The conversation on energy and climate

The conversation on energy and climate has always created more conflict than consensus. While the Federal Government works towards finalising the National Energy Guarantee policy, the challenge for us remains “what can we do to make a difference?”

On Wednesday 11 April this year, the Federal Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra about the National Energy Guarantee.

The National Energy Guarantee

Sunshading diagram extract from “New World City Design – Buildings that Breathe”

Central to this issue is the need for significant reduction of harmful emissions (namely carbon) which result from the generation of electricity. Unfortunately, Mr Frydenberg still sees a future for coal fired power stations; “While fossil fuels will be critical long into the future, we should recognise that our national fleet of 20 coal fired powered stations has an average age of 27 years”. Apparently, the market recognises this and has signalled its willingness to upgrade existing plants particularly as the upfront capital investment has already been made and it takes 5 years to build a new plant. The importance of natural gas as a transition fuel was acknowledged while we were told that the cost of wind and solar energy has halved in the last 5 years (but these renewable options still rely on subsidies to survive in a competitive market). According to Mr Frydenberg, the hardest challenge is the integration of energy and climate. In the words of the Energy Security Board, “Fifteen years of climate policy instability has complicated long term investment decisions” and left our energy system “vulnerable to escalating prices, while being both less reliable and secure.”

As we all struggle with this highly provocative and polarising subject, some of the answers are simple and are already part of what we do.

Sub-Tropical Design Principles

Natural ventilation diagram extract from “New World City Design – Buildings that Breathe”

During the week following the Frydenberg address, I attended a pre-lodgement meeting for one of our residential apartment projects. When the topic inevitably turned to “sub-tropical design principles”, we were encouraged to embrace the elements of the “New World City Design – Buildings that Breathe” as though it was revolutionary and something new. The reality is however; that the design elements contained in this publication are nothing more than a refresher course in good architectural design principles. Credit to Brisbane City Council for advocating the merits of location, orientation, massing, internal layout, solar penetration and natural ventilation and explaining these basic principles in lay terms. It is a timely reminder in the context of the energy debate, that well designed buildings that perform above minimum standards, actually cost less to run and maintain. It is our responsibility as architects to champion proven passive design techniques as part of our contribution to the energy emissions issue. We can do this now. While sustainability and the use of sustainable products and materials is now part of our everyday thinking, the implementation of simple, traditional design techniques is at risk of being overlooked in the rush towards the search for new energy sources and cleaner energy solutions. What is “clean coal” anyway, other than a clever marketing campaign to make us believe that it is good for the environment? Never has the mantra of “Act Local, Think Global” been more relevant than when we design new buildings and the decisions that impact on our approach to their life cycle costs and energy consumption.

Buildings that Breathe

It is reassuring to see recent high profile projects being approved and constructed – such as 480 Queen Street, with its integrated sky gardens and our own Sierra Nuvo – where Brisbane’s architects and their clients are embracing innovative architecture in “buildings that breathe”. Hopefully this will be our legacy when future generations reflect on our profession’s contribution to reducing energy consumption in sub-tropical climates.

Sierra Nuvo section, showing the Breathable Building principles used to deliver a sustainable building life cycle