Being water wise

Summertime, and the livin’s less easy—at least in southern Australia. Recent summers have been hot and dry, with serious bushfires, water restrictions, and the threat of blackouts as air conditioning puts an increasing load on power systems during heatwaves. It seems that global warming is upon us. No snow resorts in Australia by 2070, says a report to the United Nations Environment Program. No new dams and 20 per cent of Melbourne’s water to be recycled by 2010, recommends a Victorian government green paper.

Global warming is going to put significant strain on our basic infrastructure—health services, water, agriculture, and particularly energy. In the developed world, authorities are looking at sustainable solutions and clever use of resources. Green building, for instance. Melbourne architect Ann Keddie says, ‘It is becoming mainstream. The leading edge of architecture now incorporates green design as a matter of course.’

Under the auspices of the Victorian Building Commission, together with architectural colleagues, engineers, quantity surveyors, developers and planners, Keddie recently travelled overseas investigating energy conservation in buildings as part of an Australian Green Building Mission.

Somewhat to its surprise, the mission found that, despite a lack of large, well-publicised demonstration projects, Australia is well placed in the design and construction of energy-efficient buildings. Australian expertise in green building is as good as anywhere, and we lead the world in storm water and grey water conservation, Keddie says.

In North America at present, says Keddie, there is much talk about IEQ—indoor environmental quality. ‘The debate is mainly driven by the public sector unions. They argue that improved IEQ leads to increased productivity—if people feel  better, they work harder, and absenteeism is lower. But the quantitative research has not been done to show that this is true.’

Nor does green technology always come at a premium. Some conservation measures can cut building costs. Ventilation that comes up from the floor demands less energy and can reduce the size of ducting—so much so that builders can fit a greater number of floors into the same height of construction.
Highlights of the trip included the double skin of the Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, which allows office workers to open windows to control air quality around their desks, and the light wells and sky gardens of the Swiss Re Tower in London.

In general, Keddie says, what the mission saw in Europe was more sophisticated than in the US. But nowhere did the group encounter water conservation measures like those becoming common in Australia, such as capturing storm water or recycling ‘grey’ water.

As the mission points out, while water conservation may not be of much concern to Europe and the US at present, it is highly relevant to places like China and India. We could export our expertise. A recent federal government report, ‘Mapping Australia’s Science and Innovation’, argues that Australia is becoming more entrepreneurial. In our approach to energy conservation, perhaps we will find out. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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