Book Extract: The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet

David Ness asks, can we meet our needs with less new buildings?

The notion ‘the bigger, the better’ seems to rule the day both in Adelaide and worldwide, especially when it comes to construction. Massive office towers, hotels and apartments continue to crest our skyline, many boasting ‘6 star’ green ratings, while new sports stadia, galleries and the like emerge over the horizon. Meanwhile, much of our older property stock languishes with high vacancies, amid sluggish population growth. What has happened to the modest, smart and creative Adelaide, which distinguishes us from other cities? Are cranes on the skyline really a barometer of our prosperity? Can we meet our needs and create jobs while building less, thereby becoming truly carbon neutral and sustainable?

While Adelaide is among world leaders in pursuit of carbon neutrality, based largely upon successes in energy efficiency and reducing operational emissions within our city boundaries, we can’t rest on our green laurels. Given the increasing recognition of embodied emissions, associated with goods produced elsewhere, we will need to turn our attention to restraining our consumption. In this regard, our built environment encompassing buildings and other infrastructure looms large, chewing up 40 per cent of material resources and spitting out 40 per cent in the form of waste.

This challenge will require changes in our approach to providing accommodation and facilities to meet our needs, as explored in my new book, The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet, launched at Adelaide Town Hall on May 15. Among various case studies from Adelaide and other cities, its examination of Olympic structures, among the most extravagant and resource consuming on the planet, seeks to provide some new insights.

Adelaide's changing skyline (Photo: Shutterstock)
Adelaide’s changing skyline (Photo: Shutterstock)

I was inspired by an ancient Japanese sage, Kamo no Chomei, who moved from his large Kyoto mansion to live in a modest 10 foot x 10 foot hut, Hojoki, located on nearby Mount Hino. With “hinges to the joints of beams, the easier to move elsewhere should anything displease me”, this was in complete harmony with nature.

Such deep-rooted Japanese philosophies and value systems, including the concepts of mottainai (too precious to waste) and wabi sabi (respect for the old and worn) led to a vision for Tokyo 2020 and future Olympics based upon saving, sharing and ‘sufficiency’. For example, rather than an extravaganza, could Chomei’s modular, demountable Hojoku be imagined as the centrepiece of the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, elegant and beautiful in its simplicity, signifying to the world that less is more?

Furthermore, in keeping with the demountability and portability of Chomei’s hut, temporary Olympic structures could be designed for later disassembly and relocation, with the components shared with disadvantaged communities in Fukashima and beyond to provide much-needed facilities. The London 2012 Basketball Arena and the Rio 2016 Future Arena were designed with this in mind, even though implementation was found to be lacking.

Such ideas were pursued via the ARUP Global Research Challenge in adapting the ‘circular economy’ to the built environment. A UniSA-ARUP team employed digital technologies and a new ‘service-oriented’ business model to develop a prototype ‘cloud platform’ for identification, tracking, management and exchange of reusable, modular components over their extended life. This behoves design professions to take a longer-term view of buildings and their components, so that our future asset stock, as it ages, may be more amenable to adaptation and change of use.

While ‘reuse’ via such mechanisms is an advance on recycling, we should aspire to ‘reduce’ that lies at the peak of the waste management hierarchy. For example, as the UK Green Building Council asks in its framework for Net Zero Carbon Buildings, are there alternative ‘no-build’ approaches to achieve the desired outcome, or can the extent of new construction be reduced by sharing, adaptation or refurbishment of existing assets? In this regard, maintenance and refurbishment is known to generate more employment than new projects, while the greenest, most low-carbon building is one that doesn’t need to be built.

The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet, Cambridge Scholars

The book highlights the importance of strategic asset management in ensuring a better fit between assets and service demands. South Australia was among world leaders in this field, via a series of reports produced by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee in 1987 on asset replacement. This is reflected in the principles underpinning the current Strategic Infrastructure Plan for SA, including shared and multiple use of assets through co-location by agencies, supported by a five-step sieve process for justification of new projects.

Most of all, both government and private corporations will need to carefully question and scrutinise the underlying service demands giving rise to new building and infrastructure projects. Using Olympics parlance, and as advocated by the Use Less Group at Cambridge University, reduction in service demand could be the ‘gold medal’ for improved materials management.

With increasing scarcity of many construction resources, and global inequity, the book proposes that privileged nations and sectors of society need to ‘shrink and share’ their ecological footprint to enable the disadvantaged to catch up. Is it ethical for us to want and build more and more, when others have nothing? This also applies to our own society, where investment in yet more offices and hotels in an oversupplied market should arguably be re-allocated to social housing.

Signalling a way forward, SA Planning Policies now recognise that “adaptive reuse … has longer term sustainability benefits through the retention of the embodied energy of a building and by reducing the need for new buildings that use natural resources”.

David Ness is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Natural and Built Environments, UniSA
people.unisa.edu.au/david.ness

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