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A Parallel Universe

Australia’s grass may not be greener, but its government would like to be


By Russell Fortmeyer

The drive to Forbes—a small farming and cattle town of about 85,000 people in central New South Wales—takes about six hours from Sydney. On a Friday night in May, I headed there with some Australian friends for a weekend in the country. We drove along the Great Western Highway through Sydney’s immense western suburbs, across the Blue Mountains, and into a rolling countryside not too unlike northern California—dry, brush-filled, with rock outcroppings and scraggly gum trees, punctuated by the occasional kangaroo.

A dried-up reservoir.
Image courtesy David Gray/Reuters/Corbis
A dried-up reservoir located about 186 miles west of Sydney is just one of many along the Darling River, which has lost half its natural water in one of Austrailia’s worst droughts in over a century.
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We were going to Forbes for the opening of the Superbee honey factory, which had recently relocated into an abandoned dog-food factory from its previous home in coastal Queensland. The opening felt like a grand affair for Forbes, as nearly 700 townspeople turned out on Saturday morning for honey tastings, tours, a ribbon-cutting by the mayor, and, perhaps most important to an Australian, a free sausage sizzle. Indirectly, water and jobs are the main reasons the factory settled in Forbes, as the scarcity of the former has dried up the latter. Like many small towns in the American Midwest, local politicians eagerly court new businesses for towns that might otherwise disappear.

Australia’s drought has taken a huge toll on the country’s economy, if not psyche. The country’s rice industry, which once contributed 4 percent of worldwide exports, collapsed last year due to an unrelenting drought and farmers’ opting for more profitable crops like wine grapes. One of Australia’s most important agricultural regions—the Murray River basin—is on the verge of ruin, receiving government-sponsored water-management triage to the tune of over U.S. $8 billion. Further, every major city in Australia is in the controversial throes of building an ocean-side desalinization plant.

The expensive suggestion of blackwater recycling plants in buildings—what really amounts to a sewage treatment plant on a small scale, taking waste water and turning it into non-potable water for toilet flushing and cooling-tower water make-up—is routinely thrown on the table at design meetings in nearly every architect’s office. The plants can be designed to rely on sewer mining, which is the rather unpleasant idea of pulling raw sewage out of the city system to ensure a minimum supply; regardless, the technology can significantly decrease potable water use in buildings and is encouraged by the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star rating program. Officially launched in 2005, Green Star mimics LEED and the U.K.’s BREEAM, to some degree, in awarding buildings a four-, five-, or six-star rating tied to performance metrics and a weighted points system. The six-star rating—like LEED Platinum—has become the de facto standard for serious architecture. However, unlike LEED, the backlash (or the backlash to the backlash) from jaded, long-time proponents of sustainability hasn’t yet taken hold here.

I have worked with the Green Star tool every day since moving to Sydney in March. As of July, there were only 76 rated projects in Australia, and, needless to say, none are located in Forbes. Green Star can be a bit limiting since it was designed to address office buildings (education, retail, and other building type programs are forthcoming). However, it can also seem more rigorous than LEED, as it offers two ratings: one for design and another for the constructed building. Designing for sustainability is much easier than achieving it, let alone proving the achievement, which explains why thus far all six star-rated buildings are for design, not as-built. I have no doubt this will change soon.

As a designer, I’m grateful to have something like Green Star to set some consensual benchmarks on my projects, as well as to prod some otherwise conventional clients into embracing technologies and strategies to make their buildings more amenable to people. After all, can we seriously consider increased daylighting and access to external views a luxurious design? I also think Green Star couldn’t have happened at a better time, as much of Australia’s relatively booming economy is tied to iron ore and coal exports to developing countries in Asia. When so much cash is piling up in Australian wallets, thanks to such an unsustainable basis for an economy, it stands to reason the building industry should try to chip away at Australia’s dependence on dirty coal-generated electricity. This alone is the reason the country’s per capita emissions rank the highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

When I left New York City for Sydney, I thought I was going to find something exotic, a different way of looking at buildings, or some strange technology that hadn’t made it to the Northern Hemisphere. I didn’t find any of that. Instead, on July 4, when Americans were shooting off fireworks made in China, the Australian Government released a draft of the Garnaut Climate Change Review (www.garnautreview.org.au), a comprehensive report the government commissioned in April 2007 to analyze the challenges the country will face in the next 100 years due to climate change. The report garnered front-page headlines—as do many environmental issues in Australia—and public debate on the report’s key element, that of a mandated carbon emissions cap-and-trade scheme by 2010, has been equal parts vociferous and laudatory. I'm certain that Garnaut will be much discussed at the World Sustainable Building Conference, which just so happens to begin on September 21 in Melbourne.

Of course, mandated carbon trading is nothing new—the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, produced for the U.K.’s government, proposed something similar for the global market—but surely it means something to the people of Forbes that their government is assuming some responsibility for the climate change that has forever altered the town’s fortunes. If you can get excited about a new honey factory, maybe it’s possible to get excited about the prospects of carbon trading. I don’t know, but I’m certainly glad Australia is willing to try.

Russell Fortmeyer, a former editor at GreenSource and Architectural Record, is a Sydney-based sustainable design consultant and writer.

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This article appeared in the September 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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