When Peter Garrett learned about that, he wanted to make a program. But the ALP just completely destroyed it by making part of it the Make Work program in the GFC, and everything that flows to that. 

We’ve done other things. We take the world’s best technology for studying houses for thermal comfort, and what did we do with Angelo Delsante’s absolutely genius computer program? We turned it into NatHERS, we dumbed it down, and we make it measure airconditioning. Instead of measuring thermal comfort, it measures airconditioning. We seem to get things wrong.

We introduce a star rating system for appliances. The problem is, we don’t do anything with the star rating system other than use them for market information. Every other country says you shall not sell a fridge less than three stars or four stars or five stars. What do we do? We say you can buy any fridge you like. 

So where are all the one and two star fridges that can’t be sold in Scandinavia and Europe and America go? They come here, and Gerry Harvey becomes a billionaire.

So what we’ve done is privatise a huge amount of what’s in the city. Motorways, social housing. We don’t have a housing commission as such, it was very short lived, appeared after the Second World War if you remember, because private back then was council. It was a government run, directly run form of social housing. We sold off the energy. So how do you cope with this idea that we are both a clever country and a dumb nation?

The tools and guidelines exist, and in increasingly digestible formats so there’s no longer any excuse

We can be very smart about sustainability. We have beautiful volumes like the BDP Environment Design Guide, put out by the Institute of Engineers, the Institute of Architects, Landscape Architects. 

It contains refereed articles on every possible topic that you can imagine. Subscription rates are unbelievably low, and no one’s ever read it. It sits on the shelf in most architectural offices, and every one of them I’ve ever pulled out is gathering dust. 

We know a lot of stuff now that we didn’t know when we were first doing building conditioning. It turns out that thermal comfort for the person is much more to do with radiant temperature around you than it is with air. 

This wasn’t discovered until 1972 by P.O. Fanger.

Fanger’s equation turned the idea of airconditioning on its head by suggesting that we should have chilled buildings, rather than chilled air. There are websites like Designing for Climate where you can read up on air temperature and heating and cooling – anything you can do directly with the building. It’s an interactive website, the only one I’ve ever made. 

It’s a bit clunky but it was sponsored by Think Brick, an organisation promoting thermal mass, trying to get Australian houses to be high mass buildings. Now they’re doing it by sponsoring this really good piece of research.

We are very smart. We know about materials and all the things we just said about VOCs. This is what brought it to fruition. I think the wisdom that we have is encapsulated in a book called Thermal Design in Architecture.

Let me leave you with a couple of things. The thermal delight is now in the Your Home website, sponsored by the government. It’s about sustainability… but the word sustainability and the word green don’t appear, except on the cover.

Better yet, a single text by Norman, Disney and Young and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation titled Energy in Buildings condenses 50 ideas for how to make sustainable buildings. It’s smart and wise and so easy to read, so well put out.

We no longer need technocracy. We know what to do. It’s how do we get it done? So what I’m saying is that the technocratic parts that are green karma, will actually run under brown dogma. 

What good workplaces look like

Pleasant work atmosphere ranks four out of the top 10 things people want in a job.

Magic Glass HQ in Alexandria is an example of one of the small office buildings that we’ve done. Not in the big end of town, but where almost as many people are employed. The building’s actually adjacent to a factory. 

The owner of the business, which is growing very fast, knew that he would lose all of his loyal staff if he didn’t provide them with something that was spectacularly good. Very high thermal mass building. There’s a very, very sophisticated form of tubing technology for it. They make glass, so they’re showing it off with a glass staircase.

Or Kingspan who make insulation, again, can they make a very high thermal mass, low cost, high quality interior to it? Yes, they can up to two megawatts of power.

The big opportunity to green the city – a concluding point

The last thing is the whole thing about greening in the city. We talked about green plants inside, but now what’s happening is a lot of office buildings are planting inside and outside. Maybe you should grow food on the rooftop.

And maybe, if you look at City of Sydney’s green roof technology, a policy that was written and laid fallow for 10 years. A group of landscape architects and also myself wrote this policy. We looked at how many buildings in the city could actually be green, physically, by putting something on the roof to grow more food. 

2 comments
  1. Tone’s right, we are clever. Some of the most technically innovative solutions to planetary challenges reside in the minds of Australians. However, and despite ‘implementation’ being in the title, I found it interesting that the article did not mention how we address or innovate implementation. I would argue that this is where the genius is now required. It’s no accident that SDG 17 is entirely dedicated to the idea of ‘partnerships’. Activating great technical solutions is fundamentally a ‘small p’ political exercise. If you don’t manage the politics about change all the brilliant technical solutions our minds can muster mean jack. This point was writ large at last Friday’s Victorian Greenhouse Alliance Annual Conference in Melbourne. In addition to the usual reminders that we’re going to hell in a handbasket were some great insights into how we might ‘design’ implementation approaches and facilities. Interestingly enough, the charge was led almost exclusively by people from the finance sector. Why? Because this is where a new planetary activism is taking place, an activism which is mobilising in spite of traditional institutionalised politics not because of it.
    And the reason is simple. Planetary challenges such as climate action, poverty, hunger, corruption, reducing inequalities etc threaten the multi-trillion dollar global investment market. As more and more people instruct their pension or super funds to invest responsibly and for impact, private and institutional investment managers become more powerful. The threat to nations and their governments isn’t from other nations, it’s from those that control global capital.

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