The floodgates are open for stunning green buildings covered in foliage and plenty of outdoor space so people can make the most of Brisbane’s temperate climate. Now to make sure these buildings deliver for everyone.
This week, the biggest news in green buildings – in Brisbane at least – was Aria Property Group’s “urban forest” building on the Brisbane River, expected to be covered in more than 20,000 plants and over 1003 trees. The claim is that it will be one of the greenest in the world, rivalling perhaps famous green covered structures such as Milan’s Vertical Forest.
Perhaps predictably– and maybe in part just because it’s so different – plans for the 30-storey residential apartment block have attracted a lot of attention, not all of it positive.
For Brisbane City Council’s vision for green buildings, it ticks a number of boxes. The council wants to encourage designs for buildings that are suitable for the local temperate subtropical climate – characterised by sunny days, cooling breezes and a pleasant mean annual temperature range of 15 to 25 degrees.
Like other councils around Australia, the City Council is looking to encourage these better, greener development through a range of incentives.
It appears to be particularly interested in rewarding developments that align with its New World City Design Guide – Buildings that Breath guidelines.
The guidelines paint a picture of a Singapore-like city populated with buildings that make the most of the temperate climate, with plenty of natural ventilation, operable windows and doors, an abundance of plants and plenty of outdoor space to create a feeling of being in nature even when you’re not. (In fact, Richard Hassell’s Singapore based WOHA architects is understood to have presented to the Brisbane City Council more than once on the Singaporean green building model and to have shown Aria around its projects in Singapore.)
This signals a real departure from the typical glass boxes that are dependent on mechanical cooling, leading to (in theory) less energy-intensive, healthier and attractive buildings.
Now almost four years old, the guidelines by the council, urban planners Urbis and architects Arkhefield picked up an award or two and they’ve largely been considered a strong idea. Take up of the scheme, however, has been slow – not particularly surprising given it’s a voluntary set of 31 guiding principles.
In recent times, the council appears to be more interested in seeing this vision realised.
It’s allowed the exchange of strong environmental and community outcomes for concessions on height and other conditions.
In its 2020-21 budget, the Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner flagged a 50 per cent infrastructure charge rebate for buildings that meet the 31 elements of Buildings that Breathe.
It’s also considering half price infrastructure charges for buildings that meet 5 Green Star rating, a carbon neutral and that achieve a “green plot ratio”.
The shift towards breathing buildings is happening
According to Rothelowman Brisbane studio principal architect Duncan Betts, there are signs that largescale development in the city is moving in a more sustainable direction, especially when it comes to living, breathing buildings suited to the subtropical climate.
The studio has a couple of projects in the works that align with the “buildings that breathe” principles, including the “inside out” 11 storey office building on 14 Stratton Street in Newstead, which is being developed by Silverstone.
While the typical commercial building is essentially a glass box that looks to maximise its floor plate, using mechanical cooling to keep occupants comfortable, Betts says this building tries to turn this model on its head through the use of ample outdoor space (including a shared rooftop garden) and terraces that open up onto office spaces.
It also has a garden façade to provide privacy from surrounding buildings. The design also allows an abundance of natural light into each 1044 square metres floor.
This floorplate facilitates natural ventilation, and for workers to make the most of the temperate climate by opening and closing doors on their terraces as they wish.
Betts says that although it’s possible to make a completely sealed office buildings extremely energy efficient if air is continually recycled, this can come at the expense of human health and wellbeing through a loss of connection to nature and fresh air.
In the era of Covid, there’s an even stronger case for ample access to fresh air, he says.
The architects also designed the new twin tower, a $200 million mixed-use 32 and 35 storey development at 57 Coronation Drive, Brisbane City, which also works hard to incorporate as much natural daylight, air flow and living greenery as possible.
Betts says these types of developments, along with the likes of Aria Property Group’s proposed “vertical forest”, suggest that council’s vision is moving in the right direction.
He also says it’s no “free lunch” and that developers and architects must seriously commit to high quality green outcomes.
Stunning green buildings, but at what price?
Greens member and Gabba ward councillor Jonathan Sri isn’t convinced that the use of incentives is the best way for councils to drive sustainable design outcomes.
He says it’s a broad trend in local government to avoid mandatory requirements for developers, instead relying on voluntary participation or incentives.
It might sound like a win-win, and in a perfect world it might be, but Sri says there are always tradeoffs. For example, some developers want to take their towers far higher than the prescribed height limit in exchange for a bit of facade greenery.
Sri says this is not uncommon in Brisbane. The new Aria development, for example, is proposing 30-storeys in an area that has a 10 or 12 storey height limit.
“That’s the problem with a lot of development in Brisbane, lots of them are doing good stuff and then expect a lot in return.”
And while Sri is in no way anti-density, and wants to prevent further sprawl, he also says that developers should be giving back more to the community in parks and public space if they want to go 10 storeys higher.
Otherwise, the area’s amenity can quickly erode, as walkways and parks become overcrowded.
This is compounded by the endurance of generous underground parking in most major Brisbane developments, even in buildings that are well connected with public transport and active transport.
The new Urban Forest tower, for example, is only about 400 metres from the train station, but has planned for more car parking spaces than the number of apartments.
Reduced infrastructure charges for green and social outcomes are also nice in theory, but Sri wonders where the government will make up this lost income to fund the necessary infrastructure, such as bike lanes and trees, to make these neighbourhoods liveable.
The end result of this type of planning is a few “really nice buildings” in car centric neighbourhoods with average amenity because the council can’t afford decent social infrastructure.
Sri says that if councils really value something like the “Buildings that Breathe” principles, they should be mandatory, just like fire escapes and other safety features.
The other problem with incentives rather than mandatory requirements is that a few developers might go the extra mile to get the benefits, but the rest of the market will play it safe in business-as-usual mode and keep delivering a sub-standard product.