Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The quest continues for a green, yet engaging, public building
Good news, if you believe the philosophers: humans are improving. Not only are we getting taller and more empathetic, we’re also, says the controversial intelligence researcher James Flynn, consistently raising our IQ.
Flynn’s argument is not that we’re brighter, but that we’re better at the kind of abstract thought that IQ measures. This is just as well because – and here’s the bad news – we’re going to need it.
Life is about to get more complicated. Just when you thought it was safe to give your frontal lobe a rest after the indigestion of share indices and health funds, it gets worse. Now we’re going to have to become eco-heads as well, because one thing we clearly can’t do is trust government to find the green pastures and lead us safely there.
The recent hoo-ha over the new Surry Hills community centre on Crown Street, designed by Richard Francis-Jones, is a case in point. The old library had a loyal following, a decent collection and a building well past ripeness. Except for a feeble attempt to preserve the people-power mural, few tears were shed at its demolition. Plus, after the City-South Sydney merger designed to oust Clover Moore backfired and expanded her coffers and power base instead, Sydney City was rolling in it. All of which made this Moore’s first major development, in the heart of her former Bligh state electorate, the ideal opportunity to wave the flag for our supposedly carbon-neutral City.
Imagine the surprise, then, when the proposal drew flak. Not from the right-wing dunderdheads either, nor from the ALP sore-losers gang, but from the Greens. Holding up Melbourne’s six-star CH2 office building and the new, unsewered Building K in Double Bay as exemplars, the Greens councillor Chris Harris attacked Moore’s library proposal, which had “blown out from $3.6 million to … $19 million”, as overpriced and under-greened. CH2, Harris said, was eight times the size of the proposed library at just three times the cost and was still Australia’s “most sustainable” building. Building K offered the same floorspace plus onsite sewage treatment for less than half the price.
In some ways, the fact this “mine’s greener than yours is” rumble is happening is a good sign. Vying for viridity is something we should have got onto decades back. On the other hand, the debate is childish, since truth succumbs to politics, and messy, since the discussion sinks rapidly in a quagmire of technicalities.
Combing the sludge yields the following jetsam: first, the greenstar system, designed to enable comparison, is useless here since, being developed by and for corporations, it doesn’t have a public buildings category. Second, discussions with various utilities suggest Building K may have been wiser to secede from the energy grid rather than from water and sewage, since there is still no regulatory scheme to assure either authorities or tenants over possible contamination between sewage treatment and water collection, which are both on the roof.
And third, the reasons for the library’s so-called “cost blowout” are many. Not only is the $3.6 million estimate years old, as inherited from South Sydney Council, but it relates to a different, much smaller scheme: library only, compared with which the proposal has a library, a community centre, an indoor “bio-filtration” shrubbery, a streetfront cafe, a teaching kitchen and a child-care centre in its modest four-storey bulk. The $19 million estimate, further, includes renovating the small adjacent park and enough sustainability devices to make your head spin.
There’s tapering glass chimneys, rock labyrinths and 100-metre-deep geothermal bores for natural cooling. There are measures to minimise light spill and water use, to limit ozone depletion and globe-warming refrigerants, to reduce volatile organic compounds and PVC. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Quite likely it’ll be $19 million well spent, even with GST and inflation. Within a formal assessment, there’s no way of knowing, but maybe that’s not the central issue. Not for a council forecasting a $65 million surplus, and perhaps not in any case. Nor, to be honest, is the greenstar count on the building’s lapel, when and if.
The real questions here are those of symbolism. Or, if you prefer, of leadership. Can the new Surry Hills centre succeed not just in putting books on shelves, bums on seats and kids in cots, but in moving our hearts and minds?
Libraries, as cultural treasure houses, have immense symbolic potential. So too, the green public building. Melbourne has CH2. Even Perth has the Bunbury eco-house. Sydney is crying for a comparable gesture: tangible proof that buildings can be seriously green and seriously engaging.
This is a good building, no question. But there are times, in the public symbolism stakes, when a single big gesture outswims a thousand tiddlers. A library powered entirely by sun and wind, sending energy back into the grid just as it sends knowledge into the populace, would be a big gesture.
The poet Jorge Luis Borges believed “paradise will be a kind of library”. Surry Hills, however latte-soaked, may never be paradise, but its library could do a convincing beacon on the hill.