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What will it take to make sustainable development the preferred option?

By Michael Lunn - posted Wednesday, 18 February 2004

Design and techniques to make buildings more sustainable have been around for decades. So why don’t we see more sustainable developments around us? The same, excellent, showcase examples are cited time after time, whether it is the BedZed project from the UK, or the Sustainable Houses in Rockhampton or Sydney. It is over 30 years since the UK Centre for Alternative Technology opened its low-energy show house which uses technologies such as high mass walls, heat pumps, and wind power.

There are, of course, many individual and less celebrated examples of good practice but they are thinly spread. This article looks at some of the reasons we have not adopted sustainable practices, and the process and methodologies for wider uptake.

The 'vicious cycle of blame'

What prevents sustainable design and construction becoming commonplace in most developments? Sustainable practitioners blame developers for not making their buildings more sustainable. Developers say that it is too costly. Financiers say that government red tape push up the costs of sustainable construction by delays in approvals. Planners say that designers come up with unsuitable solutions. This is a continuous cycle of blame, personally experienced many times, with the unfortunate result that many new buildings and retrofits, which are designed to last many decades, remain relatively unsustainable.


To make the difference, each contributor to the chain of development needs to work in harmony together, and look at the long-term implications. As we know, construction and urban sprawl will continue to be with us as the demand for housing continues.

It is also worth mentioning the narrow margins for builders and developers. Some builders would argue that integrating sustainability options takes away any competitive advantage. Therefore they would never be able to support sustainable construction unless regulatory support was also available.

However, despite the extent of knowledge and interest in this area, sustainable design and construction is still not a mainstream activity. Clearly the Integrated Planning Act (IPA) process for controlling development and building processes, namely building control, and planning control, contains shortcomings and barriers to delivery of sustainable development. However, these are not insurmountable.

One of the main aims for future governments (be it state or local) is to develop policies and practices which would provide a framework to move from the one-off good practice examples towards buildings sustainably designed on a mass scale. The key lesson I have learnt while working as a sustainability "Change Agent" is that organisations that are wanting to promote sustainable buildings within the existing planning and building control frameworks need to adopt a multifaceted approach.

This includes:

  • Information and awareness raising: promoting sustainable design and construction guidelines for building professionals and households;
  • A participatory approach;
  • Regulatory tools: developing a sustainable planning policy;
  • Training sessions and workshops for staff (government officers, planners, developers, financiers, designers, local stakeholders, elected representatives etc.); and
  • Monitoring (the proper evaluation of outcomes and learnings – use of sustainable indicators)
  • Greater Connectivity.

Information and Awareness Raising

Many local councils are starting to produce comprehensive sets of guidelines for developers and building professionals on how to incorporate sustainable principles into design and construction. However, the average home builder is still not aware of the benefits of building sustainably. Why not? There is a lot of information, in fact so much so that it can become overwhelming, so we often take our advice from the developers or designers, and because they are there to meet their clients needs, sustainability rarely gets a look in. The "vicious cycle" starts to emerge. Therefore producing effective guidelines for developers, builders and homeowners is vital to raising awareness of the benefits of building and retrofitting sustainably.

Participatory approach

There are many stakeholders and players in the development process. The process of building effective partnerships is a key component of our work across Australia and the world. Often it requires multiple stakeholders to come together and work in partnership rather than attending the multiple conferences that we all seem to attend.

By bringing government officers, planners, development control and regulatory bodies, financiers, designers, builders together for a series of facilitated workshops you can build relationships, consensus and ways to move forward towards more integrated and forward thinking sustainable development. This adds real value to our thinking and, of course, our expected outcomes.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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About the Author

Michael Lunn is Lead Associate to AtKisson Inc (Australia), an organisation that helps business and governments to accelerate towards the achievement of sustainable outcomes.

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