posted by david on March 15, 2004

A traveller got into my taxi the other day.  It was late afternoon, about five o’clock.  The sun was low and blocked by the new offices.  As we drove through the shadow of the building my passenger remarked on the new development saying: “Well, the architect gave aesthetics a lot of design priority.”  There followed a moments silence before I responded with gentle agreement, whereupon, my passenger exploded into a tirade of expletives against economists that left me shrinking below window level

What did I say? Who knows but the explanation is simple enough: “The world is run by economists   Because economists study the ebbs and flows of money in the market place and money makes the world go around, economists are perfectly equipped to advise our policy makers on how to distort the markets. The “hip pocket” then drives investment which shapes our existence, but more particularly, shapes our built environment.

“How do I know this?”  He asks retorically.  “I know this because I’m an architect.”  Look around you.” He says. So, I look….. I’m still looking. Eventually, I say: “So, what’s your point?”

“The point, my friend, is that we are building punitive financial liability that is adding the equivalent of about another 5% to your mortgage rate. THAT’S WHAT!”  

Say that again!

“That can’t be true. My mortgage rate is only 4.9%.” I point out flippantly.

“Well if you believe that, then you won’t hear anything that I have to say.” Comes the retort. “Okay.” I say. “Explain it to me. What’s this liability thing?”

“Housing, office accommodation, workshops, you name it, will all last for about fifty to hundred years. That is an estimate of the life of most buildings.  If we have not built energy efficiency into them then the cost of maintaining a comfortable living or work space must be added to your management costs. How much do you pay for hot water and space heating/cooling?  If it is a business premises then the costs reduce the profit.  Less profit means lower dividends to shareholders.. Costs ultimately are passed on to the whole community so everyone loses not just the owners but the WHOLE community.

DO YOU LIKE PAYING HARD CASH FOR SOMETHING THAT GIVES YOU ZERO BENEFIT?”  [Is he staring at me?]

Let me explain it to you this way. “Within Australia, office and apartment blocks are probably the most conspicuously offensive just because they are often so large and bathed in unwanted sunlight for much of a summer’s day. Of course, in winter, most buildings cannot get enough sun but fossil sources of heat are so “cheap” at this time, do you care? Do you like making high payments to greedy utilities, do you?”

Oh. I think I get the picture.  Of course he’s right.  I see it now.  “So if we’ve known all this for forty years, why has it taken so long for you to change the way YOU do things?” I ask.

“Good question! Now we are getting somewhere”. He says with a wry smile.  “That is a very good question and there is very good answer.

“Money makes the world go around and ‘I’ have to make a profit first.  When I’ve made my money by selling my land then you can build whatever you damn well like!  And, what you build is your own damn problem!  Now when there is no streetscape, the land developers design the suburbs according to cost minimising criteria that have nothing to do with the ongoing cost of maintaining an acceptable living environment but everything to do with maximising profits. 

“The governments then employ accountants, clerks and economists to do their administration. These people know and care nothing about the built environment. They set design limits according to the existing streetscape or some arbitrary land use criteria and a maximum footprint.”

Logical or not, I’m not sure about this.  “Where exactly did you want me to take you, sir?” I ask as a delaying tactic while I think about what I should say next.   “Yarralumla, please.” came the polite reply.

“Okay”

Via Kingston.  Take me via the drive-thru bottle-shop!”  He commands exercising his authority and influence because in reality he has none.

 “You can see that our economists are happy as pigs in mud already. The money is flowing, profits are being made and the taxes are flowing in.  Now it is time for the builders to move in and build the office blocks and houses.  The design criterion for them is maximum usable floor space with an aesthetically appealing environment, a few useless but attractive trees and an inadequate car park, things all good for maximum profit.”

“But what about operating costs?”  I ask.

“OPERATING  WHAT….? I’m not interested in THAT!” he shouts back. “I just pass costs on to the tenants. TENANTS DON’T CARE ABOUT OPERATING COSTS!  Well, not when they sign the lease, they don’t. That’ll come later when they face insolvency! HAHAHA.”. He laughs forcefully out loud. I laugh with him wondering if I am really laughing at myself.

“So there you have it. The building owners just pass costs on to the tenants and the tenants pass costs onto the consumer. So, the solution is just to let the consumer pay.  He’ll never know the difference because he has no choice in the matter.” 

“That’s it?” I ask.

“You’ve got it.”

Well, I’m not so sure. “Okay.  So, as long as the building looks nice and has the right location, anything gets built without a thought for ongoing costs, right?  So just how much are we talking about? The response is swift and loud: I’m having visions of Basil Fawlty and just as animated.

 “HOW MUCH CAN IT COST TO OPERATE A BUILDING? I MEAN, IS ISN’T A CAR.  IT HAS NO MOVING PARTS, DOES IT? It just sits there in the sun and the rain keeping us warm and dry……………DOESN’T IT?   WELL!  DOESN’T  IT?”  

At this point I’m acting like I have to concentrate on the road and nodding agreement. I keep driving, pointing the car towards the Kinston Hotel trying to look smaller than I am while still keeping my eyes above the dashboard.  We arrive. He gets out of the car to buy his whiskey mumbling something as he went. I take a deep breath and slowly sit up again.

The respite ends quickly. My temporary companion completes his purchase and gets back into the front passenger seat. “Hells bells! I’m looking forward to this”.  I offer no response, engaging drive instead and we move slowly forwards. “Roll on Yarralumla.” I think to myself.

 “So how do conventional buildings compare cost-wise to your new concept?

“Well, if you go conventional, the penalty is equivalent to about five percentage points on your mortgage, that’s what! Voters, bless their bleeding hearts, cry and complain about how much their mortgage costs but when are you going to demand that your home is naturally comfortable and cheap to operate?  I mean, it costs no extra to build the same floor space with passive solar features. With this kind of house you will be comfortable in a thermal sense without having to invest in expensive reverse-cycle air-conditioning and the like.

“This country has saddled itself with an energy cost liability that is ongoing and indefinite.  It’ll last as long the buildings themselves.”

“Every single one of us, who live and work in regular oz towns and cities, is paying through the nose for simple comfort [read uncomfortable houses] because we didn’t realise that we didn’t have to have it this way.  The knowledge is not new [at least 50 years old already] but all the years of training given to architects has been wasted because architects are only part of the process and most builders/developers do not use an architect.. 

If the public doesn’t understand good design, they will not ask for it so the building industry can just keep on trotting out the same old tinsel. Aesthetics sells because the buyer can see it immediately.  Passive solar design does not sell because the buyer doesn’t understand it and hasn’t realised how much money he will save over the life of the building.  

“All we have to do is demand what is just common sense.”  There is a pause for breath.  The silence is welcome but deafening. Now, I need the drink.

I’m waiting for the finale but there isn’t one - or so I thought. We’ve arrived at our destination.  He has got his bottle in his hand as he opens the door to climb out but there is no stopping the final swipe: “LOOK.”  he shouts waving his arms towards the array of suburban homes.  “The government enters into international agreements for reduction of carbon emissions while busily planning a new thermal power station to supply all the dumb new houses. Have we all gone MAD?”

When you put it like that, I’m beginning to think so.