This is the full version of the Sustainability Live Awards keynote speech as delivered by architect Mahalath Halperin on 7th November, 2019 at The Star, Sydney.
Imagine, for a moment, there was no such thing as a hypothetical situation.
Imagine, for a moment, that in a future world, tonight’s Sustainability Awards, are redundant, because sustainable buildings and products are the norm.
Imagine, for a moment, that in a future world, there is no need for Leadership in Sustainability, because everyone is doing it every day in every way.
Imagine, for a moment, that in a future world, there is no need to lobby, advocate, campaign and promote sustainability to governments and authorities, because they are already doing everything they can.
Imagine, for a moment, that in a future world, the term ‘living sustainably’ is tautology because it’s the only way to live.
Imagine . . . .
Back in the last decade of the last century, a group of people imagined a world of quality, sustainable housing, and Solar House Day was born. Later to become Sustainable House day, it was a chance to exemplar and showcase homes that were deemed solar and sustainable. It was a challenge to find houses suitable for the cause.
Anything that faced true north, had a solar hot water system on the roof, maybe some double glazing or wide calculated eaves, maybe even half a dozen PV panels, and some basic fundamental passive solar design, qualified. These houses were considered leading edge, and worth showing off to the world on how to do it better. It changed from Solar HD to Sustainable HD in recognition that it wasn’t just good solar design that makes a house sustainable. That energy efficiency and environmentally friendly design, materials and systems, were factors too.
30 years down the track, we at least now have compulsory insulation, legislation for efficient, double glazed and thermally broken windows, some degree of minimum energy efficiency, LED lighting, greater uptake of recycled materials and products, and consideration of life cycles and embodied energy.
But now, where in some places the odd one out is the roof without the PVs, are even all these improvements enough? What makes a home, or for that matter an office, apartment block, hotel, factory, office building, hospital or school, a sustainable building?
Tonight’s awards recognise and celebrate the current round of new works and practitioners that have gone beyond the basic models and skills of the 1990s.
There are projects that challenge the rules, take risks and address a wide variety of design, functionality and usage issues; Larger scale works that take into account ecological and financial aspects reflective of the intended clients; Recycled buildings, innovative ways to recycle waste materials into new products, and sensitively sourced raw materials; There are people taking the lead and willingly sharing their ideas and motivation with others.
But, and there is a but.
Is the little eco house, off grid, carbon neutral, small footprint, really sustainable if it is only occupied on weekends, and left sitting empty and unused the rest of the week?
Is the amazing prefab engineered-timber modular framing system, replacing the raw custom built energy-intensive local structure, really that much better if it has been shipped from the other side of the world?
Is the wonderful new conscientious building so much better if it meant demolishing one that could possibly have been refurbished and upgraded instead?
And what about Architecture? Is a super-efficient, high-tech or low-tech, zero footprint building worthy of kudos if it falls down in terms of quality architecture? If it is just a simple and efficient – but boring and uncomfortable - box? What of the wellness of its users?
Are all these examples truly sustainable? Or is there more to it than that? So I ask, what is sustainability?
Yes, we know – and we are quite capable of doing it as tonight’s awards will show – that a building that hopefully, as well as being good architecture (that should also be tautology), can be passive solar, energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
But is it, and should it, be more than that? Yes and yes.
What we build from – recycled and renewable and recyclable materials and systems;
Designs that result in less wastage during construction;
Designs that take into account the potential end-life of its initial use, and later recyclability of the materials and spaces;
Then take a step further than that – where have those materials and systems and equipment come from – what are the equivalent ‘food miles’ of that bag of concrete, or piece of timber, or window frame?
Are they healthy materials, non-toxic and non-polluting?
Better still, how about the whole building being adapted and recycled for an improved or new purpose once it’s current one is outgrown or no longer needed.
But wait, there’s more.
A floor plan is 2 dimensional. Architecture is 3 dimensional. The 4th dimension is time – a building’s use and operation and impact, in the present and in the future.
And maybe the 5th dimension is influence – how a building or product can change behaviour and usage, prompting people to think, whether subtly or overtly. Good design can influence good behaviour. We can inspire building users to be more sustainable in their actions.
Whether inhabited as a residence, or used daily for productivity or manufacture or creativity, or used in the care or education or nurture of others, that action – usage and operation – is a critical aspect of a building’s sustainability.
If we never turn on a light, sure, we’ll use less energy, but if we don’t have enough light to live or work by, what is the point? Likewise, never using heating or cooling, but sitting there not really warm or cool enough, again, is that sustainable? Buildings, albeit some designed as works of art in themselves, still need to be used.
Could I suggest that perhaps next year’s Sustainability Awards should only consider buildings or products that have a few years’ worth of evidence that prove their worthiness. Awards that reward long-term reality rather than just short-term theory.
And what of the building’s context? Buildings are not, usually, built in isolation. Likewise, a product or a material, is made to be incorporated into some thing, be it a building or something else.
For a building, context is its relationship to the land – the site, the streetscape, the neighbourhood, the community, the city. That context then influencing transport, food, lifestyle. How we live and work within not just the building, but the neighbourhood, the community, the city.
How we use the building but also how we use its relationship to everything around it – be it the backyard full of vegies, the local bike path, the city park, the carbon neutral public transport system, - an ever widening circle of influence – both by and of.
We are influenced by what is around us – and we can influence what is around us.
And better still, with good design and systems, we can influence others too. As practitioners in the construction industry, the Built Environment is one area we can all influence.
We, here tonight, are the ones who can create a more sustainable future.
Creating homes that require less energy and resources, but also encourage liveability and relationships to the outdoors;
Creating good spaces that fit comfortably with human scale, focusing on wellness, with colours that soothe or stimulate;
Creating work places that encourage communication, interaction, and reduce resource demand.
Creating buildings to nurture not just the body but the human spirit. The trendy word, biophilic, relating the building to all things natural and human, but in a way that allows us to connect with living things, rather than feel isolated inside an artificial, albeit highly efficient, box.
As the designers – and users – of these building and these products, all of us here tonight have the power to influence those choices. And for those of you showcasing your own homes – ie as both designer and client – all the better, as you don’t have to convince the client to take on this ethos. You walk the talk.
With our knowledge and skills, I challenge you that we no longer have the right to design and build better, but that we have an obligation to do so.
To take action and take leadership, to drive change and embrace a more holistic approach.
To share our capabilities, our understanding and our ethos – which is why of course, you’re all here tonight to win an award or two!
But while all here tonight are presumably already striving for best practice, I challenge that we should all do more.
Sustainability, in all its definitions, is no longer a luxury – it is an imperative.
Once again, I ask you all to consider what being truly sustainable is.
There is, as we all know, no silver bullet. No building is perfect. None of us are perfect. Even those of you worthy of tonight’s awards – are not perfect.
But it is about getting 90 percent of it right to 90 percent efficiency for 90 percent of the time.
Doing two or three aspects to 120 percent and not addressing the rest of the design is not a sustainable solution.
Rather, we need a combination of many factors, one that takes an holistic approach, that makes a building, or a precinct, itself a system, ‘work’. And especially work sustainably.
We are all here tonight because we are passionate about sustainability, whatever definition you give it.
We all carry that passion to act in different ways.
But do you have the courage to care – not just for yourself and your family, but for your community, your peers, your country, your planet?
Even the smallest changes are a step in the right direction.
But now is the time for bigger, stronger, braver changes.
We are living in dangerous times. As a direct result of climate change, NSW is gripped by unprecedented drought and fire – and many of you living and working in cities still do not comprehend the severity – and long term consequences – this is creating. It’s not just a matter of needing some rain.
We are living in an ever changing climate where the house that was once rated 8 stars may well end up only performing as a 5 or even worse within a decade. With climate data soon to be updated from 1990 to 2018, should we perhaps overdesign some aspects now to anticipate changing performance in another 10-20 years?
We are depleting, polluting or wasting our resources.
We design buildings, materials, equipment for redundancy, when we should be designing for durability and longevity.
We keep building new buildings when often the existing one could possibly be refurbished and improved instead, maximising its existing embodied energy and saving on resources.
How have we got to this point?
How have we created such a resource-guzzling, climate-changing built-environment?
How are there so many illegal and unsafe buildings around? So many toxic materials?
How have we created such untenable urban sprawl and congested cities that ignore and disrespect the land on which they are built?
How are suburb after suburb of black roofed, inefficient, unsustainable McMansions still being built?
For so long, we have got away with it – and we’re stuffing it up.
We aren’t necessarily the people that build or design these things, but we can do better. We must do better. We must take leadership, as the powers that be are simply not doing enough.
So I put the challenge – is it enough? Can you, me, we do more?
We live in an enlightened and capable society, be it technological, behavioural or social.
I challenge that we must do more, try harder, push limits and strive for a truly sustainable world.
Will you go home tonight, and wake up tomorrow, and do just that bit extra but more?
Whether it’s simple as researching some greener products, or as major as only specifying preferred accredited green suppliers.
Whether it’s simple as employing recycled materials up front, or as major as planning through to disassembly and recyclability when the building is no longer needed;
Whether it’s as simple as convincing a client they don’t really need that extra bedroom or bathroom, or as major as forming a social housing collective for those who will most benefit from efficient, affordable and sustainable homes.
Whether it’s as simple as subdividing a large block to create infill development, or as major as lobbying government to free up unused land for integrated development that considers the social as well as physical needs of the community.
Whether it’s as simple as walking to work, or as major as getting all your work mates together to only car pool or use public transport.
Whether it’s as simple as planting your first vegie patch, or as major as starting a new community garden and food co-op.
Whether it’s as simple as inviting your neighbour in for a cuppa and a chat about our future, or as major as joining a climate action movement and taking on your local council to sign, and enact upon, the Climate Emergency Declaration.
So thank you for listening. Thank you, hopefully, for hearing. Thank you for all your efforts so far.
Make change happen – we all have the power – and the responsibility – to create a more sustainable future in whatever definition you give it.
And, just imagine, what one day might it be like.