A sizzling summer has put the resilience of our buildings and cities to the test. But some of the industry’s leaders are already adapting their assets to help communities beat the heat.
Australia has sweltered through the summer, with its hottest December on record, and temperatures nudging 50°C in some places in January.
This follows a year of record-breaking heat, dangerous bushfires, floods and severe drought, prompting the Climate Council to call 2018 “the year of extreme weather”.
Beck Dawson, metropolitan Sydney’s chief resilience officer, says Australians are facing a “risk cocktail that we haven’t had to manage in the past”.
Dawson has developed the Resilient Sydney strategy with support from the global 100 Resilient Cities program and all the councils of Sydney. The program undertook a risk analysis which examined “all the shocks and short sharp events” like heatwaves, storms, earthquakes, riots and financial crises, through to the “stresses, or slow burning issues” like housing affordability, chronic disease, unemployment and congestion.
In Western Sydney, for example, geographic conditions and chronic health issues, when overlaid with a heatwave, can be “catastrophic”, Dawson says.
“We are building infrastructure that doesn’t accommodate heat conditions, especially on the third day of a heat wave. Even normally healthy people are at risk in these conditions. Significant numbers of people are ending up with compromised health – in hospital or dead.”
People are more likely to die from heat in Western Sydney than from any other natural hazard, “but you can’t insure for it, and we are not yet building our city to manage it,” Dawson warns.
Dawson is currently working on the ‘Cool Suburbs’ program – a collaboration with several councils in Western Sydney, the Greater Sydney Commission and industry bodies like the Property Council that are committed to tackling the urban heat island effect.
Our cities, with their dark roads and dark roofs, trap summer heat and create oven-like conditions that can be up to 10°C hotter than surrounding rural areas.
Greenery is good, and many councils are investing in ‘green infrastructure’, like the City of Melbourne, which plans to plant 3,000 trees a year to reduce the city’s temperature by 4°C. The Green Star rating system rewards projects that reduce the urban heat island effect, and several trials of ‘cool roofs’ and reflective roads by Stockland, BlueScope Steel and others are showing promising signs.
But Dawson urges “everyone” in the property industry “to think about the systemic risks associated with climate change and how we can work together to improve the quality of our buildings, our streetscapes and our communities to manage heat.”
Places of refuge and respite
One of the companies thinking carefully about extreme weather is Vicinity Centres.
Shopping centres play an important role in a resilient city, says Melissa Schulz, general manager of sustainability at Vicinity Centres.
“Retail property is really interesting, as it’s often private companies supplying what is seen as public infrastructure,” Schulz, the incoming chair of the Property Council’s Sustainability Roundtable, explains.
During chronic events, like heatwaves, a centre can be an “unofficial refuge offering respite from the heat” – which is why ensuring the centre remains open for trade is essential. Vicinity Centres’ resilience approach carefully considers each potential climate related risk and has a clear plan of attack.
“We monitor plant, especially our air-conditioning, systems, close off the entries facing prevailing hot winds, offer bottled water for customers and our retailers and team members, and plan inspections in advance when we know a heatwave is coming,” Schulz explains.
Vicinity Centres’ retailers are at the heart of its resilience approach.
“We work closely with our retailers to make sure they are prepared with the right equipment, they understand why it’s important to switch off non-essential lighting and they can recognise signs of heat exposure in their teams and our customers.”
“More people in the centre is a great thing for our retailers, and we want to make sure they are equipped to deal with the different conditions that come with events like heatwaves.”
Beyond bricks and mortar
This risk management approach was put to the test after Cyclone Debbie decimated Queensland’s coast in March 2017. During the mop up, Vicinity Centres’ Whitsunday Plaza in Airlie Beach became a hub for emergency services crews. The army took over the car park, a portable doctor’s surgery was set up to treat the local community and, once open, the centre was busy with shoppers restocking their shelves and recharging their phones.
“In an emergency, like Cyclone Debbie, we really saw how our asset is far more than a shopping centre. It’s a community hub,” Schulz adds.
In 2016, Schulz and her team undertook a portfolio-wide risk assessment to understand the potential impacts of climate change, and “not surprisingly, our higher-risk centres tended to be in Queensland, and in areas prone to heatwaves, floods and cyclones”.
Vicinity is now looking at scenario analysis to understand the potential impacts of climate change beyond the physical.
“The results so far have been quite surprising. Our modelling has found chronic events, like heat waves, could have a bigger long-term impact on our centres than acute shocks like floods or cyclones.”
The work considered each centres’ various revenue streams overlaid with different types of climate events, to identify any associated risks and opportunities.
“The revenue of our retailers and our centres relies on people being able to get inside and move around which is why it’s important during climate events like heatwaves, that we can keep amenities, such as air conditioning, operating.”
Vicinity Centres is also focused on climate change mitigation by reducing its carbon emissions. In addition to numerous energy efficiency measures being implemented across its centres, a large-scale solar roll-out is currently underway, with the retail owner committing $73 million across its portfolio.
“Solar is very commercially compelling and plays an additional role in reducing our carbon emissions while ensuring we have a reliable energy supply when the grid comes under pressure,” Schulz explains.
Francesca Muskovic, the Property Council’s policy manager for sustainability and regulatory affairs applauds the work of both the City of Sydney and Vicinity Centres and says the Council’s National Sustainability Roundtable has identified resilience as a “strategic priority”.
“Extreme weather events, made more severe and frequent by climate change, are already with us. The recent announcement by the Building Ministers’ Forum foreshadowing a trajectory for low energy buildings within the National Construction Code is a welcome development that will help ensure new buildings are built to better maintain comfortable temperatures for occupants in the face of extreme weather.
“But there are many things we can and must do now to adapt existing assets and support communities – as the leaders in our industry are already demonstrating.“Our buildings are more than bricks and mortar. They are places of refuge during extreme weather, and that needs to be front-and-centre as we future-proof.”