Tropical design is not just for houses Wednesday, 07 June 2017

Opinion piece by Jo O’Brien MIEAust CPEng NER RPEQ Deputy President Engineers Australia, Northern Division.

Jo O’Brien MIEAust CPEng NER RPEQ is a Chartered civil engineer based in Darwin. She is manager of Tonkin Consulting NT, with 10 years’ experience in civil infrastructure design, documentation and contract management. Jo is passionate about the development of the local industry and is the current Deputy President of Engineers Australia Northern Division and the Consult Australia Northern Territory Vice Chair. Jo was the recipient of the Northern Young Professional Engineer of the Year Award in 2014 and the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia Emerging Leader Award in 2012. Jo's opinion piece will appear in the NT News on 14 June 2017.

As the dry season sets in, the dragonflies abound and the sprinklers start working around the clock, everyone in Darwin feels the true appreciation of our tropical lifestyle. With balmy days and a breeze through the louvres of elevated houses, tropical housing design suited to Territory conditions has long been part of the Northern Territory landscape.

We live in a unique tropical city with ambitions to be a gateway to Asia, and ‘developing the North’ has been a buzz term for some time. The Chief Minister’s recent delegation to Singapore to explore how Darwin can emulate our Asian neighbour’s ability to thrive in its tropical environment is encouraging. Singapore is a model green city that we can learn a lot from about transforming Darwin, particularly in heat mitigation and place-making. It’s hopeful that the ideas gleaned from the trip on green architecture can be widened to incorporate innovative design of other types of tropical community infrastructure.

In order for tropical infrastructure designs to be effective in our unique environment, we need to recognise the challenges. It is uncommon for Northern Territory engineers and designers to collaborate and share experiences with counterparts in neighbouring Asian countries and this needs to change to enable the Territory to develop effective tropical infrastructure. 

Innovative design requires the time to think outside of the box and a willingness to trial new approaches, which offer long-term benefits without fear of near-term failures and challenges. With an economy focussed on project construction costs and a short-term planning outlook, the scope for innovative design is too often lost. We need to see state and local governments place greater value on innovation in tropical design and, as an industry, confront the entrenched barriers and challenges.

Tropical design in the form of water sensitive urban design (WSUD) is an approach that can deliver multiple outcomes for the community, whilst minimising impacts of urban development on the natural water cycle. It is well known that Darwin has extreme per capita water consumption. However, the narrative of lush tropical gardens, parkland barbeques on the grass and plentiful water supply is disconnected from the sustainability narrative of pristine natural environments and clean creeks and rivers close to the city, even though both are embedded in the ‘Darwin lifestyle’.

Recent subdivision developments in Darwin and Palmerston have attempted to adopt some of the Australian industry accepted measures for WSUD in stormwater treatment. These include artificial wetlands, swales and bio-filtration treatment. The effectiveness of these systems in the wet-dry tropics remains to be determined. However, conditions experienced in the Territory mean that solutions that fit south-eastern Australia just don’t apply. In some cases, this has resulted in systems that are undersized, poorly designed, poorly constructed, and once constructed are poorly maintained. These failings are essentially those engendered by a least-cost design approach, resulting in the building and poor maintenance of systems that are less effective than intended.

Ongoing design development of these systems for Darwin’s unique climate is an essential part of maintaining water quality within our urban waterways. This will require a collaborative effort to research, develop, trial and monitor innovative designs and to actively evaluate and improve these systems whilst in operation. This is the type of practical, local tropical innovation that gave us unique tropical house designs in the past and which assisted cities like Singapore to develop unique and functional public infrastructure. Rather than thinking project to project, long-term vision and commitment to this type of local innovation process led by government, industry and research institutions are necessary, as are engaging and educating community stakeholders about why this is worthwhile.

The unique environment and climate of Darwin will continue to play a key role in the social, cultural and environmental values and identity of the community. ‘Green infrastructure’ such as parks and trees should define the urban landscape, provide cooler areas to escape to on hot days and encourage outdoor recreation across a network of high quality open spaces. A healthy harbour and waterways should be used to support important recreational and economic activities and can also be tangible elements to engage community participation in planning, development and management of aspects of a more sustainable environment.

Image: Jo O’Brien MIEAust CPEng NER RPEQ completing the remote contract site supervision at the Pickertaramoor Road Upgrade in the Tiwi Islands.