In this edition of Talking Architecture and Design, Branko Miletic speaks with WT Partnership Managing Director Nick Deeks, a highly talented forward-thinking leader known for driving a range of infrastructure and construction issues across Australia. He talks at length about population growth, the increasing urbanisation, and the need to build smarter cities.
What is a smart city?
Well, there's nothing smart about what we're doing now, with most of the infrastructure work that's happening being all about getting around political issues.
Politics shouldn’t come into infrastructure. If we need to build infrastructure, then we need to build it but we don't need to build it to try and get a certain number of votes to get through the next election. Business case analysis of how we financially analyse infrastructure projects needs to change. It’s about use, and requirement.
For instance, about 15 years ago, we had the northwest sector and southwest sector in Sydney with 30,000 dwellings being built in those two areas. But the infrastructure didn't get built, and it's only now it’s being built. That’s going the wrong way; infrastructure should be built before we build the suburbs.
Aside from being a particularly inefficient way of doing things, it’s not innovative infrastructure that we are building.
Take the M2 – over the last five years, a new lane was added to the route because the traffic was so heavy. The cost of adding a line, post building the motorway or adding a tunnel is really ten times as much.
I think most of it is short-term thinking. When doing the financial analysis, it's not about how many cars you get on the road and how much you can charge as toll; or in the case of a rail project, it’s not about how many passengers you can get and how much you can charge for tickets. If the infrastructure is needed, we should find another way to fund it.
What is a better way of doing things?
When it comes to transport, you need to look a 100 years ahead, not 10, 20 or 50. The London Underground was built in 1863 and it still functions.
That’s transportation foresight and it's not that Australia hasn't got it; the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in 1932 and the number of lanes they put on at that time was far in excess of what they needed but it still is able to cope with the amount of traffic that is going over it north to south every day. So that was futuristic thinking; the London Underground was futuristic thinking; the Metro system in New York was futuristic thinking.
But the Metro here is not and the Light Rail is not. We had trams crisscrossing Sydney from 1920 to 1960.
Perfectly capable, perfectly adequate, and then we decided to rip them up, because we didn't need them. And here we are, in 2018, laying down tracks for essentially a light rail, at a cost of two billion dollars and major disruption to the city – the wider impact of that poor judgment will have to have an effect on tourism.
Prior to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the rest of the world didn’t really see Australia as a tourist destination. But the major media coverage during the Olympics led to uplift in tourism, in the economy, in retail and in all the associated fields.
But today, any tourist who comes to Sydney, and walks down Circular Quay or George Street would surely be going home and telling others not to go to Sydney for the next 5-10 years. This can have an economic impact on Sydney.
From Barangaroo to Circular Quay, we have about 10 years of work. It’s going to be fantastic when it’s finished but it’s not planned very well. Smarter thinking would be to get all the projects done at the same time to avoid major disruption.
Can technology play a role in mitigating some of these issues?
I think, in terms of the construction techniques, we really haven't changed the way we build in a long time.
Prefab and modular were new concepts in 1855 when they built the first hospitals; they were reasonably new in 1944 after the Second World War when UK built 100,000 homes. But now, it’s being talked about as though it's a new concept.
Contractors want to embrace modular or prefab construction but home buyers don't want their houses to look modular.
There's a preconception everything's going to look the same. But ultimately, maybe everything does need to look the same. We have to change the way we think about our housing, about our commercial buildings, about our retail centres and about our cities.
So going back to your question about what is a smart city, a smart city is one that can accommodate a growing population, that can move people around in a timely fashion, that has multi-purpose, multi-use buildings but doesn't have congestion problems, that operates in a 24/7 environment.
High density living
We've got a million extra people coming to New South Wales and a million extra people coming to Victoria over the next 10 years. We can’t put them all out in the suburbs because we haven’t built the infrastructure to get them to move into the city. So if we're thinking about building smart, what we need to have is satellite cities.
In terms of the overall size of apartments, when you are living in the city, you ultimately end up not doing too much cooking at home. The way you live will change. So if there’s good infrastructure in terms of retail shops and restaurants that are accessible for everyone living in apartments within the city, then the need for a kitchen is really negated.
Apartments need to get smaller because we’ve got more people, and we've got a lack of space. So we need smaller, skinnier, taller buildings. I think residential apartments in the city need to get more people into the building by having retail, leisure and even commercial elements.
Commercial buildings are changing, and even the way people work within a commercial building is changing. An office used to be a static environment where everyone had a desk and when they were out of office, no one else could use that desk. That will change.
When we moved our Sydney office to the city 2½ years ago, we changed to an open, agile, no fixed desk environment. Today, we've got 132 people on about 105 desks, giving us a much better utilisation factor. Going a step further, why can’t multiple companies use the same office space in different shifts?
The next phase is a more flexible workplace where not everybody comes into the office everyday, so you don't even need that same amount of space for the same amount of people that you did five years ago.
So where you needed a floor plate measuring 1000sqm, you need only 500sqm for your collaborative workforce who are coming and going sporadically. The other 500sqm of your floor space could be used by another organisation.
Now if you have two organisations during the day, you could have two during the night; so you now have four businesses that could use the same space. It becomes easier when you move to the cloud.
So in a commercial building, utilisation becomes smarter. There’re smarter ways of working, of assessing people’s productivity, the amount of space that you need, the efficiency, and understanding how people work and operate.
Why should a 200-year-old concept of an 8-hour workday and 5-day week be still relevant? With everyone coming in to work at the same time and going home at the same time, there’s extra pressure on our public transport system and on the roads.
Modernising building techniques
We continue to build the way we built 500 years ago. Why should bricklaying still be a manual process when we can have a robotic bricklayer? That's the kind of innovation we need to bring in to the industry. Just adding a little bit of electronic technology does not make it a modern building. I think the whole concept of building needs to change.
We also need to think about sustainability and energy conservation. We need to consider what will happen to buildings at the end of their effective life.
Knocking a building over and sending the materials to landfill is not only a waste of resources but also a blot on the landscape since we haven't got that much space left to fill.
We've got to find a better way of building and we have to find better materials to build with, which could be recycled at the end of the day.
Future proofing the built environment from a sustainable perspective
In terms of energy, it has always struck me that this country doesn't have enough solar usage.
Wind farming may be expensive and there’s a conception that the payback model doesn't work well but if you run that payback model over 50 years, I'm sure it will work.
Elon Musk has already demonstrated it with his lithium battery plant down in South Australia. This is the way we have to be looking ahead.
We've got to have a better way of using resources. Coal is not good for the atmosphere; we should be looking at how we can change the world for our children, our grandchildren and our grandchildren's children because the impact that human race has had over the past 50 years has been dramatic and if we carry on at this rate, we're going to be in real trouble. So we need to find a better way to produce energy and conserve energy.
Sustaining the planet around transportation is another issue. What are we going to be doing in 50-100 years’ time in terms of transportation? I doubt very much we are going to be driving cars in the next 30 years.
Most car manufacturers will not be producing petrol or diesel cars by 2040.
Electric cars have developed exponentially in the last five years. Autonomous vehicles on the roads, drones delivering goods and flying cars will all reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
When it comes to housing, affordability is a big issue. While one can’t do much about the land because it’s in demand, building a house is expensive with material costs going up. In a typical scenario, you build a house and add extensions as your family grows. But once the children grow up and move on, it’s difficult to downsize.
Prefabrication can be a solution in the form of flat packed homes, where you can easily add a room or a floor to fit your growing needs.
When it’s time to scale back, you can simply remove the rooms you don’t need and the flat packed rooms could be used to build another home for your children.
This will make it affordable for them and help you recycle while saving you the trouble of throwing the material into the landfill.
We're working on innovation programs within our business and I know that we will be introducing some kind of machine learning or AI at some point. I'm not trying to make our staff redundant but we're trying to be competitive and progressive as every other professional service or business.
But in an ideal world, I want our business to be getting to a six-hour day. With AI, I want us to be efficient and effective so that we can deliver our service in six hours and not in eight hours.
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