Dr Alessandro Premier is an architect, graduated with a Master Degree from Iuav University of Venice (Italy) and PhD in Architectural Technology at the Department of Architecture of the University of Ferrara (Italy).
Alessandro joined the University of Auckland in 2018, where he is Senior Lecturer of Architectural Technology and is currently teaching architectural and environmental design at the School of Architecture and Planning.
Francisco Carbajal is a Waiheke local, director of the architectural practice FNC Designs, and the artist behind Unified Peaks. He also teaches Environmental Design at the University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning.
How well do you think the current Architectural industry is implementing sustainable practice, and do you think we are doing enough?
Alessandro: In New Zealand, the interest in sustainable practice seems to have spread out in recent years, but the mild climate has decreased the pressure to advance building techniques above the standard practice, especially in the Auckland area. Where there are no extreme climate conditions, such as large differences in temperature between the seasons, it is normal that the urgency to adopt more stringent solutions and standards is less pressing. Furthermore, the building and construction industry is very complex and involves multiple actors and aspects that must be reconciled to make a project possible. Sustainable construction must deal with this complexity and multiplicity of factors and for this reason it is almost impossible to make truly radical choices as would be necessary to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement. However, gradual change is also taking place in New Zealand. We should also consider that research, education and practice travel at a different speed. In the sense that research and education are often far ahead in terms of experimenting with new technologies and adopting solutions that are even more efficient than common practice and current standards. Over the years (I've been living in New Zealand since 2018) I have seen an ever-increasing commitment to educating architectural designers and a concrete commitment from the practices themselves. Manufacturers are approaching it more gradually and much still needs to be done. The new caps introduced by the 'Building for Climate change' program will help a lot, but the interest in innovation should be a bottom-up process, that should start from the industry. And to make this possible, sustainable construction must become economically advantageous for all.
Francisco: As a country, we are still in the process of catching up with improved building techniques - this change is evolving through regulation rather than choice or need. My journey in intrinsic architecture began 12 years ago in Australia, when green-star was beginning to emerge - a lot of the talk about it was private rather than through the industry. Throughout a project, we must deal with the nature of our clients and what they want. It is challenging to specify sustainable solutions when faced with widely known alternatives; an example of this is specifying insulation made from wool offcuts, when the client generally feels more comfortable choosing a known solution such as Pink Batts. The uptake of sustainable practice is primarily a short-term money problem: incorporating sustainable solutions usually means spending more money upfront with financial savings found in the long term through reduced energy costs. In the short term, the client has expectations of what they want, limited by budgetary constraints; these constraints will be pushed to meet the client's ideals before sustainability is even considered. There is a romantic aestheticism in using materials like concrete; however, when aesthetics are the primary motivator, the opportunity to prioritise the sustainable use of such a material can be lost. Placed correctly, concrete can function as a thermal mass that provides substantial heating and cooling gains. The question lies in whether the client values making sustainable choices and is conscious of the project's impact on the environment. The concept of sustainability is increasing in popularity; a move that is impressive and desirable in itself.
Do you think the industry's current path will be able to reduce its impact enough to meet the Paris Agreement?
Alessandro: The objectives of the Paris Agreement are very clear. Emissions should be reduced as soon as possible and reach net-zero by the middle of the 21st century. To stay below 1.5°C of global warming, emissions need to be cut by 50% by 2030. This means that we must not only perfect the building construction processes but also the production processes of the materials and technologies we use. This must concern both the embodied energy and the operational energy and all the related emissions. These are frankly difficult goals to achieve. There is a lot of disparity between countries globally and I think that, above all, the manufacturing industry will have to work hard to improve.
Francisco: There are many tools available that can be used to measure and rate the sustainability of a project. From a professional perspective, when starting a project an estimate is made of the amount of time required at the different design stages. Adding an assessment tool onto that also adds time; it can take a day to assess a whole building - that's eight hours. Multiplying that by the hourly charge out rate is a significant amount of money just to get a rating, not to mention the re-designing necessary with the findings. Clearly, this is a costly and time-consuming process that is often left out of the design phase of a project due to budgetary and time constraints. Sustainability is subsequently thrown out when the priorities are a fast time frame and low budget. Some of the key factors in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement are:
Legislation must be tightened up to encourage the public and industry to build better homes; however, this might also reduce the number of homes being built.
Increased efficiency of software that measures a project's environmental impact. I have found that with tangible results, you get a response from the client. This isn't necessarily a positive reaction - but at least there is a greater understanding of the impact of their project. Certifications encourage and guide the industry, in a similar way to reading labels on food products that state the product is organic, free trade, etc.
NZ is still fixated on the quarter-acre ideal. We have seen post-Covid an increased desire to move to areas outside of the city to achieve this ideal. Pre-Covid people chose to live in higher density areas, for ease of accessibility to work, recreation, and school.
How do think it can be improved?
Alessandro: First of all, we should start from the philosophy of those born in the early decades of the twentieth century: eliminate waste and recycle, or rather reuse everything. Obviously, we should do it with current and new technologies. Then, use the tools we have available to understand where to intervene to improve. One of these, perhaps the most useful, is LCA which allows us to analyse entire production processes and identify where to intervene. However, those who understand them know that databases are extremely important and having them shared, at least in the territory of New Zealand, would help to have valid terms of comparison for more effective solutions. Lastly, do not be afraid of innovation and invest in research, even in apparently utopian projects: new products, new materials, new technologies have often changed the direction of our work.
What is your view on the importance of sustainable practice over the past few years?
Alessandro: As I said before, attention to these issues perhaps arrived here a little bit later than in other countries, but for valid reasons. The local building and construction sector has its own history and peculiarities that must be respected. Now we are moving in the right direction, but the manufacturing industry must be more willing to welcome innovation and to improve, and sometimes to risk, despite the relatively small market. An example of this innovation could be through the introduction of analysis tools in the manufacturing of materials, rather than just in the building process, to see where sustainable intervention could be made. Greater understanding of the environmental impact of material production. Parallel to this, the population must be educated to make better use of resources, finding ways to connect the waste and construction industry to create a more circular economy within the construction sector.
Francisco: People generally know what is and what isn't sustainable. What I've come to learn is that our knowledge and our desire is not enough to make positive change happen. Waste is a significant issue; we must work on creating a circular economy of materials and objects. Even if we required every construction site to manage every piece of waste they have created; organising everything that can be re-used, up-cycled, or unusable into separate piles – little would change. The fate of the reusable materials lies in the hands of the people that want to reuse it. If the waste industry doesn't have the capacity to recycle/up-cycle these materials then what is the point, and what is the value of implementing these practices when there is no outlet to send it? These materials are only a resource if there is a market. We understand the importance of sustainable practices, but in many cases we don't yet have the tools or processes to implement them.
Utopian ideas: In an ideal world what would your industry look like to you ?
Alessandro: First of all, I would like large forests to be restored (I am thinking of the Amazon rainforest for example) to rebuild the lungs of the World and offset CO2 emissions. Then, I would like a building and construction sector where the role of architectural design is of absolute importance. I strongly believe in creativity and I don't like homologation. I am aware that some sustainable solutions could lead to buildings that may be similar to each other. Here the crucial role of the architect comes into play. The new generations of architects will have to be able to master the technologies of generative design and have complete control over the creative process, in opposition the move towards an engineering-centric design process, with architects losing their relevance. They should not forget that sustainability is an essential principle but without expressiveness there is no architecture.