In the lead-up to the 2017 Sustainability Awards, Architecture & Design spoke to the managing director of Stormtech, Troy Creighton, about the current state of the industry, Stormtech’s humble beginnings, and how sustainability is set to change in the future.
From the perspective of environmental conservation and social responsibility, what are the best practices when it comes to drainage?
The best practices for drainage from any perspective involve removing the water effectively so you’re not damaging the building by allowing water to stand. Doing this effectively, dovetailing into both environmental and community aspects, involves the pre-filtering of the water. An effective grate acts as a gross pollutant trap so that the water can then be retained and used for other purposes.
And that’s relating to stormwater drainage?
Mostly in stormwater, although it does also come directly into play where people have onsite sewer processing like biocycle systems; wherever that effluent is then treated and used in the garden or on the grass and so on. The effective pre-filtering of that does enable those systems to operate far more effectively with less maintenance or pump-out required. You can’t use chemicals to clear your drain when you’re using those systems because the chemicals will end up in the ecosystem. Of course, people get lazy and do it regardless. It’s our perspective that if we can remove that need to unblock your drain, through effective pre-filtering, then everything is going to be better off. Hair and other foreign bodies are the reasons your drains are typically blocked. Tree roots, of course are invasive, and we can’t do much about that, but as far as what’s going down the drain, we can directly impact what size and what types of elements end up in your sewer pipes. Hair is incredibly durable – if you look at mummies being dug out of the ground, they’ve still got their hair; they’ve still got their henna dye! It really does last a long time and therefore you need a very strong chemical to remove it. The only other option is mechanical removal with a [water] jetter or an electric eel [drain cleaner] or something like that. The more you reduce those sorts of actions, the less maintenance you need. In our own experiments with our own property, we actually got ten years before we had to do any downstream maintenance on the plumbing. In ten years we haven’t even been required to pump out our system, so our drains are really effective at supporting the more environmentally friendly systems (as well as looking good).
When did Stormtech first begin to focus on sustainability as a key pillar of your product messaging and positioning?
Well that was before sustainability was something that [anyone was] particularly concerned about, from a marketing perspective. Given that we were a very small hand-to-mouth business – it was just Dad [John Creighton] and his partner and occasionally myself – we were inadvertently operating as a sustainable business. At the time we would reuse all of our packaging and we would manufacture from materials that had the highest durability so they had a very long life, which we discovered many years down the track helps them in their life cycle analysis study. There was no prescience about sustainability; it was just the nature of the business. With my father’s initial philosophy on designing the product, we wanted it to last for a thousand years, and given the gauge of stainless steel we know they will.
I suppose that starting out from such a small scale also would have encompassed some sort of local community engagement as well.
We went to initially neighbours and friends, and then for knowledge we went to the nearby universities and engineering firms. Obviously to try and market the product we went to the local merchants and tradespeople. We were tradespeople ourselves, so we had a pretty good network.
Has that engagement continued since then, now that you’re much bigger?
Definitely. We’re now based in Nowra, and we’re still very much a part of the local community. We support local suppliers in every way available. We employ locally, plus we retain our trainees and apprentices. We engage with local community groups and support them with direct help such as finance, time, mentoring, and sponsoring.
Do you think that the definition of sustainability has undergone any significant changes recently?
Yeah, I think there’s been far too much lip service given to sustainability. We use one product, PVC, which doesn’t feature particularly well in the media as a sustainable product. However, we know that the PVC we use is the best, most recyclable PVC that you can use at the top of the tree. We’re seeing a lot of companies just put a lot of lip service of PVC equals bad, but use HDPE, even if it is not as suitable for the application intended. They’re totally forgetting the fact that PVC has an engineering benefit and a longevity that negates some of the negative aspects of its media persona. We’ve really examined what we’re doing – where we source the water, where we source the power. I can confirm that we have less than one tenth of one per cent of PVC waste that ends up in landfill, and that’s an absolute independently audited result. That again stems back to our beginnings. We didn’t want waste; because we were so small it was really important. I see a lot of green logos, green this and green that, and we’ve purposely steered clear of it because I feel that sustainability has been adopted as too much of a marketing stunt and not so much as an attitude of corporate responsibility and corporate ethics. [Stormtech’s] products are all made to be recycled and reused. You can use this PVC three times before the molecules aren’t bonding well enough and it needs to have new material added to it.
On a similar note, we’ve written a couple of whitepapers for you previously on non-compliant and low-grade drainage systems present in the market. They obviously have some impact on safety, access and long-term project integrity, but have you found that these same culprits also affect sustainable design from an environmental or social perspective?
Absolutely. There’s zero consideration for sustainability given by that commodity-style product. They’re typically manufactured as a lowest-cost production and those manufacturers will shift their production to places where they don’t have issues of environmental compliance or WHS. They genuinely do – for example, China would be getting tougher on something like that, and so they’ll move it to other places where they don’t have these concerns.
Looking back, what kind of changes have you seen with sustainability in this area in the last decade or so?
Unfortunately I think we’ve taken a bit of a backwards step. There was so much enthusiasm thrown towards [linear drainage] since Stormtech created the linear drainage market from nothing, and a lot of people have tried to join in on that. The problem is that most of these businesses do many other things aside from drains and so they can’t afford the attention to detail that a specialist like us applies to it, particularly in regards to issues of sustainability. I think a lot of time that the commoditisation of these sorts of industries does infer a very big-wheels-turn-slowly attitude – they’re simply not interested in the secondary effects of the products, they just want a cheap drain that looks okay that they can sell a lot of. So I think it’s taken somewhat of a backwards step. Except for us, of course.
What do you see as being the future for sustainable design within drainage, and for Stormtech specifically?
I see the future as more and more as encompassing the direction we’ve initially taken on ethical sourcing of your product – knowing your supply chain, knowing the long-term effects of the product on the environment. Our goal going into the future is to be adding to the environment with our products, like with extended lifecycles, aerated water treatment sewer systems and better gross pollutant traps, which we’re constantly trying to improve so that they’re not only looking good, but are also an effective filter to stop the crud getting into the drain and causing issues downstream.