Sustainability means caring for country

The Dreaming, the fundament of Aboriginal belief, was made up of a network of interconnected pathways across the land that had been sung into being by ancestral spirits, and those songlines have for millennia supervised the nurturing of a resourceful and sustainable habitat. As Bill Gammage points out, “The Dreaming was saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused.” 1

As with most pre-industrial civilisations, pre-colonial Australians occupied the land for at least 40,000 years without impacting the levels of greenhouse emissions, never mind destroying ecosystems and eradicating entire species of wildlife. The anthropogenic era then repurposed nearly all the ecosystems it could track down, laying waste to many, whilst contributing more significantly than many might imagine to global climate change, and the impact upon a fragile, relatively untrammelled environment has been profound.

The rain falls more wildly and heavily than ever before, our settlements are repeatedly flooded, the countryside burns without ecological (or humanitarian) benefit, the soils are degraded, and the rivers run dry. It is clear that we cannot continue to attempt to override the realities of living in such an unforgiving land, and we might then realise that our increasing sense of fear could be ameliorated by respect and understanding.

In terms most specific to Australia, it must now be accepted that the existential cycle, which had rapidly and fatefully veered from the harmonies of the Dreaming to the discordances of anthropogenic servitude, needs to be reversed. And that means Caring for Country.

It is now estimated that something like fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions is created by building construction and maintenance, while another thirty percent comes from urban industry, transportation and infrastructure. Our cities are the problem, their modes of existence are not sustainable, and we are now impelled to revert to a condition of environmental equilibrium that may eventually be termed ‘neo pre-colonial’.

If the cycle is to be reversed, what role might architecture play?

Knowledge Transfer and a Framework for the Future

If the cycle of environmental degradation is to be reversed, it can only be done with science, and the intellect and judgment of an architect must therefore be applied to the acquisition of specialist information and the subsequent implementation of technology and systems. An evaluative in-house procedure for knowledge transfer has been implemented by Tzannes as a regenerative futures framework, one which is constitutionally incorporated within everything the practice does.

The holistic embrace of Caring for Country – a credo for inclusion, awareness, deference, and nurture – should inform another knowledge transfer, one where science and architecture are directed by the dictum that we must live as part of the land.

Tzannes has set out to reconnect with the spiritual and physical ‘warmth’ of the land, and in order for that to resonate, the design of a building needs to provide much more than an aesthetically satisfying expression – architecture at the public level now requires many layers of knowledge and understanding. This is where architecture of substance comes into play, because the green shoots of regeneration will not flourish without it.

"We cannot proceed without a knowledge base. All our thinking must be underpinned by an understanding of the available science. We take that scientific knowledge and convert it into our regeneration framework. We put all our schemes through this… it’s rigorous and very practical, and the designs must pass the test, or we can’t use them."

Alec Tzannes

Sustainable Construction and the Innovation Imperative

Embodied carbon (the carbon footprint of a building before it becomes operational) has now been outed as the hidden culprit of unsustainable construction – it is reckoned to account for half of a building’s greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime – and it is proving to be one of the most vexatious of all to eliminate.

Two adjoining medium-rise buildings designed by Tzannes for the Barangaroo precinct are most elegantly composed, but the real significance – the innovation – lies in the sustainability of the structure. The floors, beams, columns, and bracing, for International House and Daramu House were built entirely from glue-laminated and cross-laminated timber, with external colonnades and podiums comprised of recycled ironbark. It is predicted that over the course of their lives, these buildings will emit just half the amount of carbon exuded by their concrete and steel counterparts, and it must be added that they have not just redrawn the boundaries of sustainable construction, they look like they have done so, and as such, they most self-evidently represent a new typology.

"Architects should design buildings that delight, that provide pleasure and are emotionally engaging. But we also need to track the energy paths and the durability of the structural systems. If the results show up badly, you’re just greenwashing."

Alec Tzannes

International House Sydney
Daramu House

The scheme for a fifty-one storey tower at Pitt Street set out to minimise the long-term carbon footprint by using a hybrid structure of timber and concrete for the floors and beams, and by making comprehensive provision for ‘smart façade’ controls, assuming that technological advances would upgrade them as the years roll by. The doors were left wide open for future possibilities and any array of potential solutions. Tzannes is acknowledging that advances in technology and, ipso facto, architectural innovation, are happening so quickly that to prescribe a fixed procedure for sustainability is not in itself sustainable. The intensifying requirements for sustainable construction are leading inexorably to an architecture of anticipation, whereby a design is not just determined by a building’s quantifiable performance in the here and now, but by how it will adapt and accommodate in order to improve that performance.

Caring for Country and the Pathway to Synchronicity

A clear prefiguration of the Tzannes approach to Caring for Country is to be seen in the masterplan for the Central Park high-rise high-density urban renewal project, which received DA approval in 2007 2. In a key move, one which was instrumental to the creation of a notably vibrant and communally active precinct, the schematic building envelopes and site axes were configured to ensure that the centre of the site would be opened up as a public park bathed in sunshine. As constructed over the next decade, the overall fit of the buildings, the landscape, and the social networks, was very much of its place and of Sydney itself, and the intention of the masterplan took quite a step towards synchronicity with the tenets of Caring for Country, of formulating a structural reciprocity between the natural environment and the conditions of urban development.

"We should be looking for a new way of living, working and being, one where we are immersed in a place that is connected to Country. We need to acknowledge that as humans, we are merely one part of the greater ecosystem."

Amy Dowse

Aerial photograph of the Tzannes award-wining Central Park Masterplan area
Central Park

With the Pitt Street proposal, Tzannes took the opportunity to revitalise a dank and cheerless downtown setting by zeroing in on what genuinely constituted the site conditions, and by contending that the development should form a living ecology, as analysed from a pre-colonial perspective. The building and its landscape were envisaged as a cultural story, as a songline that draws warmth and life into the city streets, and the underlying intention of this ‘reverse the cycle’ approach was quite simply the rectification of a right done wrong.

Pitt St Proposal

The Bylong Park Homestay in the Hunter Valley will comprise a permanent home and rehabilitation centre for all greyhounds born and bred for the racing industry, many of whom have historically been mistreated or put down when not of commercial value. With a zero-euthanasia policy, the facility will offer unprecedented care and comfort for up to four hundred dogs, and provide such amenities as hydrotherapy, specialised medical treatment, and generous heated and cooled sleeping quarters with landscaped and aquatic play areas. In conjunction with that humanitarian program, Tzannes is actively driving an agenda for regenerative design – one where the principles of Caring for Country are integrated with those for environmental sustainability, and they have been guided in regard to the attributes of a land traditionally occupied by the Wanaruah and Kamilaroi people.

Bylong Park Homestay


1 Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2011.
2 The masterplan for Central Park was a joint venture between Tzannes and Cox Richardson.

Image Credits:
Ben Guthrie (International House)
Ethan Rohloff (Central Park)
Michael Nicholson (Daramu House)
Virtual Ideas (Bylong Park Homestay Render)