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Urban greening in high density environments

Creating 'Vertical Forests' in high density residential developments

ESD - Just Another TLA?

By James Mackness.

Green Wall, Docklands - Melbourne. (Source: Mackness, J, 2017).

Ecologically Sustainable Development (or Environmentally Sustainable Design, depending on your preference for a good old three letter acronym [TLA]) is now well-embedded into planning lingo. Despite the Environmentally Sustainable Design Statements we’re typically required to produce as part of the planning process, the question arises to whether what we’re delivering is really environmentally sustainable?

Our predominant building materials such as concrete, steel, brick, and glass are generally at the ‘higher end’ of the scale for embodied energy. Also, unlike timber, these materials don’t grow on trees. They are finite resources, which  drive up construction costs as scarcity increases.

Relative embodies energy of building materials. (Source: Australian Government, 2013)
Not every building can use timber construction, but that possibility is now closer than ever.

An alternative way to provide for more sustainable buildings is the inclusion of green infrastructure. Green roofs, walls, and façades reduce the energy demands of buildings for heating and cooling. Green infrastructure has the added benefit of being truly multifunctional. A green roof not only lowers the energy use of the building, but it also reduces the urban ‘heat island’ effect of the city, provides habitat for nature, and provides a more  aesthetically pleasing view than that of a traditional built rooftop would offer.

Despite views to the contrary, green roofs aren’t incompatible with providing energy generation via solar panels. In fact, photovoltaic panels can benefit from being on a green roof by virtue of a cooler microclimate, thus increasing the efficiency of energy generation. The green roof also benefits by virtue of the shade provided by the panels and condensation runoff, which can improve the biodiversity of the roof.

Green roof and photovoltaic cells on one of Transport for Londons buildings, UK. (Source: Living Roofs, 2017)
Although maintenance is required for the green roof, there can be a reduction in maintenance requirements in the long run as the living material protects the roof structure from UV radiation. This aspect is of course more attractive to institutional investors and their long-term view of property assets rather than developers looking for an immediate return on investment.

So with all these great benefits, why aren’t we building more of them? With the introduction of the Better Apartments Design Standards (BADS) to the Victorian Planning Scheme, maybe we will. Standard D10 states:

Development should provide the deep soil areas and canopy trees. If the development cannot provide the deep soil areas and canopy trees specified…an equivalent canopy cover should be achieved by providing either:
  •          Canopy trees or climbers (over a pergola) with planter pits sized appropriately for the mature tree soil volume requirements.
  •          Vegetated planters, green roofs or green facades

It will be interesting to see how this requirement will playout at VCAT, where many development ‘rules of thumb’ are often determined. Will the expectation of green infrastructure in lieu of deep soil zones be on a one-for-one basis? Deep soil zones provide greater opportunities for stormwater retention, planting, and the ability to recharge groundwater, so should a greater ratio be applied?

Further reading:

Planning for Homelessness

By Julia Moiso.

Currently within Australia, there are over 100,000 people 'sleeping rough'. The rate of homelessness is 49 out of every 10,000 with 44% of this population being female and 25% being indigenous Australians. This is an alarming rate which is growing exponentially each year.

Recently, there have been trends both globally and within Australia to "prevent" homelessness through draconian urban design and operational measures. In 2014, a series of metal 'spikes' were being installed in building alcoves and under overpasses around London in efforts to discourage homeless people from setting up their sleeping arrangements, see Figure 1. In 2015, the Western Australian Department of Culture and Arts found itself under fired after it installed sprinkler system on Perth's King Street Arts Centre building. The high pressure sprinklers, which came on for 30 seconds every hour at night, were designed to keep homeless people from sleeping in an alleyway next to the building. More recently, in the last few months, ticket barriers at 3 of Sydney's largest metropolitan train stations - Wynyard, Town Hall and Central - have been moved outward so that station toilets fall inside the pay-for-access zone, rendering them off limits for anyone who doesn't have an Opal Card.

Figure 1: Spikes appearing at a London Apartment Building (Source: Ethan Pioneer, 2014)
Other examples of pervasive homeless deterrence technology include benches designed to discourage sleeping, designed with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying (among many other designs). See Figures 2, 3 and 4. There are been benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long! Sadly, however, such designs are particularly common in public transport terminals such as train stations, bus stops and parks - all of which present homeless persons with the prospect of a safe public place to sleep.

Figures 2 and 3: Public seating designed to deter prolonged use. (Source: The Atlantic, 2014). 
Figure 4: Wall seating at a Montreal Railway Station (Source: The Atlantic, 2014).

Draconian homeless deterrence strategies contradict the famous ideology of 20th century French socialist and planning academic Henri Lefebvre, who discusses the idea of the 'right to the city' and how inhabitants manage urban space for themselves.

Luckily, such preventative measures have sparked outrage amongst the local communities in which these measures have been employed. For example, London's mayor called the spikes "ugly, self defeating and stupid",  and protesters poured concrete over a set of spikes outside a supermarket. A petition was also signed by nearly 130,000 people to removed the spikes from a London apartment building. 

Whilst this response may restore your faith in humanity, little is being done by the Government to actually provide successful active solutions to prevent homelessness within out cities. Robert Pradolin (former General Manager for Frasers Property Australia and active public speaker against prejudices against homeless people) has teamed up with 'Launch Housing' in efforts to create pop-up rooming houses. The agency plans to convert vacant office buildings within Melbourne that are awaiting redevelopment into temporary accommodation for people struggling with homelessness. Their strategy includes equipping empty offices or vacant floors with pods constructed from temporary partitions that can be quickly dismantled when the property owners need the space back. 

This idea of pop-up housing was recently discussed earlier in the year by housing and support services and City of Melbourne representatives, where Heather Holst (CEO of Launch Housing) said that pop-up housing might seem like a desperate response, but necessary given that homelessness was reaching crisis levels. 

Obviously, the temporary housing would need to have existing toilet and showering facilities and would need to be altered so that they complied with the relevant rooming house safety standards, but this seems a worthwhile step in the right direction (particularly as some office buildings remain empty for years waiting on development, purchase, or the approval of planning permits).

Similarly, earlier this year a wealthy Melbourne family offered $4 million to construct 57 portable homes for disadvantaged people on vacant VicRoads properties in efforts to tackle Melbourne's homelessness crisis. The project is mostly being privately funded by philanthropists Brad Harris, who co-owns the Sporting Globe Bar and Grill chain of 9 restaurant-bars (and his father Geoff Harris, who co-founded Flight Centre).

The plan includes 57 pre-built studio units to be transported to 9 disused housing blocks along Ballarat Road within inner city suburbs Footscray and Maidstone, where a public acquisition overlay is in place should the government one day choose to widen the road. VicRoads has bought several properties along Ballarat Road in recent years in anticipation of the road widening project (The Age, 2017). The project is subject to development consent from Maribyrnong City Council, if granted, tenants can be expected to move in during the middle of this year.

Figure 5: Artists impression of the new temporary housing units (The Age, 2017). 

So to conclude, the above examples impose some important questions: why does there seem to be a bigger response to homelessness from members of the public than from the Government? And is temporary housing the only solution to social housing?

The Ply's the Limit

By Brodie Blades.

There is a hint of truth in the saying ‘everything old is new again’. This year alone we’ve all endured the re-emergence of the Pokemon Go craze, glimpsed sightings of macramé as an interior trend, and watched the demand for terrace housing in Sydney and Melbourne reach whole new levels of absurdity. But it is perhaps in the field of building construction where this saying holds the most truth, as the rise of timber construction methods demonstrates how traditional and ‘archaic’ construction materials are once again making a much-needed resurgence.

Timber construction methods are obviously not new per se (think traditional wooden huts, and  colonial forts), but what is new is their application in larger and taller developments than ever before. For example, London's ‘Stadthaus’, (9 storey residential tower in the borough of Hackney) is considered the world’s pioneer timber residential tower, with load-bearing walls, floor slabs and cores all made entirely from timber. Also worth mentioning in London is the elegant ‘Oakwood Timber Tower’; a research proposal for timber construction technology in London’s Barbican consisting of 1000 new dwellings in a mixed use tower (read previous Plantastic post here).

The advantages of timber construction are numerous. For example, timber construction methods such as Compressed Laminate Timber (CLT) have excellent strength-to-weight ratios, and are quickly installed - even reducing construction times and building site employees by as much as 30% in comparison to steel and concrete methods. Timber construction methods are capable of being manufactured with millimetre accuracy, and – surprisingly – have excellent fire performance. Perhaps what's most impressive, however, is that timber is a truly sustainable construction medium that is able to be replenished indefinitely, able to ‘trap’ and store carbon, and has the ability to be recycled at the end of the structure’s life.

Closer to home, CLT methods and timber construction are not a completely new phenomenon in Australia. A stroll around Melbourne’s Docklands precinct will have you stumble across LendLease’s 10 storey (32m) ‘Forte’ development, which held the crown of world’s tallest residential timber tower until only recently. Impressively, the use of CLT in Forte reduced CO2 emissions by as much as 14,000 tonnes compared to concrete and steel (or the equivalent of 345 cars off the road)! 

LendLease's 'Forte' timber building. 

Also within Melbourne is Hayball’s majestic ‘The Dock’ library in Docklands – a sleek and welcoming hub for the broader Docklands community. 

'The Dock' Library in Melbourne's Docklands.

In Sydney, LendLease again has plans for another timber structure; this time the 6 storey ‘International House Sydney’ in the emerging Barangaroo precinct. Designed by Tzannes Associates, International House Sydney is due for completion this year at key gateway into the broader Barangaroo precinct. 

'International House Sydney' in Sydney's Barangaroo Precinct, due for completion this year.

Similarly, our friends at Aveo have recently announced a $65 million 10-storey timber constructed tower named ‘Bella Vista’ to be developed within Sydney’s Norwest Business Park ‘Circa’ precinct.

Aveo's 'Bella Vista' Retirement Development.

 With further evolutions in CLT and timber building technology, perhaps it is only a matter of time before some of our tallest developments are built more sustainably through timber methods. What has your experience with timber towers been? Have you seen any other examples of timber construction methods worth sharing?

Further Reading: