Saturday, 24 August 2013

When a good regulation goes bad

This one is a bit parochial, and may not mean much to my increasingly international readership.  I have written before about the local planning approval regime for apartment buildings, here in my home state of New South Wales, Australia.  But perhaps I haven't previously confessed that as well as teaching in an Architecture program at university, I run a highly specialized, small but busy practice advising on just solar access and natural ventilation in apartment projects.  Lately, I have been extremely busy, but also increasingly disillusioned. 

There are two potentially sophisticated planning instruments designated as 'State Environmental Planning Policies' (SEPPs), that are supposed to discipline and guide both design and approval of this building type. 

One is SEPP65, a regulation that enumerates ten 'Quality Principles', which are then given effect by a performance based model code called the Residential Flat Design Code. Because it contains textual and illustrated examples of desired principles and built outcomes, the RFDC could also be thought of as a comprehensive design guide. 

The other is SEPP BASIX, given effect as the Building Sustainability Index, an online certification of thermal comfort, energy use and potable water saving.  It relies largely on a simulation based prediction (or more properly a comparison) of likely heating and cooling loads for the individual dwellings in a development.  

This all sounds very progressive.  The problem is that as with all regulatory frameworks, both sides seem to be hell bent on corrupting its purpose.  

To take BASIX first.  The most radical innovation is that it requires obtaining an online certificate based on computed indices.  You cannot get around it, except in the rarest of circumstances, by appealing to 'expert opinion'.  On the other hand, you can ask the software 'what if' questions before committing to a particular range of measures, in almost infinite combinations of minor design decisions. 
All of which, you would expect would encourage interactive use by designers to improve and optimize the performance of buildings.  But that unavoidable on-line and simulation based process has turned out to be BASIX's weakness rather than its strength.  To put it bluntly: design of apartment buildings in New South Wales has become completely insensitive to the requirements of minimum energy efficiency, as calculated by the tool.  
Why?  Because if you can get the on-line answer to be a 'pass', by any means of manipulating the measurements and materials, nobody ever then looks at those figures to see if they make sense.  The developers and their designers don't care, because they have their compulsory certificate.  The local government planning approval staff don't look, because they don't understand any of the numbers, and they can do without the further complication in their lives of accusing the applicant's technical consultants of incompetence or cheating.

What about the vaunted Quality Principles of SEPP65?  I have previously speculated that one can trace to SEPP65 an improvement in local design outcomes, and that there may even be a characteristic 'Sydney apartment' trend, worthy of study by international architects.  But in a more sober assessment, I can recognize that a less kind interpretation is also possible.  Namely, that while paying attention to the Residential Flat Design Code improved matters by eliminating the potential mass of smaller 'undesigned' apartment developments, it has also stripped out real design - by focusing attention on a very few parameters that happen to have numerical guidelines.

That is why an apparently innocent guideline for a minimum of 70% of apartments to have some mid-winter direct sun to their living areas, combines with an almost completely unscientific requirement for 60% of apartments to have 'cross ventilation', to produce a Tetris-like exercise in pushing and pulling apartment spaces between the facades of the available building envelope.  The process persists way past initial design, with local government planning staff, consultant planners, even lawyers altering the mix and the details, sometimes over a period of months if the matter ends up in front of the local appeal court for resolution.  
No wonder that when the results of such an ad hoc process do come before an expert Commissioner of the Land and Environment Court, the judgement sometimes reads like an undergraduate student design 'crit', rather than a planning determination under the relevant legislation.  If there ever was something you could have called a coherent design, that design had long died by a thousand cuts.
This whole process of entropy of well intended regulation of design and performance of buildings sorely needs proper study and brave review.  Right now, the chances of that happening are depressingly low, as governments seem reluctant to fund academic research or to maintain technical expertise in state level public service departments.  Even more of a barrier, an entire industry of consultants has been spawned to slug it out for both sides, using as their preferred weapons the icepicks of individual little rules of thumb, that happen to be expressed as single figure numbers.
I make a personal declaration: I am one of those consultants, and I therefore benefit financially from this sorry state of affairs.  And it makes me feel ill.  

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