The top 10 TFE articles of 2015

2015 has been a huge year for The Fifth Estate. Reader numbers continued to grow; we clocked up our most read, commented upon and shared story in TFE history; and the number of special projects, events and ebooks we took on seemed to grow exponentially.

Following the success of COP21 and a renewed focus on cities from our federal government and indeed the world, we leave the year hopeful for an even bigger 2016 – hopeful that our leaders now finally understand the importance of a sector we’ve been talking about for close to seven years now, and hopeful that they will now implement some concrete actions to improve its sustainability.

As we head off for the Christmas break, we’ll leave you with the top 10 stories of 2015 – there’s some scandal, some hope, some “how-to”s and a little bit of old-fashioned sustainability ingenuity to boot. See you in 2016!

10. Scientists’ open letter: Intergenerational Report wrong on climate

Enough was enough. The then-Abbott Government’s Intergenerational Report – supposed to be an apolitical snapshot of how the nation might look in 40 years – failed to adequately mention the threat of climate change on the Australian population – already struggling with more extreme weather events.

A group comprising 64 of Australia’s top scientists decided to call out the feds out, asking them to “reconsider the consequences of ongoing emission of greenhouse gases” and to make a rapid transition to a zero-carbon electricity system.

9. Furious industry unites to tackle new Building Code failure

“It’s too vague, has no aims, is riddled with loopholes and appears to have abandoned any explicit imperative to make a building energy-efficient or sustainable – it’s a new lower-bar Building Code of Australia 2016.”

So began an article on proposed changes to the National Construction Code, which would see apartments with 0 NatHERS ratings able to be passed as compliant.

It was a kick in the face to those in the industry trying to do the right thing and let down by unscrupulous companies that were routinely not even meeting already low minimum standards.

A group comprising 17 of Australia’s leading sustainable design and construction experts formed to take on the problem, creating a website, posting commentary on Section J and making a formal submission to the Australian Building Codes Board.

“This is about having a leading edge, innovative industry, but we are not being heard,” we were told.

8. Newcastle rail cut: a fake solution in search of a real problem

A thoughtful piece by EcoTransit Sydney’s Gavin Gatenby on the Baird Government’s decision to cut the train line before Newcastle, forcing people to change at Hamilton for buses, with a plan to create a light rail system, that would open up an underutilised foreshore to development.

“Around the globe, direct CBD-to-CBD inter-city rail is the gold standard. It’s what governments aspire to and pay billions to get,” Gatenby said.

“Between Sydney and Newcastle we already have this boon, but the Baird government is insanely determined to throw it all away, permanently cut the last, vital 2.5 kilometres, and sell the narrow rail corridor – the only remaining non-undermined land in the Newcastle CBD on which high rise can be built – to a developer clique.”

Gatenby said that “opening the city to the waterfront” was “a fake solution in search of a real problem”.

“All Newcastle gains from rail closure is a curtain wall of inappropriately situated high rise.”

The article attracted a vast number of comments from supporters and detractors alike. The Baird Government has continued with its plans to rip up the rail line.

7. Case study: The Carbon Positive House

You guys love a good case study, and this was a doozy. a timber-framed prefabricated house that can be built in six weeks and constructed in a few hours. Better yet, it’s carbon positive, requiring no mechanical heating or cooling and sending renewable energy back into the grid, with the 5kW system providing more than enough to cover the hot water system, LED lights and appliances.

6. Cool roofs versus dark roofs: special report

This report from early 2014 is now a well-used resource accessed daily by people wanting to see what the deal with cool roofs and dark roofs is. To us it seemed that having a cool roof in most Australian climates was a no-brainer, so why the proliferation of mostly black or dark roofs, contributing to the urban heat island effect?

We spoke to sustainability experts like the late Dr Chris Reardon, the tile manufacturers, councils that were for and against cool roofs, as well as researching the lobby groups promoting dark roofs.

We also looked at progressive government action in the space and what the building code had to say. It’s a long read but well worth it.

5. The three principles of sustainable home cooling

We spoke to architect Steffen Welsch about how to cool the home sustainably, which, with ever-hotter summers and longer heatwaves now a reality, has kept people coming back to the article to see what they can do.

Welsh’s tips included keeping the heat out by using exterior vertical blinds; soaking up heat by having thermal mass inside, with elements such as stone or concrete floors that will absorb heat from the air, or a reverse brick veneer; and indoor breezes through mechanical measures such as ceiling fans and strategic window placement.

4. Radical apartments: After The Commons, The Nightingale keeps ruffling feathers

Melbourne’s Breathe Architects, after creating “sustainability lore” with The Commons apartment building in inner-city Brunswick, decided to up the ante with a new building in the same suburb across the street.

Nightingale, a 20-unit project, was looking to deliberately keep profit modest to provide an affordable housing product with ambitious environmental outcomes (an average 8.5-star NatHERS) – a triple-bottom-line development.

A part of achieving the vision for Nightingale was that their would be zero car parks, estimated to save around $500,000. This was approved by Moreland Council, however was objected to by a nearby developer.

The case was heard at VCAT, with senior member Russell Byard questioning the equity of one developer being obliged to have multiple car parks, while another not. He overturned the planning approval.

The decision has set the project back 6-12 months, but director of Breathe Architects Jeremy McLeod is hopeful Nightingale can get back on track.

In any case, the VCAT finding has galvanised the industry, with the Planning Institute of Australia calling on the state government to rethink its car-parking policy to improve housing affordability, health and the state’s sustainability credentials.

Next on the cards from Breathe is Nightingale 2.0 in Fairfield, Melbourne, which is also hoping for zero car parks. We’ll keep you updated.

3. Explosive report lifts the lid on Australia’s building energy performance sham

On the eve of Christmas 2014 – just as The Fifth Estate went on break – the government finally released the findings of the much-awaited National Energy Efficient Building Project review, led by pitt&sherry and Swinburne University.

While many in the industry thought (and still think) the report was released to minimise coverage and outrage of what was termed “a pervasive culture of mediocre energy performance across the Australian building industry”, The Fifth Estate was ensured by government sources it was just coincidental. So too Phase 2 of the project, which, strangely enough, is set for release this final week before Christmas. It will be focused on the residential sector, where the majority of the problems were found.

Regardless of the release date, when we came back to the desk in January we took a deep dive into the report findings, and it became one of our most-popular stories, with industry figures clamouring to have their say on what the findings meant, and what needed to be done.

What was obvious was that “a comprehensive, long-term reform program is needed to combat the widespread, systemic nature of problems identified”.

We’ll update you with Phase 2 findings as soon as they become available.

2. Jobs

The jobs section typically comes in as most popular year-on-year, though this year was trumped by our big blockbuster story. But it came in a close second, with many readers making it the first point of contact to see who’s moving where, what positions are on offer and why?

We’ve also made it easier for businesses to advertise their going jobs, with popular packages teaming up website and newsletter advertising for maximum exposure.

1. Aboriginal-owned energy company one-upping Tesla

Wow. The Fifth Estate’s most-popular story ever, and it’s easy to see why. Local ingenuity, energy disruption and sticking it to the big players all wrapped up in one neat little story. Aboriginal-owned company AllGrid Energy announced the launch of two products: a 10kWh solar energy storage system $3000 cheaper than Tesla’s Powerwall; and an all-in-one solar panel, storage, UPS, inverter and outlet PortaGrid system suitable for remote and off-grid locations.

And social media took the story and went into overdrive.

At last count it had been liked more than 22,000 times on Facebook, and been retweeted over 1000 times on Twitter – and there’s no sign that the piece is budging from our top stories of the month. Every now and again the social media channels will light up again, with the piece being shared widely, from our own Climate Council to Aboriginal peoples in Canada wanting the replicate the successes AllGrid have had here. Good luck for 2016 guys, and thanks to Willow for the scoop!

Special mention

Naomi Klein: Abbott is committing villainous, criminal acts

Just missing out on a top 10 place, this piece about Naomi Klein’s visit to Australia summed up the sentiment of the time, just before Abbott was turfed out by our new PM Malcolm Turnbull.

Here to promote her book This Changes Everything, Klein made a point of calling out Abbott.

The core message of her book, she said, was about exposing the direct conflict between what our planet needs in order to be hospitable and what our current economic system needs – “short term growth and profits above all else”.

“Talking about that in Tony Abbott’s Australia seemed to make a good amount of sense, because this is a government that shows – perhaps more than any other government on Earth – what that conflict looks like and what the costs of that conflict actually are.”

She said Abbott and then-Canadian-PM Stephen Harper had a toxic bond, one she hoped they would continue to share because the world was turning on them and they’d soon be gone.

She was right.

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