City Slicker #2 – When is the Right Time to go Feral?

It’s clear that for the property industry the next frontier is in delivering ‘carbon neutral’ buildings. What we mean by this is that the building doesn’t emit any gases (directly or indirectly) that contribute to global warming.

What has me stumped though is this; if we’re really concerned about the total carbon impact of our buildings, why in the world are we trying to achieve ‘neutral’ on site? At some point in the carbon reduction graph it no longer makes economic or ecological sense to keep going, and this is the point where we need to ‘go feral’, i.e. broaden our project scope to include the countryside [or the bioregion or watershed].


The law of diminishing returns: at what point does it no longer make sense to keep investing in the building itself?

By the time we find ourselves investing $2,000/square metre in the building for some green add-ons [what I refer to as ‘green ninja dust’] it’s time to head to the mirror shop and take a long hard look at ourselves. If our focus is environmental benefit or carbon reductions, then $2,000 can restore an awful lot of vegetation on a piece of land outside the city. We’ll come back to this in a subsequent post.

For the sake of this exploration we’ll use ‘Zero carbon embodied building’ as our scope, meaning that we’re measuring the embodied carbon emissions in the materials and construction phase, plus the emissions associated with the running of the building. We’ll exclude any monkey business that the occupants get up to… affectionately termed ‘occupant emissions’… Check out ASBEC’s [Australian Built Environment Council] report on terminology [easy read and informative].


What I’m looking for in this post is a notional departure point, or perhaps more aptly the fork in the road – where we can either continue to spend money on increasingly expensive add-ons or we can head to the countryside and potentially increase our carbon-return on the dollar tenfold.

So how do we work out when enough is enough? Well, rather than try to explain the principles of good passive design and engineering, let’s just keep our radar turned on for that point where we start discussing solar panels & water treatment systems. Once we’re here the economics are becoming more challenging, paybacks aren’t always as certain, and the return on occupant comfort and wellbeing isn’t really increasing for each dollar spent.


Let’s say our fork in the road is just approaching 5 Green Star / Gold LEED / Very Good BREEAM levels. [and don’t worry, I’m not advocating against 6 Star. I’m actually looking for a more impactful way of getting there, for less cost]

Tomorrow we’ll look at how to calculate the ‘residual carbon’ footprint for this city slicker building, and how to determine what this equates to in carbon farming or biodiversity restoration.


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