innovation on the frontline

The chapter on delight and innovation, and comments in the book in regards to  prompted me to look at my experiences in the built environment on this very topic.

I was reminded of a project in my most recent position with a project management company in Australia. This project was a 20 storey office building – a landmark for the waterfront. It was to be rated a 5 Star GreenStar project (equivalent of LEED Gold) in the Docklands area of Melbourne, Australia for sustainable measures and included such things as a 20 story atrium, basketball courts, edible gardens, green walls (i.e. vertically mounted plants on the facade on all 20 stories), and other interesting ways of saving energy/materials and the environment. The financier/owner of the development was a pension fund (ISPT) which is a steward of retirement money in Australia, and the confirmed tenant was to be a premier health insurer who would be making it their national headquarters. The designers – acclaimed Australian architects Hassell Studios http://www.hassellstudio.com/en/cms-projects/detail/bourke-junction/) wanted something that would meet sustainability goals so they wanted the design to be sustainable, cutting edge and representative of ‘healthy living.’

The living green walls was a critical design feature. It was innovation, and on an unprecedented scale. However while it was a particularly interesting point – it had never been fully tested before at such a large scale. While green walls are all the vogue, consistent methods of producing them are a fairly new concept, UW has very recently made some overtures in this space in terms of research: http://www.washington.edu/news/2012/06/05/vertical-sustainability-moveable-green-walls-coming-to-gould-hall/

Some of the sustainable advantages of green walls listed on the website of the chosen subcontractor for the project – Junglefy (http://junglefy.com.au/green-walls-benefits.htm) included:

  • Providing insulation 
  • Valuable shelter for biodiversity 
  • Bring nature to the urban environment
  • Utilises unused space with recreational potential
  • Improve a building’s energy rating 
  • Becomes part of a cumulative solution to climate control

Whilst all these advantages spoke volumes about the ambitions for this building, the biggest challenge was the fact that the location of the building was to be close to the waterfront where winds of between 30-50 mph are regularly seen. Valid questions were raised as to how to make the green walls happen, some of the issues were: 1 . The vertical suspension of the plants – would that work? 2. Can the plants they want to use actually survive in such extreme, windy conditions? 3. Serviceability, what would happen to those plants over time, could they be maintained?

There were two sides to the issue: one that didn’t want the green walls, and the other side that did. The team that didn’t want green walls were all about risk mitigation, creating a ‘safe’ product for the market and having control of all the variables- on this side was the project management team (which I was working for) and the General Contractor. On the opposing side – in favor of the green walls: a professor in horticulture from the University of Melbourne, the green subcontractor: ‘Junglefy’ and the architects – who fully believed in the green walls idea. The debate between the two sides raged for over a month.

When I left this company, the conclusion was one of compromise. The client – the Pension fund gave the green walls conditional approval. The idea was to allow a small test of the green walls (to be installed on a similar building in the area which they could monitor), and if the test proved successful over a year then it would go ahead.  However for the test to proceed, the financier had to agree on an additional allowance of several million $ to the General Contractor – for the delays to the programme that could result. If this proved successful for a year then a consideration would be made for green walls. Additionally, the ambition of the proposal was significantly watered down from the original design intent -from something like 20-25% wall coverage down to 10-15%.

My experience is of how politics and naysayers can hold up innovation in the built environment. Without a financial incentive contractually , the financiers, project managers and general contractor were against the innovation, and watered down what was an ambitious idea. Additionally, the regulatory system to my knowledge didn’t promote the feasibility of the sustainable sections of the project – like the green walls. Without the right incentives to innovate, or to allow innovation to occur, we are left with safe and conservative products.

One comment I want to finish with is this: to support innovations, we need to support the financial viability. To support these innovations financially would be for instance through institutional/government backing in commercial ventures like green walls, this can be for instance such things as through public venture funds, or as an extreme case – government guarantees outright. The environmental system deserves as much support as the financial system!  Real estate developments are all about creating a bespoke product, and to push the envelope requires taking a risk. If the government and the public can profit from such a risk, we can underscore the viability of future innovations like green walls, next generation infrastructure and sustainable development.

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