Ed Horton, founding director of award-winning property developers, The Stable Group opens up about sustainable building, limitations of the legacy approach to building, challenging convention, adaptive reuse of old buildings, the need for councils to incentivise sustainability, the embedded electricity network trend, and the housing market.

You've been around for about 15 years now; what, in your opinion, will it take for the majority of builders or developers in Australia to design and build homes that utilise renewable energy, or sustainable concepts? Are we waiting for some sort of price tipping point?

The answer to that is, in part, yes. But it's also part of the legacy, in the way we build buildings; what we need to do is challenge conventions on how we deliver indoor air quality, how we deliver energy, how we manage and consume energy, and one of the problems we've always had is that as an industry we have been dictated to, in part, by traditional ways of doing things.

So if you go to an architect to design a house or an office building, they would typically have walls, roof, glazing, concrete floor, air conditioning, lights and so forth.

The problem is that the legacy approach has limited the capacity to deliver these basic fundamentals that you require in a house using different delivery methods; that’s partly because consumers don't know any different. Architects and builders haven't been exposed to different ways of delivering these functions within the dwelling, and they have been somewhat reluctant to step outside their comfort zone.

So what we have done is we've challenged convention and looked to different ways of delivering and managing energy, indoor air quality, comfort levels and so forth. What we've been able to do is deliver those same levels or better levels across the whole spectrum of functions of dwellings using different delivery techniques.

Sometimes we’ve actually gone without things like we don't put mechanical ventilation in common areas of commercial buildings, or we use natural passive techniques to manage indoor air quality, so we're actually making capital savings. We can use this money to improve our bottom line or divert it into other initiatives such as solar – the important thing being the cost remains roughly the same.

Let's talk about The Burcham Rosebery, which recently won the interior design category at the 2018 Sustainability Awards. It’s an Allen Jack+Cottier design of the former Wrigley's Gum Factory turned into a residential apartment block. Is this the future of city living and moreover, should this be the future of city living? Are there many other former industrial sites in and around the city that you think, need or should be re-adapted for similar purposes?

We were attracted to this site because of the size, scale and character of this lovely old concrete building; that was the first all-concrete construction building in New South Wales and so it had inherent characteristics, which we found quite exciting, such as up to four-metre high ceilings.

It's a hundred years old – it was completed in 1918 and it was the first Wrigley chewing gum factory built outside Chicago. The original building in Chicago was demolished in 2014 so our building is now the oldest Wrigley chewing gum factory. The finished product is quite beautiful.

You've described ‘The Burcham’ as luxury living with an old world soul. What does this actually mean? I've been to the building so I have a good idea what it means but for those who haven't, how does it reflect what has been the design trend in apartment living in the city?

Where it’s reflective of a pattern, which we would certainly encourage is the sense of community that we've managed to bring into this building, especially in the privileged spaces such as the secure areas, expansive gardens and rooftops where we have edible gardens, a large outdoor cinema in the void space under the water tower, and the water tower itself, which hasn’t been used since 1956 and is now rebuilt and made fully operational.

So our gardens are watered using rainwater harvested from four roofs and stored in subterranean tanks in the basement. The water tower on the roof serves as a header tank. We have two edible gardens and outdoor kitchens on the roofs for the community to mix and mingle and gather. Then we have the Wrigley Common, which is a very large garden space between the buildings, also featuring edible gardens. So we've got a real sense of community going on in the building in a safe, secure space.

We have no keys in the building, it’s all biometric. It provides for absolutely secure access for people to get around the building. Everybody's connected to their apartment through a Smart Home automation system – you can open your door from anywhere in the world, you can be up on the roof having a dinner party or lunch and guests could arrive at the carpark, which has number plate recognition. You can put the number in and it'll receive your guests or you can open the garage door from the roof using your phone.

So it allows you to congregate, mix and mingle, still stay connected to your apartment in a safe and secure place. We encourage engagement and interaction, which we think is terribly important in society.

Getting back to the housing sector, news reports warn of an impending crash in the market. Apart from the fact that correct economic predictions are a bit like picking next week’s lottery numbers, what are you seeing on the ground in the building sector? Is it the carnage that we hear in the press or is it a little bit more measured than that?

That's something we are very focused on at the moment. We’re of the view that this downturn in the city market is a correction being brought about primarily through Government instruments, causing a slowdown in the rate of property pricing and property development, and putting pressure on the banks to tighten up lending controls. This has had a significant impact over the last twelve months in the market.

We are also seeing property developments not get funding; we are seeing some project evaluations hit pretty hard on settlements. But what we're not seeing is mortgage sales in the market and that tells us that banks are not foreclosing on people – something you might otherwise expect in a significant downturn that we have seen in the past.

We’re certainly seeing banks restrict lending to some people but we're not seeing them also foreclose. So that suggests that the owners are not selling at the moment or they are selling at reduced prices but it is still in the control of the people that own the property rather than the banks.

What do you think, as a society, we are really missing and how can we achieve a far more sustainable and equitable building sector? We talk about sustainability but are we getting there as fast as we should?

As I said earlier, I think architects have the responsibility – it’s an opportunity for them to engage more in the energy and sustainable space. Additionally, authorities in planning need to provide greater bandwidth and capacity for developers to make that additional commitment to sustainability. Today, the council uses the stick rather than the carrot.

In all of the buildings that we create, we go above and beyond the minimum standard required. But we don't get recognised for it from a planning perspective; we still pay the same fees and we still get hit by the same imposts. In other words, you don't reward us for delivering greater levels of energy and water self-sufficiency, or creating better community spaces. There is no benefit to us in doing those things, so you won’t get the general constituent market out there – the local market – to do what we do because there are too many risks and too many costs involved; you don’t get recognised or receive any benefit from the council so it’s a big roadblock.

Councils need to find a way to credit some of those costs and charges back to developers, and recognise benefits above and beyond the minimum standards in energy, water and community – basically reward sustainability but they don't do that.

So if you were to reduce the energy load on a building, reduce energy costs to consumers, create additional community space, or reduce the amount of water that you draw from the mains, there should be some incentive for developers to be able to go down that path, but at the moment there is no such structure.

Having spoken to a few other developers recently who are actually doing similar things, are building companies slowly but surely moving into energy retail? If so, what do you think will be the consequences further down the line?

More and more buildings are looking to reduce their energy costs with an embedded electricity network, which is a license in this state that allows you to effectively become a retailer of energy. You can buy wholesale from the energy market, and you would be able to sell that power to your owners and tenants at an increased price. But if you couple this with solar that you can generate if you've got a big enough roof space, you will be able to sell that power to your owners and tenants at substantially lower costs than the retail cost in the market. That's what we do.

In our next project, we're looking at community based energies with battery systems as well, where energy is effectively shared amongst owners.

If I give you one favourite or last thing to build, what would it be and why?

We are living in cities and there is a great deal of pressure on densification. When you get older, when you retire and leave your house or your apartment, where do you go? Retirement facilities traditionally are low rise out in the suburbs somewhere. I would like to be able to correct them with vertical retirement living – something that we have touched upon with our Triptych building in Melbourne a few years ago.

We had vertical villages – clusters of three levels of villages on top of each other. Our inspiration there was European villages where you would have multiple families living within the same compound, with three levels of apartments and gardens inside the walled compound. We took that concept and created those villages vertically. We had gardens up through every three levels.

We would like to take that to the next level of retirement living, so you would have care facilities, and vertical gardens. We would like to do one of those certainly before I finish and put together all of those concepts but for people who are retired or aged.