September 1, 2022

My Email Subject

It’s Russell Fortmeyer, Global Sustainability Leader at Woods Bagot, with another Not So Much from Los Angeles. In this issue, I open the Woods Bagot archive to consider how the world’s focus on climate change in the last thirty years—and the success of long-term planning—has affected architecture.  


The Forest Industries House in Canberra, which opened in 1991, serves as the headquarters for the Australian Forest Products Association, as well as other organizations, and features—quite fittingly—a mass timber structure. Designed by Woods Bagot, the two-story office building predates the relatively recent attention to the carbon benefits of timber buildings in architecture, but the biophilic nature of the building’s expression of local resources fits quite neatly with the wake-up call the world started to acknowledge around sustainability and climate change in the late 1980s. 

Forest Industries House. Courtesy Australian Forest Products Association.

I wanted to revisit a building from Woods Bagot’s history that would have coincided, more or less, with the June 1992 signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That plan–which was further strategized by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2016–started a slow shift in our economies toward understanding the environmental and health benefits of reducing the carbon emissions associated with everything. The UNFCCC is not perfect, but it has proved valuable as a planning tool to give us shared language and a technical basis for understanding how carbon emissions affect the planet. More importantly, it has galvanized countries and companies to reduce their emissions inventory, but that has been a mixed bag since it is a voluntary framework that relies on countries to make good on their commitments.


Praising a bureaucratic achievement of long-term planning may risk eye-rolling dismissals, but revisiting the Forest Industries House in light of what we know now and how we would approach a similar project brief today can be revealing. How has architecture changed since the UNFCCC was signed?

It goes without saying that with an Australian forestry organization as a client, Woods Bagot would likely retain the timber structure and exposed finishes, but our design team would also develop a digital model of the building to assess the embodied carbon benefits of selecting timber over concrete or steel. Many of Australia’s timber companies track the data now that feeds into such models because people in our industry—architecture, engineering, and construction—are asking for it. This process greatly informed Wood’s Bagot’s 2018 design for Aurecon’s four-story workplace in Australia’s tallest and largest engineered timber building, for example. 

Aurecon 25 King Workplace. Photo by Trevor Mein, © Meinphoto. 

We may also undertake lifecycle assessments of timber species and suppliers to assess environmental benefits further up the chain, such as which plantation forest has the best labor practices or is located closest to our site to reduce emissions associated with transport. The devil is in the forest management practice details, and if you cannot measure it, as they say, you can’t improve it. In addition, we would layer in newer technologies, like highly-efficient on-site solar photovoltaic panels that could further offset emissions and lower energy costs. These were not common activities within architecture in the late 1980s, and we would not be where we are now without a good plan spurring creative responses and guiding decisions.

This is not to say the Forest Industries Building no longer delights as it may have the day it opened its doors. I spoke with Joe Prevedello, the communications director for the Australian Forest Products Association, to learn more about this. Joe works in the building and appreciates the calming effect of the exposed timber finishes—he also says the building has always been a good demonstration of how timber can be used effectively in architecture. Equally important is what he said he does not notice, like creaky floors among other things, that sometimes prevent an owner from investing in a different architectural technology from the standard issue. No building is perfect.   ​​​​​​

In conversation with Joe Prevedello, Communications Director, Australian Forest Products Association. 

It is sometimes hard to see the results of a broad sustainability plan when you are investigating a single building as opposed to a city or a campus where buildings are phased in over time. I have certainly written my fair share of sustainability plans over the years, so I happily admit that I am not an entirely neutral party here. But I have also written enough of those plans to know when something is workable and productive versus useless platitudes.

A sustainability plan for the built environment must be open enough to allow for change, with a solid set of science-based targets and design criteria, while also inspiring and progressive enough to deliver beyond basic expectations. But it has been 30 years since the UNFCCC set the terms for achieving a zero-emissions planet, and the fact that we are talking about timber buildings as the next standard issue in architecture gives me some hope the plan is coming together. 



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