Thursday, January 26, 2012

Looking Ahead: Living in Interesting Times

I am really not a fan of New Year's celebrations – I'm usually disappointed at best – so this year's quiet evening was something of a relief. However, corny as it may be, resetting the calendar does come with some opportunities to take stock and look ahead. And so, while I'm not quite in 'resolutions' territory, I do certainly have some thoughts looking ahead into 2012 - a year that has been steeped in end-of-times rhetoric, and seems to have some promise of global systemic change.

In short we live in 'interesting  times'.

Yesterday I had a request from a local member of our 'green buildings community' to pick my trends in the green building industry for 2012. However, if I actually try and predict what's going to happen in the green property industry in  2012, I may depress myself horribly with the 'realism' of contracting markets and economic strife or end up with egg on my face come December when everyone is sitting pretty. The truth is, I have no idea what’s going to happen this year. So I'm going to pick five trends on what I'd like to see happen in 2012 instead.

1. Accurate Accounting: Working to a Balance Sheet of Higher Order Wealth

I have just finished reading 'Betterness' by Umair Haque (@umairh). It is a compelling read and is sparking thoughts like a Guy Fawkes bonfire... Two of which are the need for a comprehensive balance sheet that addresses broad capital and then to explore how we can build higher order wealth instead of depleting it - internally and externally.

So, one trend for 2012 I'd like to see is companies, governments and institutions building balance sheets that add human, natural, ecological and social capital (among others) to our existing financial balance sheets.

2. Rio + 20: The built environment to stand front and centre

2012 marks the 20 year anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit where Severn Suzuki made such a heartfelt call to action (you can find it here Rio '92 kick-started the UNFCCC process, of which COP17 in Durban is the latest disappointment (see previous posts). However I am hopeful for Rio 2012, as it allows a wider lens than just climate change and hopefully a less politically charged space for agreement.

The focus is going to be more on the pro-active pursuit of a green economy than on commitments to reduce economic activity (which is the intractable space the COP process finds itself). While I have been sceptical of the reality of the built environment being successfully included in the COP process, I think it has a chance to stand front and centre in the pursuit of a green economy.

Furthermore, Rio 2012 is a point of reflection for environmentally conscious people everywhere - and reflection is a much-needed thing in our business. I was only 11 years old in 1992 and South Africa was an isolated space still. Despite the 2002 conference being held in Johannesburg, it did not have the profile it perhaps needed at that stage and slid under the radar somewhat. So this is the first global conference since I started my career at which broad sustainability issues will be the core issue.

3. The move to passive

The local industry has woken up to Green Star, but developers still wince at the cost premium (despite the wealth of evidence that 'green' pays). Cash is likely to be tight this year, but public expectations for sustainability are unlikely to slow... So I see insistence on 4 star Green Star ratings (and perhaps even 5) within conventional budgets. I also imagine the spectre of rising energy costs will put huge pressure on building systems design (if you think we've seen the worst of it, watch this space).

Both of these will necessitate a move towards passive; buildings which can continue to operate comfortably without forced ventilation, mechanical heating or cooling or artificial light during the day. Passive buildings can tick the 'green' box, the CAPEX box and the operational risk box, but require particular forethought and flexibility in conventional design thinking.

4. Policy move to resilience and adaptation

Most of the talk around climate change has been framed in terms of mitigation. As the impacts of our current near 1°C rise in temperature start to bite in 2012 we'll see resilience and adaptation move to the top of the agenda in developing countries.

For our industry, I would like to see this start in planning, urban design and city infrastructure circles. New urban renewal projects could make it a priority, red tape could be cut - I can only hope that someone at City takes up the fight with Eskom to address decentralised power generation - and urban ecology and agriculture become core themes for successful planning approval. A 'green door' policy at council would certainly go a long way to getting these in place.

5. Adaptive re-use and refurbishments

As cash gets tight, I would love to see a trend of creative refurbishment of buildings in the mainstream property sector. Old offices to new passive green buildings, warehouses  to funky new office space and power stations to public markets and museums (these have all been done before - please blow my mind with what you dream up).

There is so much literature on refurbishment and so many bad all buildings to improve.  Surely this is the largest untapped market for sustainable design in the country? I think 2012 may be the year someone takes advantage of that niche..

So, there you have them... I hope that was just a little bit useful, and that it gives some insight into my vision for sustainable cities in 2012.

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