Ready, set, grow... Urban design given green light

Mar 9, 2020


Dr Tony Matthews longs for the day when wooden high-rises dot the inner-city skyline, when passive design and timber is integrated into all homes, and trees dominate the urban landscape for the benefit of all.

The award-winning urban and environmental planner from Griffith University is increasingly optimistic that practical and natural solutions can overcome the challenges of climate change.

And timber is central to his upbeat outlook. For starters, the internationally cited researcher said the use of more trees in the urban environment was a no-brainer. “Planting more trees has many, many benefits socially, environmentally, economically and even culturally,” Tony said.

“The more trees that you can have that are appropriate to that city's climate and are planted properly, the better because you’re going to have flow-on effects for things like liveability, sociability, human health, worker productivity, better mental health, better physical health, less air-conditioning demand, lower energy bills, more outdoor activity, and more active street frontage.

“Since 2016, the federal government has been quietly nudging towards a significant increase in urban greenery across Australia’s major cities. But on the flip side, between 2008 and 2017 our metropolitan areas cumulatively lost 2.6 per cent of their total vegetation. That's almost 1600 square kilometres of vegetation loss or an area equivalent to the size of the city of Brisbane. We’re constantly looking for more space (in pursuit of the Great Australian Dream of a detached house on its own block), but we should be trying to safeguard what’s already there.”

Tony believes our gradual move to high-density living needs to be accompanied by a shift in mindset and building vertically with timber - with reference to Japan, Germany or Sweden to help us adapt.

“Traditionally, high-rise construction tends to be done with concrete and steel, with the concern being the timber does not have the structural integrity. But there’s a lot of interesting engineering and experimental work going on at the moment that’s showing you can actually do high rise with timber,” Tony said.

“It’s often cheaper to build, and it’s more amenable to modular design so you can have more off-site preparation and just bring in sections of the building. You’ll also have a much lower embodied energy, your timber is storing carbon, and you can have better thermal performance (so you’re warmer in winter and cooler in summer).”

Thoughtful landscaping at street level would help improve liveability. Tony says design inspiration can be taken from the past with traditional Queenslander homes.

“They were designed to work in harmony with the climate and natural environment. They weren't designed to fight the climate. Today, it’s kind of like ‘OK, it’s going to get hot in here, so we’ll just crank on the air-conditioning and problem solved. But that’s not prevention,” he said.

“Passive design had a resurgence a decade ago, but didn’t have wide take-up because of pushback from the construction industry. They’ll say it’s going to cost more and take longer but to me, what they’re saying is we don’t really know how to do this. And we don’t want to know because there’s no real demand for it on a large scale. On an individual level, there is much we can do to create a brighter future by surrounding ourselves with timber”, Tony said.

“Planet Ark did some surveying around this, and they found 98 per cent of people either love or like wood and that tells you people are primed to respond positively to timber if it’s used well,” Tony said.

That’s definitely achievable indoors, with white woods including beech and birch being deployed with hard-wearing (and sustainable) timber floors in Scandinavian Shaker-influenced interiors. They can complement bespoke furniture pieces that add warmth and character, and bring heirloom value for future generations to also enjoy.

“My sense is that more people are appreciating the work of craftspeople now - the idea that something starts out as a tree and ends up as a beautiful chair. There’s a journey, a process, and, in a sense, it’s given a new life. It’s repurposed into something that will last, as opposed to cheap plastic. I think on some level people understand that there’s a ‘circle of life’ aspect to timber that you don’t get with other materials.

“Of course, to buy something that lasts is a much larger investment than to buy something that won’t. But in three or four years, one is going to be falling apart and the one that we had built is going to look good forever.”

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, Tony recommends planting a tree to shade you from afternoon sun in partnership with other plantings – such as bamboo or ponytail palms in pots – to improve your energy bills. The sum total of these simple actions give Tony cause for optimism.

“I think we’re making slow but steady progress towards more positive outcomes in urban design, notwithstanding the fact that there are setbacks and challenges, and there are things that we will always do badly or that we could be doing better. But I’m far more optimistic than I was 10 years ago.”

Architect: Bates Smarrt

Structural Engineer: Aurecon and Lendlease DesignMake

Builder: Lendlease

Fabricator: Stora Enso (CLT) Wiehag (Glulam)

Photographer: Tom Roe

Location: Brisbane, Queensland