What if we never designed from scratch again?

William Cox William Cox
Chief Executive Officer
24 January 2023
6 min read

As we enter a new year, we inevitably think of a clean slate. New beginnings and a chance to rebalance priorities. Is that always a good thing? Anyone who has ever sat in front of an empty canvas, or had the cursor of a blank word document mock them with each blink, might say that often the answer is no. 

A modern art museum in Denmark was certainly less happy with the idea, after paying artist Jens Haaning $84,000 for a commission and duly receiving two blank canvases. The artist named the series 'Take the Money and Run': a protest against his meagre payment, he explains. So, a blank canvas is not always desirable. Could the same be said for the coveted virgin territory of greenfields?

It is anticipated that most development in the future will be brownfield (previously developed land that is not currently in use) by de facto, compared to greenfields that lack constraints imposed by prior work. Which is not surprising considering the benefits of brownfield development include increased tax revenue, improved public health and environmental quality, reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled, greenspace preservation and a US$20.13 return for every EPA grant dollar spent. 

In order to deliver on future developments, how do we balance shifting priorities to create new value? How do you leverage existing infrastructure and balance economy with ecology? What new skill sets do we need to reimagine these spaces? Designers, engineers and advisers have long applied a systems-thinking mindset for client problems and, as we transition to a more circular economy, this must be extended to look beyond all components within a place and all the synergies that could be unlocked. Projects need to be considered within a system's sense rather than viewed in isolation.

While brownfield development requires more thinking to develop, the hurdles also play to designers', engineers' and advisers' strengths of leaning into complexity and navigating constraints. In a world where this will become increasingly necessary, let's relish the challenge. We know there are some circumstances where there is no choice other than to just work with what's already in front of us, but how hard can we try? 

The case for brown

It's hard to imagine that in North America and Europe alone, over 3.5 million brownfield sites are sitting idly, while greenfield land continues to be the major source of urban sprawl. Although some greenfield development is needed to accommodate Auckland's growth, it is estimated that greenfield infrastructure will cost around NZ$140,000 per dwelling on average, far more than in brownfields.

In Southeast Asia, global urban and infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong and the Silk Road Fund recently entered an agreement to implement the China-Singapore co-investment platform, entailing a US$500 million investment in greenfield infrastructure projects across the region.

Of course, the benefits of brownfield extend far beyond cost – developing brownfield sites reduces waste, consumption and leverages embodied emissions already used to initially build the site. Brownfield sites reuse existing buildings, reducing the need for additional concrete or associated building materials and utilising existing infrastructure like water and sewer lines, electricity, roads and accessibility to public transportation.

Around 45 per cent of emissions are linked to materials and products in our economies, so reusing brownfield sites is an obvious start to applying circular economy and design thinking in all aspects of the value chain. It helps to design out waste, lower material and resource consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across supply chains.

Arguably, whole ecosystems are footing the bill for our urban sprawl's steady feeding on buffets of green spaces. Indeed, the buffet is getting smaller. As Mark Twain said: "Buy land, they're not making it anymore". Yet given the increased focus from boards and the public and private sector on putting a price on the value of nature and biodiversity, it will become increasingly more expensive and difficult to develop greenfield sites in the future. Net zero is making room for nature positive, recognising that rising temperatures are not the only climate crisis as plummeting biodiversity poses a huge and compounding threat. 

Pressure from investors and consumers to combat environmental degradation is moving fast and is also complex. Unlike carbon emissions that can be measured, it is much more difficult to determine the value of different species of plants, animals, soil and water. Boards and executives are set to become as familiar with the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures as they are with the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. Industries with a heavy footprint on nature, including agriculture and property development, will be first to face the music. 

Another benefit of the energy transition

The energy transition will be a major driver that breathes life into stranded assets. For example, the Gibson Island plant in Australia is converting a 50-year old fertiliser plant into the country's first green ammonia production facility, to demonstrate how existing infrastructure can be modified to use zero-emissions energy sources. 

Retrofitting represents a potential market of $240 billion to $1.1 trillion by 2036 with New South Wales' Eraring coal-fired power station and similar projects around the world all examples of successful repurposing that will soon become the norm. Canadian firm Hydrostor is turning old coal plants into compressed air–storage batteries and a new incinerator in Copenhagen will feature an artificial ski slope on the roof. There are countless examples of how retired mines and infrastructure have transformed to serve communities in new ways. 

As hydrogen replaces fossil fuel for a variety of heavy industrial processes, a whole subset of other sectors will emerge that make use of the same hydrogen in addition to its byproducts like oxygen. Water corporations including Goulburn Valley Water are exploring their role to play in a circular economy shift by producing renewables such as biomethane, biochar and hydrogen, as well as recovering valuable phosphorous from waste received by wastewater treatment facilities.

"Brownfields by the Bunch" is about getting more sites remediated and redeveloped by using portfolios (properties of the same type) or area-wide planning (properties near one another), creating greater economies of scale. The Mount Isa and Townsville Corridor is a fantastic example of Australian battery and rare mineral projects banding together to create a larger system with greater investment potential. 

Creating opportunities in every market

The opportunities extend far beyond energy. The Karolina complex is one of the biggest brownfield sites in Central Europe, where two buildings from the old powerplant were restored for sporting activities and cultural events – remaining today as a protected national heritage landmark of industrial architecture. New York's the High Line was transformed from a 1930s elevated rail line into a dynamic community space with over 500 species of plants and trees, together with areas dedicated to public programmes and world-class artwork.

Closer to home, the refurbishment of 500 Bourke Street Melbourne is a trailblazer in commercial office space, transitioning from using gas as its main energy source to an all-electric building powered by renewables. Refurbishing the tower will generate significant positive outcomes from embodied carbon, energy and water, indoor air quality, and smart technology, plus the refurb avoids CO2 emissions that would have been generated with the construction and manufacture of a new concrete and steel building. 

As designers, engineers, and advisers, it's our job to consider how good design principles can breathe new life into existing spaces. Sustainable outcomes that help to reduce or avoid both embodied carbons emissions waste and other waste, and integrate circular economy thinking into our process designs are essential. Being leaders, we must master the delicate balance of maximising value and managing climate risk.

We simply cannot afford abandoned and underutilised land or infrastructure anymore. The focus is now shifting to different ecosystems – those of the natural and manufacturing worlds. Entering 2023, let's consider the question of whether the clean slate is worth pursuing – or look at what's already been produced and how this can be repurposed.

William Cox
Written by
William Cox

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