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Environmental issues in built form -
The reaction of regulation administrators

Outline
Background
Experience
Specific Experiences

One
Two
Three
Four
Biological waste systems


Outline

The projects with an environmental focus from the architectural practice of Emilis Prelgauskas have elicited a variety of responses from the town planning and building approvals systems.

In this section, Emilis summarises a few of these reactions.

Background

Currently environmental criteria are not written into the development regulatory controls, although there are initiatives at some levels of government to integrate environmental issues into the development control system at policy level at least, notably at federal government level (ESD Secretraiat, ASTEC, Better Cities program, etc.) and at state government level (2020 Vision, etc.)

By tradition regulatory controls concern themselves with specific issues, notably 'visual amenity' in planning, and structural sufficiency, health and fire resistance in building controls.

Building controls have developed from historical precedents, notably major societal events including:-

  • realising the preventative health benefits by public deep drainage works, and requiring households by regulatory force to connect to this as part of public health policy
  • fire controls legislations which began in various places after the Great London Fire (1666)

The town planning system has evolved as government's mechanism to protect the public interest in the built environment.

Government's main tool is regulation, which is a control mechanism, rather than an incentive tool. Regulatory requirements also are normally based on prescriptive, conservative, and well established practice, after it has become well proven and accepted in the public arena. Regulations are also slow to change, tending thereby to become a reflection of past practice rather than allowing for current best practice.

As a separate issue, the prescriptive nature of regulation can also result in administrative delays in securing approvals for even the most conventional of works proposals, when administrators seek very precise information on compliance with particular individual requirements. Notable are routine enquiries for structural engineering justification for standard fixings (balustrades, roof trusses, etc.), requirements for inclusion in construction documents of construction details already detailed in Australian Standards referenced to the project, and queries on performance on proprietory materials (waterproofing, masonry bonding, etc.) where details are given in publicly available manufacturer's literature.

The regulatory system thereby exists to prohibit 'bad' development; yet industry lobby has resulted in regulations embodying issues, standards, and solutions which can be achieved by the potentially mediocre quality end of the mass construction industry.
The regulatory controls normally do have a paragraph which does permit non conventional solutions to be considered, however to meet the 'justification' standards expected by some administrators, the validation effort and costs involved are beyond the scope of the advocates of best practice solutions. Through this, innovation and progress are stifled.


Experience

The experience of this architectural practice is that government administrators involved in development control predominantly are found at the two far ends of the spectrum.

At one extreme of attitudes, innovation and environmental issues are disregarded by regulation administrators because these issues are not specifically and prescriptively embodied in regulation. Projects embodying environmental solutions are then treated as if this is equivalent to the 'bad' development standards the regulations exist to prohibit. Approvals are usually eventually secured; however each project has to be advocated from base principles, and the support of community pressure, political influence and sometimes the courts has to be brought to bear.

At the other end of the spectrum, administrators who acknowledge the relevance of environmental issues in development practices often have previously come into contact with ESD technologies, or will accept evidence of previous application of these technologies. The assessment process then focusses on whether the technology achieves the spirit of regulation, rather than attempting to reconstitute the environmental technology to achieve individual criteria which were originally written around conventional industry practice alone.

Specific experiences

One

The proposal for this architect's own home was queried by local government officers at the planning stage, focussing on its complete wall and roof cladding in steel sheet. The anecdotal comment made was: "It doesn't have brick walls and a tile roof, it can't be a house". A 3 month period of investigation, consideration and advocacy was required to secure approvals.

This building is set on its allotment about 0.5km back from the public roadway beyond 6ha of remnant indigenous mallee vegetation. The approval issued nevertheless cited the condition that "within 12 months of construction a screening of vegetation to the satisfaction of Council shall be planted between the building and road frontage".
Needless to say, such vegetation was never installed, the requirement being strictly a standard administrative clause, not a reflection of the real world where the building never has been visible from any public place. Instead extensive areas of other portions of the land have been vegetated as part of the on-going Land Care program on that land.

As a sideline, when the land was first purchased, the remnant mallee on that land parcel was seen by state government through its Valuer General Department as limiting the agricultural use potential of the land, reflected in a reduced valuation of the land parcel as a whole. 10 years later, at a routine revaluation, a doubling in the land value suggests that government has caught onto community attitudes that remnant vegetation through its bio-diversity capture, land stabilisation and climate modification actions has real value.

Two

The proposals for the 'Dolbat' project situated in coastal mallee of Kangaroo Island was opposed by the Country Fire Service on the grounds that the project was 'contrary to the charter and philosophy' of that organisation.

Conventional bush fire resistance practices would have required:-

  • clearing of native vegetation within 30m radius of the building
  • active fire fighting capability including sprinklers and hose reels around the building

The particular project however:-

  • sought to achieve minimum disturbance to the existing vegetation
  • achieve fire safety while the land has no water supply available to service full active fire fighting services, and
  • the local brigade had already advised landowners in the area, in writing, that it had decided that in intense fires, no units would be sent into the area because of the risk to personnel in the limited access available.

Thereby there were no opportunities to achieve bushfire resistance by the normal fire fighting features; instead the project would have to achieve fire safety for the building's occupants by other means.

As a result, the project embodied full self sufficiency in fire resistance achieved through:-

  • partial earth berme facing the fire direction
  • fire resistant building shell materials and construction
  • a dedicated internal fire resistant refuge area including fire resistant enclosure, smoke seals and window shutters, and internal hose reel for active fire fighting

This approach was developed in collaboration with fire technology training personnel. This approach continued to be opposed by the Country Fire Service.

The approvals delays continued for 9 months. Finally, in independant adjudication, the Country Fire Service opposition was set aside, and the project approved.

Five years later on another project designed by this practice for similar circumstances at another location, the Country Fire Service again opposed this approach to bushfire resistance, claiming to know nothing about the performance in particular of internal refuge safety areas in buildings designed for full bushfire resistance self sufficiency.

Three

The 'Redcone' project used a structural approach previously used in a number of earlier projects from this practice. To achieve minimum site impact during construction a prefabricated steel structure was erected on-site by hand. The structure was standard light industrial sections and form. Approvals were delayed while debate between this practice and administrators decided whether each project requires unique structural justification or whether standard manufacturer's system information suffices.

This practice has developed a series of projects using such light steel frame structure with a variety of framed and masonry infills in different projects. In most of these circumstances, usually manufacturer's standard information has been deemed to suffice. This has become increasingly tenable by the growing folio of completed projects from this practice using this structural approach.

In some later projects, particular individual aspects of the structure were still required to have unique structural justification. In one project (Purnong) the clerestorey area, in another (Parkside) the ceiling support from the steel structure, were focussed on by administrators for separate justification.

Prior to developing the current folio of work, some early projects from this practice (Artist's Studio at Kanmantoo) had such elements removed from them late in the design process to avoid this regulatory inquisition. The projects themselves however, are much the poorer for lack of those design elements.

Four

A proposal from this practice for a 4 level residence on a 25 degree sloping site was opposed by a townplanner providing external advice to Council. The grounds for opposition were that the building did not comply with prescriptive visual amenity regulatory requirements written around conventional single level development on a levelled area.

The proposal's features were viewed from this compliance standpoint alone, rather than considering their merit. Environmental issues were never referred to in the planner's assessment.

In particular, the following environmental solutions were reinterpreted by the townplanner as being in conflict with regulations through:-

  • The integration of the garage space into the building's living level ceiling space was assessed as creating prohibited 2 storey development rather than assessing the merit of blending into the roof form what otherwise would be a separate additional structure on the land.
  • The proposal's level changes under a uniform roof slope mixing piered and benched sections was opposed because the regulations set out required building roofline to soil ground line relationships.

In the real world the proposal's layout has the merit of achieving a lesser visual mass on the landslope compared to a regulation complying solution.

For 4 months the planner sought revision of the proposal to achieve compliance, then when this practice abandoned that approach, the planner recommended refusal of the project.

This practice then instead pursued the 'non-complying' path to approval, even though this path seldom receives administrator support, and there are no appeal options.
Relying entirely on the project's merit, after a further 4 months, development consent approval was secured. The building approval processes for this project also extended over many months.


Biological waste systems

Consistent with the delays experienced between the evolution of best practice technologies and the rate of updating of development control regulation noted at the top of this section; evolution in waste treatment technologies have not been kept abreast by public waste policy or approval processes.

Traditional wisdom is that:-

  • public health is preserved by discharge of wastes entirely to public infrastructure for remote treatment
  • where such infrastructure does not exist, individual 'septic tank' systems are approved for discharge of all waste to underground disposal
  • where public infrastructure does exist, connection is obligatory.

The assumptions in this approach are that:-
- the discharge is only waste and has no resource value
- public health are the only issues applicable

The development of other waste systems has brought to notice that:-

  • - concentration of waste treatment and disposal has detrimental impacts on the environment
  • - some treatment processes add loads to the waste which add further detrimental impacts to the environment, particularly chlorine
  • - collection of all wastes together results in large volumes of waste contaminated to the the lowest standard
  • - some wastes also contain resource value in their contents or for re-use after treatment

The environmental objectives of waste treatment are to:-

  • minimise the water volumes dedicated to these actions
  • segregate wastes so that each can be treated effectively with least inputs
  • to re-use minimally polluted waters
  • to harvest components in the waste water having resource value
  • to segregate from human contact only hazardous waste waters

From this approach comes a waste treatment philosophy of:-

  • keeping sullage, septic and trade wastes separate
  • treating each appropriately
  • re-using treated waters from sullage for non-potable uses

A number of the projects from this architectural practice embody a variety of systems to achieve these goals. Some have been assessed and accepted by administrators. Some have been received unfavourably by administrators.

The Purnong project embodied compost toilet and separate grey water system acceptable to S.A. Health Commision but initially opposed by the Local Board of Health which wished its Council area to be declared a 'septic tank only' area. Similar reaction has been found in another Council area by another architect on a cluster housing environmental project. Approvals have in each case subsequently been obtained.

The Teringie project incorporates septic discharge to sewer and grey water treatment and use on-site. The S.A. Health Commission believes it does not have the option to consider the grey water system in the location with public sewer; but S.A. Water Corporation have advised they have given the project clearance to discharge septic to sewer but retain grey water on-site.

End of section