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Peter Maddison on why we need to improve on our cities’ dysfunctional buildings

Architect and broadcaster Peter Maddison calls out the “nonsense” of 6 Star Energy Rated homes with solar panels if the design is all wrong. Likewise the poor performance of most buildings. He’s an ambassador for WoodSolutions but makes no apologies for supporting this biophilic material that connects us to nature.

Attitudes towards sustainability have changed dramatically for the better in the last 30 years, but when I drive through Australia’s cities today, the way the majority of our buildings are designed suggest there is a lot still to be done to fill the knowledge gap.

What is the knowledge gap?

The industry wants to hang its hat on sustainability because everyone’s on the bandwagon, suddenly everything is sustainable.

The post-truth, social media-fuelled misinformation has impacted what we know about sustainability.  It’s now reached a point where you have to fight through a sea of spurious claims in search of an increasingly evasive reality.

Engage experts

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, once said that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. This is a remarkable observation when applied to the sustainability debate. I believe that by investing in expert knowledge, we can generate the positive outcomes we so desperately need for our environment.

By engaging experts, we can avoid the trivial pursuit of 6 Star Energy Rated homes with solar panels on the roof, which is nonsense if the design is all wrong.

There’s a big disconnect between having good design that’s responsible and the implementation of sustainable instrumentation.

As a society, we’re trying to grapple with it, but it all comes down to an intelligence as to what it all means. We’re constructing cities in Australia where two-thirds of the buildings are dysfunctional.

Actions speak louder than fads

You must also conduct yourself in a responsible manner in all walks of life – swap the heating for a jumper, recycle, grow your own vegetables – sustainability is nothing more than a fad if you contradict your beliefs with your actions. You can’t fight climate change with design alone.

Changing attitudes, coupled with advances in technology, have made it substantially easier to build in a more responsible manner – we can do so much better and we must.

A wooden future

We can also make better use of the raw materials at our disposal. I’m a big advocate for wood as a renewable building material.

Green politics has manufactured a false perception that cutting a tree down is vandalism, but the reality is that trees are continually replanted and absorb and store carbon dioxide for life, representing a long- term solution to the carbon problem.

Timber is also far more energy efficient than other man-made materials such as bricks, mortar, concrete, glass, steel, plastics, which burn through energy in their production cycle.

It’s also the only renewable resource that can be used to build and create – you can’t build a house from sources such as solar or wind.

I’ve been able to travel around the world and see the way it is grown in Austria, Italy and the UK and see the way local communities effectively replenish with timber.

People love the feel of wood and other natural resources but can’t work out why and that’s because we underestimate their psychological and physical resonance, the effect it can have on your wellbeing.

Even as technology moves inexorably to dominate our lives, we will never lose that connection to nature, because we’re cut from the same material as earth. We’ll always want to take our clothes off, swim nude and expose ourselves to the elements.

A defence of our planet’s future

As I enter my fourth decade in architecture, I remain hopeful about the future.

Architects have an important role to play in a society still coming to terms with the enormity of the task that lies ahead in the battle to save our planet.

I’m optimistic because the architecture industry is constantly evolving, usually free from the shackles of the past.  We’re innovators, and out of necessity we will continue to innovate until we find answers to climate questions that society wants our industry to solve.

Science will also lend a helping hand along the way; buildings will become more airtight, more sustainable and use less energy, materials will be made locally.

What’s going to happen is the envelopes we’ll build will become off grid and each house will build its own system, there will be no solar panels on the roof, it will be the skin on the building.

I can see this unfolding in our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime, and frankly, it must because we’re chewing up resources faster than we can replace them.

Peter Maddison is a multi-award-winning architect and broadcaster. He is an ambassador for WoodSolutions, for Forest and Wood Products Australia.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

2 Responses to “Peter Maddison on why we need to improve on our cities’ dysfunctional buildings”

  • Jane Loveday says:

    Thank you for your article.
    Talking about solar panels being the skin on the building – Iron Matrix have designed a building framework specifically suitable for solar panels http://www.ironmatrix.com/
    “In 2017, solar panels became cheaper than structural plywood. However, traditional building structures would stress a solar panel in unacceptable ways. Tempered glass can not be cut or subject to tension or compression.
    Iron Matrix was designed to be a lower cost, strong structural steel framework that allows solar panels to be mounted directly to it.”

  • Matthew says:

    “Green politics has manufactured a false perception that cutting a tree down is vandalism, but the reality is that trees are continually replanted and absorb and store carbon dioxide for life, representing a long- term solution to the carbon problem.”

    This is gratuitous nonsense on several levels.

    To name two:

    1. The reality in Australia is that an area the size of Tasmania has been cleared since 1999 and it has NOT been replanted:
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/17/australia-spends-billions-planting-trees-then-wipes-out-carbon-gains-by-bulldozing-them

    2. New trees do NOT absorb enough carbon dioxide to replace that lost from old trees:
    https://theecologist.org/2014/jan/28/big-old-trees-grow-faster-absorb-more-carbon

    There is no problem with sustainably managed plantings, but the problem in Australia is that forests are NOT being sustainably managed. Huge areas of native forest are cleared every year, for grazing land. We’re basically doing what we complain about in Brazil.

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