Geothermal cooling, cycle paths and jobs: what does it take to get six green stars?

Creating a sustainable community is about more than solar energy and recycled water, says the Green Building Council

With murder rates double, and robbery rates three times, the state average, the Sydney suburb of Blacktown is not an obvious choice as a world leader of sustainable living.

But, in 2016, a new master-planned estate in the suburb became the first residential community in New South Wales to be awarded a top, six-star Green Star community rating by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

Not only that, Fairwater, developed by Frasers Property, is the largest geothermal community in the southern hemisphere. Houses are cooled or heated by a refrigerant that pumps air underground then back to the surface, using less power than air-conditioning or heating and saving residents of a three-bedroom house $500 to $600 a year.

“There’s this avenue of mature trees with this massive lake and lovely terrace houses – yoga by the lake, cycling paths, all these people walking,” says the GBCA chief executive, Romilly Madew. “If I said ‘Blacktown’ that’s not the image that would have come to your mind. It’s all about healthy and active living.”

Green-star buildings produce, on average, 62% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and use 51% less potable water and 66% less electricity than average buildings in Australia, according to GBCA’s 2013 report The Value of the Green Star.

An artist’s rendition of Alkimos in Western Australia, a six-star Green Star community
An artist’s rendition of Alkimos in Western Australia, a six-star Green Star community. Photograph: Alkimos

Since launching in 2003, hundreds of buildings around the country have been certified for the rating system and 120,000 people are now moving into Green Star communities. Out of 46 registered Green Star communities projects, 26 are already certified. Yet only 16 so far have attained the gold standard of six stars. So how do communities achieve the accolade?

The key is looking at the project holistically, says Madew. “It’s about going back to that old adage of community: people, walkability, liveability, places for the kids to play. [We want to] change the way people think about how they live.”

Developers, ultimately, “are there to sell house and land packages – so they’re not going to be successful unless they’re building something people want to buy. Take ‘sustainability’ out and ask what [buyers] want. They want something close to amenities – schools, public transport, shops and parks. And a home that is cheap to run.”

Jessica Stewart, sustainability manager at Ginninderry, which is located in the ACT and is the latest community to achieve a six-star rating in September last year, has seen a significant shift in sustainable thinking.

“Creating a sustainable community is about creating behavioural change just as much as it’s about using the right materials, designing better roadways etc. A community is only as good as the people who live there.”

Straddling the Murrumbidgee River and Ginninderra Creek, Ginninderry is leading the way in water sensitive urban design, using a network of wetlands, basins and bioretention swales to “capture, cleanse, recycle and infiltrate” water on site.

Meanwhile solar panels on all houses in the community, jointly developed by the ACT government and Riverview Developments, are mandatory; a third of the site is reserved as a conservation corridor; and Spark, a social initiative project, will provide local employment opportunities (contractors on site, for example, must hire a certain number of residents from the area).

Ginninderry in the ACT, a six-star Green Star community
An artist’s rendition of Ginninderry, which uses a network of wetlands, basins and bioretention swales to ‘capture, cleanse, recycle and infiltrate’ water. Photograph: Ginninderry

Five elements are assessed to achieve a six-star rating: governance, liveability, economic prosperity, environment, and innovation.

Within these, innovation, as Fairwater and Ginninderry have demonstrated, is critical. Fairwater’s geothermal technology was an industry first. But developers also made sure that it was used to create jobs, partnering with Australian companies QPS Geothermal and Actron Air to design, manufacture and install components using largely local labour.

Fairwater is not alone. Last year Lendlease and LandCorp’s Alkimos, a 710-hectare master-planned community in Perth, which is due to deliver 2,000 homes for 6,000 residents, became the first in the country to receive a six-star rating. Crucial is a $6.9m residential battery storage trial, in which more than 100 homes will be connected to a 1.1MWh solar energy storage system, lowering demand from the grid.

Fairwater community near Blacktown in New South Wales
Fairwater, developed by Frasers Property, is the largest geothermal community in the southern hemisphere. Photograph: Frasers Property

Open space is measured, as is access to public transport and employment opportunities. Alkimos, when completed, will have 3.6ha of playing fields, 6ha of conservation reserves and 41ha of foreshore reserves. Each home will be located within 800m of transport links and 200m from a park. Compulsory solar panels, meanwhile, are expected to reduce energy bills by up to 50%.

Despite this, “community initiatives are just as important as the physical ones”, says Lendlease’s managing director of communities, Matthew Wallace. One example is the Sprout Hub, a social enterprise café-cum-co-working space, designed to encourage new local businesses. In Fairwater, meanwhile, residents can use the free Live Life Get Active fitness camp (offering classes and nutrition plans), as well as the multitude of cycling paths and walking trails.

Developers see such community enterprises as a point of difference that will attract buyers. “More people are taking a greater interest in living a sustainable lifestyle,” says Paolo Bevilacqua, the general manager of sustainability at Frasers Property Australia. “So there are marketing advantages.”

There are challenges, however, too – not least due to the sheer size and vast time scales of these communities. Ginninderry, for one, plans to deliver 11,500 new homes by 2055.

“What will car use look like in 40 years?” asks Stewart. “What do people do as work, how do they live, how do they interact together? All those things can change.”

In order to avoid complacency – and to make sure that promises are delivered – projects must re-certify every five years. Most important in achieving a six-star rating is starting the process in the planning phase, ensuring that everyone from stakeholders to construction firms know what is required. As Bevilacqua says, “It cannot be an afterthought.”


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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