I’ve just been travelling through Europe and it has been interesting to see that the construction industry there is experiencing the same problems we have in Australia: Labour shortages, material shortages and a general struggle to ensure new projects are stacking up for developers, who are not getting their returns due to the overall increase in costs.
Most of the time when I hear people talking about sustainability, they focus on solar and wind power, along with new materials, as though that’s the only solution. No one says much about reducing materials through smart and more clever design, which is a key consideration given that 47 per cent of global CO2 emissions are coming from buildings.
Architects and engineers should reflect on how efficient their design and building structures are – and take a holistic approach that considers the total project and its imprint on the environment.
Australia is a lucky country, which is not highly seismic, hence the building code doesn’t impose strict rules on structures, which can result in gross over-design with thick slabs or beams to get around any irregularities. This can lead to a big increase in use of materials, something which could be easily removed by a more collaborative approach between engineers and architects.
We’ve had a real-estate boom in Australia driven by people wanting to come here to start a new life; people who need homes, hence developers have been selling products without too many issues.
I remember when I started working in Australia in 2008, we were riding a huge mining boom and it didn’t matter how much concrete and steel there was in buildings. The push was to construct as many apartments as possible because sales were strong and there was little time to devote to efficient design. Since then, efficiency in design has improved as things got tougher; however, we still don’t have the efficiency in design that we should because the building code doesn’t require this. It’s all down to the design team to come up with something that works.
I’m a big advocate of sustainability in design and reducing materials in buildings through extensive collaboration with the architect and various stakeholders.
In the past seven-and-half years, Hera Engineering has achieved so much in this regard and it’s something that doesn’t really get noticed because you don’t get an award for using 25 per cent less concrete and steel compared with a similar building as no one is measuring this.
A perfect example is the value engineering we did for Multiplex on “The One” in Queensland, which is the tallest building in Brisbane rising 274m over 82 levels. During the tender process we developed an alternative design that took six months off the construction time and removed 6500 metric tonnes of concrete – the equivalent of 1048 concrete trucks going on site – and 1080 tonnes of reinforcement without compromising the layout or performance of the building.
There have been many other projects we have redesigned achieving similar outcomes.
Fini Group approached Hera in 2019 to troubleshoot the Rechabite Hall redevelopment in Northbridge, which was already halfway through construction and well over budget. The main cost overrun had been caused by an incorrect approach to the seismic retrofit of the structure. Hera’s solution, in part, was to use a carbon-fibre reinforcement for the existing framework – a familiar concept in Europe – that did not require external modifications or shear walls and meant the project was completed in the original timeframe with major cost savings.
I think the pandemic has started a different reality, which is something we keep hearing about.
Perhaps people have realised that in the past 20-30 years there’s been a lazy approach to overdesigning buildings because there was enough money to get projects off the ground and built, regardless of cost. Now, global attention is focusing on sustainability and even though no one is talking about how much waste materials there can be in buildings, the fact is that costs have become excessive and this will force design teams to re-think their approach.
Australia also needs to focus on more sustainable timber construction, where current costs can be high because we are not producing enough timber for high-rise buildings. This has to change and government should step in to provide incentives to create new factory lines.
It’s amazing to see how much mass timber construction is used in Europe and how durable it can be if cleverly designed.
One of our projects for Brookfield/Hawaiian, the Bishops See Garden Building in the CBD, is a multi-storey office space made of mass timber that’s an incredible example of sustainability offering a better outcome for end-users. This type of construction should not be more expensive than traditional concrete and developers need to be encouraged to use it.
We have a huge challenge ahead of us to both reduce the cost of construction and use less materials while incorporating sustainable practices.
Hera Engineering has demonstrated this can be done, resulting in buildings that are more economical compared with the status quo. All it takes is to think outside the box.