Australia is not immune to this new reality

Interview on Corona and Climate Change with Australian Institute of Architects

From a German perspective, Australia is on the other side of Planet Earth. That does not change the fact, however, that the continent’s most urgent contemporary issues are the same as in Europe: Climate change is causing increasingly extreme weather conditions and the novel corona virus is taking a toll on public health and the economy. NAXNAX Netzwerk Architekturexport spoke to Julia Cambage, CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects, about how these new challenges are impacting the mindsets and work of Australian architects.

Australian Institute of Architects

NAX: Sydney is experiencing an on-going population boom. By 2036 the population is expected to rise to 6.1 million. In 2056, according to forecasts, there could be about 8 million people living in Sydney. The city has set itself the goal of becoming climate-neutral in the long term – the issue of climate protection is becoming increasingly important. What role do architecture and the Australian construction industry play in achieving these goals?

Cambage: The Institute accepts the science on climate change and the need for a proactive response. Globally, building and construction accounts for nearly 40 percent of energy related carbon dioxide emissions while also having a significant impact on our natural habitats and biodiversity.

Climate change is the key factor contributing to the disruption of human societies through extreme weather events and natural disasters, and as the most recent bushfire season has reminded us, Australia is not immune to this new reality. It is clear that these impacts will escalate in the future and urgent action is required to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the severity of climate change and to proactively plan for a more hostile climate.

The Institute and the architectural profession in Australia are committed to providing a more resilient built environment. We are also investigating ways in which we can reach a carbon neutral construction industry by 2030, in collaboration with other industry bodies. 

NAX: Experts see great potential for green building technology in Australia. Around 725,000 new apartments will need to be built in Sydney by 2036. In the future, Sydney intends to focus more on green city districts. A first example is the new Green Square district, which is oriented towards sustainability and is expected to accommodate around 40,000 residents by 2030. What is the “Australian way” to make city districts greener, more climate-friendly / climate-neutral? And what architectural concepts are being developed in the vast rural areas of Australia?

Cambage: The best energy efficient outcomes are provided by good design. Australia’s residential sector is a prime candidate for energy efficiency improvements. While new homes have an average energy efficiency rating of 6.1 stars, existing homes lag well behind with an average rating of just 1.7 stars. This makes them cold in winter, hot in summer and drives up energy bills for residents.

There is no doubt that policy frameworks must be established to achieve greater energy and resource efficiency in the building sector and to facilitate innovation in building design and procurement. Incentives to encourage the alteration, retrofitting and rebuilding of our current building stock to achieve more sustainable outcomes are needed now.

Examples such as the new Green Square district are heartening. The architectural profession, as a key player in the development of the built environment must continue to show leadership. That is why the Australian Institute of Architects advocates for a range of actions for government, its members, the design and construction industry and the broader community that it believes will drive the necessary changes.

Action to change the way we approach the design and management of the built environment is required now. As a global community we need to:

  • Understand the impact of our actions to date;
  • Continually improve the efficiency of buildings through design and use; and
  • Innovate in our design and building procurement processes to move progressively toward a built environment that positively contributes to natural systems.

We believe that the adoption of a range of measures, including voluntary schemes, tax and financial incentives, increased minimum standards and the setting of meaningful targets is necessary. To encourage the uptake of energy efficiency design services, we are urging government to consider allowing people to claim a deduction for expenses incurred for design services that produce sustainability and energy efficiency outcomes for their building project, whether new construction or alterations and additions.

The Australian Institute of Architects has also bought together a national Climate Action and Sustainability Taskforce to scope, develop and recommend a range of policies and programs that could be put in place to create practical solutions for architects to deploy to address the challenges posed by climate change, population growth and the imperative for more connected, healthier communities that support and promote sustainability in architectural practice and in the community.

Taking a leadership role and ensuring that as an organisation we have taken the step to become carbon neutral has been the first project of this group.

NAX: Among many other sectors, the Australian construction industry is also shaken by the corona crisis. What government measures have been taken in Australia to support the construction industry? Besides all the challenges, do you see opportunities for architecture and urban development in Australia in this current difficult situation?

Cambage: Australia is a federation like Germany with both national and eight state/ territory governments. There has been a combination of both federal and states/ territories economic stimulus measures that stand to support the construction industry. These include:

  • New or bringing forward of government construction projects. These include:
    • new building construction and upgrades such as government operated schools, government operated healthcare services, and civic/ community facilities. infrastructure projects as well as buildings
    • civil infrastructure projects such as new or upgraded rail and road corridors and hubs, bridges, tunnels and ports

These projects are being delivered though are variety of mechanisms government departments, statutory authorities, public private partnerships and government outsource procurement.

  • Streamlining of states and territories’ planning and permit processes through reviews of the processes themselves and upgrades to the systems used such as planning application electronic platforms.
  • Construction specific household stimulus including
    • a federal “Homebuilder” funding up to $25,000 towards house renovations or construction projects over $125,000
    • expansion of existing federal “first home buyers” grants of up to $10,000 with a focus on new home builds.
  • Whole of society “Job Keeper” subsidies paid to employers of up to $1,500 per fortnight per employee (now reducing in amount with extension to March 2021) for business that experienced threshold levels of turnover reduction.
  • Whole of economy full-expensing (first year tax write-off) of capital equipment which normally would be depreciated over multiple years.

Expansion of loan guarantees to not-for-profit Social Housing providers for the construction of new social housing. 

The Institute forecasts possible opportunities for architecture and urban development in this current difficult situation. While Australia overall has fared very well with approximately 27,000 cases and 900 deaths in a county with a population of 25.5 million people, one state, Victoria with a population 6.7 million people underwent a second wave and therefore accounts for three quarters of the national cumulative cases and 90% of all deaths so far that have been attributed directly to Covid-19. Restrictions have been stringent for many months in Victoria, but construction for existing projects has not shut down entirely.

Most importantly, across capital cities, including Melbourne, the Victorian capital and other cities such as Perth, the capital of Western Australia which has no active cases similar to other states, there has been a mass transition sustained of work from home arrangements. The consequence of this transition is the already commencing rise vacancy rates in our Central Business Districts commercial properties. As our capital cities have varying numbers of people who reside in the central city business district area, sustained reductions of office workers will also have flow on effects for hospitality and retail businesses. There is a very real prospect that substantial percentages of commercial buildings may be re-purposed as residential dwellings (housing). In a country with amongst the lowest proportion of public housing in its dwelling stock (e.g. Victoria has only 64,000 public housing dwellings for 6.7 million people, some of this may become social or public housing.

However, an additional impact is the vacancies in short and long stay accommodation in the cities. There has been a massive loss of overseas students who come to Australian Universities to undertake undergraduate and post graduate qualifications. Our cities that experience these major losses of overseas students also have student apartments that have become vacant – these may in the first instance absorb some of the housing demand for single people seeking rental accommodation. A further additional vacancy situation has also occurred in city area apartments and hotels which have traditionally been used for AirBnB stays and tourist/ business short stays.

Already some cities have seen lower grade city hotels used for quarantining of returning travellers, people diagnosed with Covid-19 and for ‘rough-sleeping’ homeless people (Melbourne has re-housed 1000 rough sleepers through such a hotel accommodation program). Furthermore, with Australia’s boarders nearly closed, Australia, who traditionally relies upon large net inward migration flows to maintain population growth is now predicted to enter a period of negative overall population growth. Therefore all of this needs to be considered in terms of the demographic drivers that may or may not see a major re-purposing of city commercial buildings for residential purposes.

There is anecdotal evidence of some migration from cities to regional centres. This may create demand for new housing construction, land subdivision and town precinct development (e.g. shops, schools, health services) in those regional locations that experience population growth.

The other potential opportunity may be in relation to manufacturing precincts. Australia, broadly speaking, has experienced major declines in manufacturing since the 1970s as Australia embraced a free-trade ethos and removed many import tariffs, duties and subsidies to manufacturing industries. The last motor car was manufactured in Australia only 2 years ago in a country that once supported up to 5 vehicle manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi). However Covid -19 has highlighted Australia’s sovereign risk in relation to the supply chain of goods and services. Although largely able to be self-sufficient for food and energy (not entirely for vehicle fuel with progressive shut downs of ageing refineries) we certainly do not currently manufacture most textiles, clothing or footwear, many consumer durables (Australia manufactures no computers, mobile phones, televisions, cameras etc.), cars (we do manufacture some military vehicles) a myriad of “high tech” goods. This issue is receiving government attention and the government is shifting policy to re-establish manufacturing. The establishment of new manufacturing facilities may also create opportunities for architects.

NAX: Thank you, Julia, for taking the time to answer our questions in such depth!