Building back better in Western Australia: A conversation with Tobias Busch

Around the world communities are calling on their governments to #BuildBackBetter, so we caught up with local Fremantle graduate of architecture Tobias Busch to learn what ideas architects have in their toolkits for building healthy homes and communities.

Hi Tobias, could you start by introducing yourself and how you’re involved with Architects Declare?

My name is Tobias Busch and I got my Masters in Architecture from the UK before moving to WA. I’ve been with Spaceagency Architects in Fremantle for the last eight years. We do a wide range of architectural commissions including houses, multi-residential and hospitality projects.

Architects Declare was first launched in the UK on 19 May 2019 by a group of 17 founding signatories, all winners of the UK’s top architecture award, the Stirling Prize. The declaration states that signatories will seek to raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and the need for urgent action among clients and supply chains. It also acknowledges that building and construction accounts for nearly 40 percent of global GHG emissions.

At first, I was a little bit cynical about this declaration because some of the signatories are involved in some major polluting projects, like airports, which are fundamentally at odds with the declaration. But it is a step in the right direction, I see Architects Declare as an opportunity to build a movement of architects taking climate action. We aim to get signatories involved in local and national conversations around the way we build: for instance, re-using buildings and materials instead of demolishing and discarding them, choosing materials more carefully from the outset to reduce embodied carbon and improving building performance to cut operational carbon emissions to zero. Things have to change drastically.

Architects are only involved in about five percent of buildings in WA, but we are influencers for a much larger portion of the sector. So a lot of what we do, we hope, trickles down into the market. That’s one of the reasons architects must communicate better when it comes to these issues.

There are over 900 registered architect signatories to the Australian Architects Declare Climate & Biodiversity Emergency. What have been some of the key motivations for architects making the declaration? 

Most architects recognise they need to take action on climate change within our industry but have gaps in knowledge regarding best practices for low carbon buildings beyond the obvious things – like installing rooftop solar. So joining our network enables architects to share resources & tools, and learn how to design sustainably and in turn help our clients to make informed choices about sustainable design and technology options. 

We look for ways of sharing tangible solutions that can be implemented immediately. 

Architects Declare should also enable architects to lobby governments and local authorities more effectively on issues such as building and planning codes.  

Other signatories are motivated by the business and economic opportunity that comes with designing sustainably. I think there is a realisation that the way we’ve been doing business for the last two decades cannot continue. And if architects don’t adapt to a new way of design, they’ll get left behind.

What are the key shifts taking place in building design and construction right now?

Most of the shifts happening now are still driven economically. In Perth we are seeing an increase in housing density and supply.

Roads and infrastructure are being built at a greater rate too, but this is not specifically targeted at transforming the built environment to something that’s better for communities and our climate.

I think – in the face of the climate emergency – change is happening too slowly. At the moment, building and planning codes are utterly inadequate for providing the quality and quantity of low carbon buildings we need. The Green Building Council of Australia, ASBEC and other professional bodies are doing some good work in this area to develop pathways and tools for ‘low carbon ready’ buildings by 2050, but ‘ready’ is not enough. We should be building low carbon dwellings now. We already know how to – for anyone curious about one possible approach, checkout Passive House Australia.

Recently we’ve seen calls from across the world to #BuildBackBetter, how can the construction industry pair economic recovery with climate action?

We need our governments to set policies that both incentivises the construction industry to quickly make the necessary changes and penalises – or abolishes the ability – to build in a way that is harmful to human wellbeing or the environment. 

In the UK, Architects Declare has identified some regenerative approaches for the government to build back better, which are aligned with meeting targets to limit global heating and provide a stimulus to the economy. These are equally applicable in Australia:. 

  • A mass retrofit of energy wasteful buildings, which means taking existing buildings and radically reducing the building’s carbon emissions. This will help address fuel poverty and create jobs by essentially refitting them in ways that make them energy-efficient and resilient to a changing climate.
  •  GST reforms to promote refits and refurbishments over new builds.  Introducing GST breaks on refurbishments would deliver major and rapid benefits to business and communities without the carbon costs of new-build projects.
  • An emergency plan for transitioning to clean energy to decarbonise our electricity supply. Renewables coupled with energy efficiency in buildings and industry would deliver this at optimum cost and speed.
  •  A zero-carbon building program. That means all new buildings are built to measurable standards that deliver positive impacts in terms of the environment, diversity and wellbeing. This has to happen immediately.
  • A comprehensive review of transport to align with our long-term health and prosperity. Increasing the density of buildings can make public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure more viable. We can reduce the need for long-distance travel and commuting generally, creating better mixed-use neighbourhoods so people can live and work in the same area. Another aspect of this is the quality of NBN, which the Covid crisis has exposed as inadequate for many, and which is a vital piece of infrastructure in this context. In short, we need a holistic infrastructure approach.
  • Halting biodiversity loss and restoration of nature on a massive scale. Part of this would be a plan for large scale managed forestry for construction timbers that not just lock in carbon while they grow, but hold it for decades in the building structures that the timber is used in. Managed forests can grow at a rate to supply sufficient timber for a high rise office building in a matter of days. We know how to make timber strong and fire-resistant enough. We just haven’t got access to the material yet, or an approach to construction codes that would enable mass adoption of timber-framed construction.
  • Introducing a carbon tax. A carbon tax is a technologically neutral, proven way to redirect funds from harmful technologies and materials to renewables and regenerative technologies. In the built environment it would send a price signal to architects and clients to use materials that do not harm people or the environment. The impact would be immediate and drastic.

WA is renowned for it’s urban sprawl and reliance on cars for transport. How might we reimagine the way suburbs are designed and developed?

It comes back to density, because if you look at public transport, walking, cycling, all of those methods of transport become much more viable when people live closer to each other and the places we shop, work and socialise in. With our increasing population, we can create better-mixed neighbourhoods in WA. Up to now, we have been very compartmentalised in our land use and with a one size fits all planning system, which has made it challenging to accommodate different uses in neighbourhoods such as light industry, office space, retail and living. So I think reimagining our suburbs would involve creating spaces that are more dense and diverse and that people still want to live in.

If we’re expecting people to live in higher densities, we need to develop trade-offs so people are getting something better as a result of sacrificing their quarter-acre blocks. High-density living can achieve this with good planning, including open space, tree retention, transportation and neighbourliness.

I think we also need to consider how we value, own and develop land differently. The worth of land should lie in how it benefits communities rather than the profit it generates for banks or developers. We can learn a lot from First Nations communities who have a reciprocal relationship with the land and belonging to a place. 

The worth of a neighbourhood is then not defined by the value of the land, but by the investment made into a neighbourhoods’ built and natural environment, infrastructure and social structures. This is also an important factor in the transition to sustainable homes: the value of home-ownership must transition from land to the improvements – that is the buildings constructed on it. 

Community land trusts are a really exciting alternative to individually owned property, which puts community and affordable housing first.

Neighbourhoods are planned through participatory democracy involving representatives of all people who live and work in the area. It’s been quite successful in some districts in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and the US with many economic, sustainable and social benefits. Here in Fremantle, there’s a cooperative housing model being developed where residents design and build their homes together. This also creates social resilience which will be critical for resilience and harmony as we adapt to a changing climate.

We understand energy-efficient social housing retrofits could generate thousands of screw-driver ready jobs. What are the local employment opportunities you foresee in low-carbon construction here in WA?

Yes, the employment opportunities in low carbon housing retrofits and construction is huge. I think for architects, sooner rather than later, it’ll become a live or die kind of situation. Either you’ll adapt and become part of the retrofit boom and make sure that it happens in every design or face very few business opportunities.  

The materiality – that is the perception of materials we use to build our homes and workplaces will be a key focus for architects. I think we have a huge role to play in how emerging technologies and materials are perceived – and adopted – by the public.

There are new green technologies emerging right now in WA, including cross-laminated timber, hemp and sustainably managed forest farmed timber with opportunities for thousands of local production and employment opportunities.   

On the other hand there are initiatives to reduce the impact of established material. For example, green concrete, which is up to 50 percent less harmful in terms of GHG emissions than normal concrete, but it’s still a big carbon polluter compared to other materials. So should it be part of the solution?

As architects, we must ask these questions and decide how they fit into a green future – then incorporate them in our design and collective architectural ‘language’.

What’s your vision for the WA architectural design and building industry?

Every credible scientific report suggests that – at the rate we are going – we must be prepared for a world that is going to be beyond two degrees warmer in fifty to one hundred years time. Collectively – we are not yet prepared to make the changes that we need to prevent that future, and by the time we are, it is most likely too late. 

We need a built environment that prevents any further harm, starts to regenerate our natural environment and is resilient to the changes we will inevitably have to deal with. 

I don’t know what that looks like and my vision is not so much for an image of that  future, but how we are going to get there. A roadmap. How do we collectively build a vision using the best science, materials and tools that we have? To do this we really have to start listening to the experts – scientists, engineers, architects and the communities that have to live in that future – most importantly, our children. We need a deliberate participatory process to develop those roadmaps.

But first, we need to tell the truth about the climate emergency and act now to reduce harm and stop biodiversity loss. We must change the way we build and plan immediately.

Connect with Tobias on Linkedin and Twitter. If you’re an Australian architect you can sign the declaration here. 


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