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Chief Executive's Upfront
Resilience Must Not Be Compromised

Tuesday, 19 November 2019  
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The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill, which sets a target to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, passed its third and final reading on 7 November 2019.

Rob Gaimster, Chief Executive

Concrete NZ supported the Bill throughout and believes New Zealand should be congratulated for having the foresight to enact such an important piece of legislation.

However, as we begin the transition to zero-carbon we must proceed with caution.  Any impatient desire to rapidly achieve 2050 objectives must be tempered by the risk of repeating past mistakes, such as the leaky building debacle.

In his new book Rottenomics: The story of New Zealand’s leaky buildings disaster, Peter Dyer sets out how, for over a quarter of a century, our building industry, economy and government have failed to provide the basic guarantee that – a new building will not rot.

Dyer skilfully outlines the numerous causes of the leaky buildings mess, chief amongst which was an all-new building controls system centred around the performance-based Building Act of 1991.

Dyer refers to the legislation as an “experiment” that arrived at “warp speed”, and which allowed for / combined with high levels of workforce illiteracy, the emergence of untreated timber, monolithic cladding, external insulation finishing systems (EIFS) and miracle sealants to create a $47 billion crisis.

While I am not drawing a direct parallel between now and the early 1990s, there are enough similarities in terms of new legislation, a skills shortage and unproven building materials to strongly encourage a circumspect approach to realising our built environment over the next few decades.

In addition, the ‘noise’ around the new composite structural material cross-laminated timber (CLT) is particularly alarming. The enthusiasm with which CLT is being greeted by some specifiers, including government, is concerning as serious questions have been asked recently in the UK around its fire resistance. 

Related is the recent SkyCity Convention Centre fire, which is thought to have begun during the process of installing a roof system that contained combustible materials including layers of straw and plywood.

Speculating whether an alternative roof system containing different materials would have prevented the fire is not productive. What is worth emphasising however, is that in the race to be seen as ‘environmentally friendly’ designers and their clients must weigh-up the perceived ‘green’ credentials of building materials with their fire performance.

While a significant event in itself, the SkyCity Convention Centre fire could be seen as a microcosm of the unintended consequences that New Zealand could potentially face as we begin implementing zero-carbon legislation and regulatory reform in the building and construction sector.

Playing our part in the Paris Agreement and transitioning to zero-carbon under the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act will require new thinking in terms of application to the built environment and a significant step change in investment.

This investment is expected to incorporate new infrastructure such as increasing wind generation and public transport capacity – all of which cannot be realised without concrete and other resilient building materials.

Under the Climate Change Commission's emissions budget periods, the ‘emitting’ industries responsible for the production of these building materials have a window in which to enhance their operational efficiency, integrate innovative low-emission technologies and set a course towards zero-carbon.

The New Zealand concrete industry has a track record of significant emissions reduction over the past 15 years, despite increased demand based around population growth.

I am confident that through a structured and realistic pathway that supports long–term investment cycles, the concrete industry will achieve its target to decarbonise.

This will be based on the continued adoption of alternative fuels in cement kiln operations to reduce associated CO2 emissions, and the use of industrial by-products and locally sourced natural pozzolans as cement replacements.

As efforts intensify to address the impacts of climate change, which include more frequent extreme weather (including flooding) and fire events such as those on the east coast of Australia, concrete will play a crucial role in ensuring a resilient built environment. 

Planning for that future built environment currently stands at a crossroads, as the impatient desire to be zero-carbon must be balanced with the non-negotiable need for resilience.

By accepting without question the unbalanced messages that favour unproven building materials under the well-intentioned but mis-guided belief that they are resilient and environmentally friendly, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past that led to the leaky building debacle.