Tag Archives: sustainable design

How Many Greenies Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?

Last week we saw some news about a new plant that has been genetically engineered to emit light – Bioglow’s ‘Starlight Avatar’. This plant has a life span of a few months and is currently up for auction as a prototype.

Normally I’d start banging on about the risks of genetically engineering plants – but I won’t. Suffice it to say that the topic is emotionally and politically charged and I’m never certain what to believe, although millions of bees dropping dead in Canada is something to worry about…


Bioglow’s Starlight Avatar. Click me for the source.

What I’m curious about here is the eventual application of plants that glow… I’ve long imagined indoor plants that give us light to read by, magically re-distributing the light that they’ve harvested during the day. The trend can be easily plotted to indoor-outdoor gardens that glow and light our way, a true blending of architecture and landscape.

Another relatively new kid on the block is the OLED, Organic LEDs. These are a surface-emitting light source rather than a globe, so in effect the walls themselves can glow.

Oled lighting panel

Siemens / Osram’s OLED. Click for source.

This technology will eventually yield clear windows that then glow at night, interior surfaces that light our way, and even furniture that gives us light… the possibilities are endless.

If I were to pit the glowing plant against the OLED I’d be inclined to pick the OLED simply because the tech is more progressed and the applications broader. In reality I’d put my money on both with the glowing plant having a longer timescale (they’d need to gen-eng controllability as well) – we may eventually live in a world of light with no light globes at all. And this will all be realised much sooner than we think as night-time economies grow in response to a whole range of pressures.

So the answer to the riddle? The prosaic answer of today is simply ‘one’, but in our near future it may be ‘what light globe?’.


Resilience Through Placemaking

A common thread found in Resilience theory is that of community strength. A community’s ability to survive and even thrive during tough times is largely decided both in the way that community builds itself around its physical places and also in the way people work and band together to create those spaces.

The art of place-making is arguably the best demonstration of community resilience at work. By definition placemaking involves the residents of a community – it’s not the product of an architect’s pen but rather the result of a community-designer-builder collaboration over time.


image from the Quicker, Lighter, Cheaper post

The Project for Public Spaces is a great placemaking blog with a recent post titled The 7 Psychological Functions of the Art of Placemaking. An interesting take on one of Alain de Botton’s latest works and worth a read. You’ll need to hit the link to get the discussion behind each of the functions.

The 7 Functions are;

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Re-Balancing
  5. Self-Understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

While the place is important, the “making” builds connections, creates civic engagement, and empowers citizens—in short, it builds social capital. As architect Mark Lakeman of Portland’s City Repair organization puts it, “the physical projects are just an excuse for people to meet their neighbors.” … The relationships that grow out of the “making” are equal to, if not more important than, the places that result. (MIT’s recently-released white paper Places in the Making)

Grass roots resilience – no need for funding or white papers or green papers or drawn out consultancies. It’s just people like you and I getting on with realising great ideas in the spirit of placemaking start-ups.

Designing with Intent – Leaving Your Fingerprints Behind

I was lucky enough this past weekend to have a tour of the new Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong, just south of Sydney. The project is targeting a Living Building Challenge certification, and is the result of a design interrogation that has gone into extraordinary depth.

As I was hearing about how the design unfolded, about the investigations that had to take place for every potential material, the careful balancing of systems and services, and the richness of the detailing, I was struck by how much care had been taken in creating this building.


We are under constant pressure to get things done quickly and to meet budget, and at times it can be easier to fall back on what we’ve always done. It’s easier. The SBRC has a poetic logic about everything – it’s hard to imagine why anything would have been done differently – but to get there required the entire team to be aware at every moment, and to not fall back on ‘easy’.

And this is my Monday Motivation for the week; it was clear to me that this project was full of what I think of as ‘fingerprints’ – the thought and care and intent of the client and design team in every design outcome and every detail. Nothing had been left to chance or to ‘easy’. The result is an environment that feels so much more human and comfortable and calm, and it gently vibrates with the energy that has been invested in the built outcome – it has fingerprints.

As we go about our business this week, let’s be aware of when we fall back on ‘easy’ and aim to put forward ‘better’ options whenever we can. Let’s see how many fingerprints we can leave behind in our work.

Front Yard Blitz #1 – Undergrounding the Cables

I’ve had enough of these crazy backyard-renovation-blitz shows. Never do they pay attention to streetscape, neighbourhood, place making or community. They don’t create any legacy. So I’m running my own series right here – the Front Yard Blitz series.

The goal is to see how we might refurbish our suburban streets to become more resilient, more engaging, environmentally restorative and maybe even healthy for us.

This first instalment looks at the dog’s breakfast of overhead power cables lining most existing neighbourhood streets.

In 1838 Samuel Morse kicked off the telegraph revolution and still today we’re adding more junk to the very same infrastructure that was built for the telegraph. The reason we’re not witnessing a nation-wide project to put it all underground is mostly due to up-front cost.


For reasons that will become clear, getting the cables underground is perhaps the key enabler for this green street project. Besides the reduction in storm damage, reduced road deaths and bushfires, if we can get the cables underground it lets us proceed with a whole range of value-adds which we’ll explore as we go.

So the question is, ‘how much?’.

I’ve found a range of figures online for Australia, and the average cost per-household seems to be around $12,000. Of course this is based on a range of assumptions and conditions, and for the sake of argument let’s say $15,000 per household for a typical suburban neighbourhood with detached or semi-detached homes.

This might go up or down depending on what other works are being undertaken at the time, e.g. footpath or road resurfacing. Some utilities require you to pay the entire bill (e.g. Ausgrid) whilst others (e.g. Western Power in south-west Western Australia) might pay 25%. Local Councils will also usually chip in, sometimes up to 50%, and some State Governments also contribute up to 25%. Naturally I’m too time-pressed to research all of this across all of Australia, but the punchline seems to be that you’d be unlucky to have to pay the entire cost yourself.

In Perth the cost for the resident is down to around $4,500 thanks to the multi-agency contributions. I haven’t been able to determine whether or not this includes the cables from the street to the homes, so there may be some additional cost.

So would you pay $15,000 (assuming no funding support) just to get the cables underground? And what chance do you have of getting the majority of residents in your street to do the same (which is required before the project can proceed)?

An Australian National University study concluded that putting the powerlines underground can increase a home’s value by 3%, which is for example a $15,000 rise on a $500,000 property. ‘Money for jam’ as they say. Street presentation is one of the first selling points in real estate, so a street without all that junk in the air always stands a better chance.

In the next posts we’ll start to explore what is possible if we can remove the encumbrance of the overhead cables.

Information sources;

Weekend Warrior: Must Sustainable Buildings be Beautiful?

I’ve had several discussions with industry friends lately about ‘beauty’ in the built environment… how important is it? What does it mean to different viewers? How is it experienced? And how might we even measure it?

I’ve done some silly things in my life (I’m human), but I won’t be adding ‘trying to put metrics to beauty’ to the list. But today during an image search beauty jumped out of the screen and grabbed me. I literally missed a breath and a beat, because what I saw on the screen had something about it that just resonated with who I am.



This might not be to everyone’s taste, but for me this particular project has ‘beauty’ at so many levels; extensive use of un-tarnished timber, organic structure done cleverly, soft natural lines, rhythm, light and shadow, and just clever design and detailing. And it’s got books!

I don’t know anything about the energy footprint or services or cost of this particular project, but I’d quickly call it ‘sustainable’ simply because to me it’s beautiful and will connect its users with place. The extensive use of timber is just a carbon-capturing bonus.

To paraphrase from the Living Building Challenge 2.1;

“… mandating beauty is, by definition, an impossible task… we do not begin to assume we can judge beauty… but we do want to understand people’s objectives and know that an effort was made to enrich people’s lives…”


So the challenge for this weekend is simple; seek a building or visit a place that you feel might qualify as ‘beautiful’. Soak it up, and try if you can to put some descriptors to what it is about the place that makes you feel some emotion. (and the MCG this weekend doesn’t count!)

If as a client you’re a little nervous about using this soft word – that’s cool – there are plenty of others; cherished, enduring, resilient, long lasting, popular.

Feel free to share your favourite in the comments.

[and for those of you who’ve been wondering where I’ve been? Mr. 2.y.0ld decided he wanted to try alternative sleeping arrangements. ’nuff said?]

Weekend Warrior #19 – Making the Jevons Paradox Work For Us

How often have you caught yourself buying 2 of something when they’re on special? Or more of something simply because it’s in season and cheaper? No doubt we all have because to us it’s good micro-economics. And this is the Jevons Paradox at work.

William Jevons was an economist who in 1865 suggested that when we make a process or resource more efficient we’ll simply use more of it, rather than less. For example, when coal becomes cheaper due to improved mining efficiencies we’ll just use more, or when energy becomes cheaper we won’t be as vigilant in managing our consumption.

Jevons Paradox is often used to argue against the drive for more efficient buildings and cleaner energy, i.e. ‘why bother when we’re just going to consume more as a result’. I wan to turn this around.

Having spent my career in the sustainable development game it’s obvious that the Paradox isn’t always true. The owner of a newly energy-efficient building is not going ignore good energy management just because the building is leaner – that owner is going to pocket the returns instead.


Depends how far you drive them. Good article on Jevons Paradox via the image [Joseph Tainter, Our Energy Futures]

And the Paradox can work for us rather than against us; data has shown that as the cost of rooftop solar systems has dropped around the world, home owners buy more, i.e. they’re spending the same on a system that they always were, but getting more for their buck.

So in effect we can help amplify the benefits of Jevons Paradox towards our cleaner future;

  1. Continue to drive efficiencies in energy performance in cities – the pure economics are making this a relatively easy path to travel; and
  2. Support the resources and materials that we want to become cheaper – sustainable timber, clean tech, healthy materials, clean transport and so forth.

It’s the second one that’s the challenge. It’s a question of us helping the desirable industries reach commercial scale, as we are witnessing right now with solar. So we need to continue to ask for the products, order them and invest in them, even if at times it means some short-term pain for a long-term gain. And many of these industries are keen, lean and green – they are hungry for success. The natural economic process of demand and supply will take care of the rest.

So this weekend’s challenge, should you choose to accept it, is [on the assumption that you buy anything at all] to purchase one clean, organic, ethical or renewable product [hopefully all of the above!] that you wouldn’t normally because of the price.

Give it a go – the way we spend our money shapes our world.

[good Wiki background on Jevons Paradox here]

Cross Laminated Timber – The Basics

Commonly referred to as ‘CLT’, this type of timber construction is making waves in the property industry for all the right reasons.

From timber.net.au:

CLT is fabricated by bonding together timber boards with structural adhesives to produce a solid timber panel with each layer of the panel alternating between longitudinal and transverse lamellae.

clt house

Couldn’t locate the ultimate source of this, but props to the architect anyway.

There are two attributes of CLT that I find most appealing;

  1. The ability to use small timber dimensions to build up large components, meaning we can more quickly turn over timber plantings and capture more carbon, and
  2. The ability to pre-fabricate entire building components up to some significant dimensions.

There are a range of advantages with CLT that are making it increasingly attractive to mainstream developers, such as;

  • Integrated structure and fabric, allowing dematerialisation and significantly faster construction;
  • Off-site pre-fabrication of elements, allowing high quality control, educed site time and minimised wastage [and watch how automated pre-fabrication will evolve with BIM and robots], and increased safety;
  • High thermal and sound insulation – the fibrous nature of timber combined with the cross lamination contribute to good insulation values;
  • Good fire resistance – contrary to intuition solid timber performs well in fire; once it’s charred it takes some time to burn, doesn’t deform in heat and often retains structural integrity after a fire;
  • Sustainably sourced timber and carbon sequestration.

Hermann Kaufmann’s Olpererhütte in the Austrian Alps. Remote sites helped stimulate the development of CLT technology in Austria. Nice view.

A good site to visit is Lend Lease’s CLT site [and I’m not plugging them – it’s just credit where credit is due], which provides an overview of CLT, additional benefits from a developer-builder’s perspective, and some good links to more sites related to CLT.

forte herald

Lend Lease’s Forte apartments, tallest timber living in the world. .

I’m curious now as to the uptake of CLT in residential construction. Maybe the greatest challenge is for us to make timber homes more desirable than brick veneer – arguably the worst possible construction choice for the Australian climate.

Keep an eye on this CLT construction: given its high carbon sequestration and displacement of other high-emissions materials such as concrete and steel, it might be the surest pathway to zero carbon buildings.