Alistair Coulstock, principal at Cundall, is a judge on this year’s Sustainability Awards.

Coulstock has experience in strategy, design and engineering in outdoor spaces, buildings, towns and cities.

You can nominate for the awards here:

Architecture and Design spoke to him about what he’s looking for in the Sustainability Awards, why sustainability is important to him, and how to incorporate sustainability in projects in developing nations.

Why is entering award programs important?

They provide feedback to the industry about initiatives and designs currently being realised and where better technology or improved processes are being utilised to form our built environment. They also provide recognition to those who are willing to take what is all too often perceived as a risk in building a better built environment. But I ask you what is riskier – building the same as current practice when we know it is unsustainable or trying to improve our building stock?

Moreover, we spend much of our lives constantly doing, but rarely give ourselves the opportunity to stop and appreciate what we have achieved. Awards programs allow teams to take that moment and reflect on why they put in the extra effort.

What are you looking for in entries?

Typically I will be taking into account the following element where possible:

  • Passive design – designing from first principles
  • Visible sustainability – promotion of sustainability through initiatives that educate
  • Operational sustainability – how the building performs in terms of energy, water, waste, emissions, durability, etc
  • Materials – are the materials used in design sustainable and appropriate for their intended use?
  • Appropriate use of technology – does the use of technology add value in terms of sustainability?
  • Social sustainability – what benefit to society for future generations does the product provide
  • Economic sustainability – has the design team used finance wisely and does it consider whole of life or solely focus on capital cost reduction?

Ultimately, true sustainability is about creating sustainable buildings precincts and spaces that people actually want to spend time in as well as sensibly using energy water materials, etc.

Take a shopping centre, for example. You can build the most sustainable building in terms of operation you like, yet if you do not create a sense of place, then it may be the biggest disaster ever if no one goes there. A lack of patrons leads to shops closing and churn which in the end turns into a sustainability disaster as everyone is going elsewhere and livelihoods for the tenants within the space suffer.

Why is sustainability important to you?

We have one world and one world only. I was brought up spending time in nature, camping fishing, spending weekends with friends in the local woods and on holidays with my parents. 

I realised at a very early age that a common perception that seems to underlie many decisions in society and business was false. This belief that we are better than nature and we have this air of arrogance that we are some way separate from and better than it, that because we can conquer nature, it is something for us to do with as we will.

I realised early on that far from being separate, we are part of it. We live in a system and all parts of a system are connected. If one part of the system is impacted in any way there will be consequences for other parts of the system.

I think at the age of around 15 I had this realisation that the world’s population can be likened to that high school experiment we learn with cultures in biology. A culture of bacteria is added to a food source in a petri dish. Over time the bacteria multiply at an exponential rate, until there is no food source left. 

Then there is rapid decline in numbers as the system collapses.  We are experiencing this same thing but on the human scale. Unfortunately, many eminent scientists have predicted the same thing. It is an imperative that we change and change fast.

What was the first sustainable building to really have an impact on you?

At university my final year project for my degree (Design Technology and Business) was to design a sustainable housing complex. We, as a group of five, designed a residential subdivision with approximately 50 houses. It was a semi-subterranean arc design facing south (designed for the UK). Bedrooms were downstairs and living space upstairs.

Highly insulated with lots of access to daylight and solar panels and solar hot water, it was a project that showed me how easy it is to get great outcomes with good design from first principles. It also taught me the importance of other aspects to successful products such as aesthetics, engineering, price, place and promotion. You can have a great design in terms of sustainability, but if it is not appealing to anyone then you won’t sell many.

Can you tell A&D about the work that you’re doing in Cambodia to help build sustainable livelihoods?

We have partnered with UNSW and RAWimpact, a charity in Cambodia, to design and build sustainable infrastructure for some of the poorest people in the world. Students from the disciplines of architecture, engineering, and Social Impact Hub students (studying commerce and law) work together through a process a builder would have to go through for a tender to a public, private partnership project (PPP). These students provide passive design (a building) and active energy solutions within their groups that are assessed by industry professionals. We select a winning design and then fundraise and build it. 
Last year we delivered a school for five villages. Located in the village of Krangraluah in the Province of Kampong Speu, this project now enables 50-100 children to go to school and perhaps break out of the poverty trap they are currently in. The projects are hand up models. 

The project starting at the end of this month will be fitting into Every Piece matters, a fantastic initiative by RAWimpact. RAWImpact which are aiming to relocate 100 families from a shanty town before they are displaced by a new bridge that will be constructed across the Mekong from Pnomh Penh. We will be designing the housing for the families and a mixed-use building that will assist these families to get ahead in life. It may have micro factory or retail elements to it so that they can generate a livelihood from the premises.

This project has significant impact in Australia and Cambodia. In order to drive the changes we so desperately require in our built environment (and our corporate environment), we need leaders who will drive change. Much of the change will not come from the old guard, who are indoctrinated into a system and may not know how to change, or are unwilling to make the tough decisions we need. 

In Australia and for me, it is about providing future leaders with authenticity purpose and passion. These leaders are entering the workforce. The young emerging workforce is passionate and driven. It is here, with the young and passionate individuals, where the majority of the change will occur. 

What are the challenges of incorporating sustainability into projects in developing nations?

Importing materials from overseas is a huge challenge as there can be many delays and unforeseen costs to bringing in products into Cambodia. In addition, it is imperative that the correct ownership structures are in place in order for buildings and the infrastructure is there to provide security and maintain the projects. Providing solar energy for buildings has not been realised for this very reason so far, but this year we are hoping to change that. With the mixed use building we will be designing for Every Piece Matters, we are looking to realise an active energy solution for the building, such as a solar array and battery storage. These developing countries require as much assistance as possible to assist all of humanity to break out of poverty, but to do it in a way that is sustainable.

The developing world needs to be able to learn from our mistakes, not repeat the destructive growth cycle that has seen developing nations achieve an unbalanced and unsustainable position we are in today. I believe the developed nations have a responsibility to share our learnings and to assist these developing nations leapfrog the steps we took and focus on a more sustainable path. If we do not assist, then the world will be up for a very disruptive future, even more so than the one are already seeing emerging.