Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Report on Seminars / Meetings with Australian Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (ACTBUH), November, 2008

By Antony Wood, CTBUH Executive Director

Click here to watch Antony's Brisbane Presentation CT  After the best part of a week in Australia, from the 9th – 15th November 2008, I am very pleased to report that the Australian Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (ACTBUH) is very much alive and kicking. Together with the Dutch and Korean Councils, the ACTBUH is perhaps the most active of our regional ‘chapters’, under the high-octane leadership of Brett Taylor of Bornhost & Ward and Bruce Wolfe of Conrad Gargett Architecture in Brisbane, and Jim Forbes of Hyder Consulting in Sydney. 

Click here to watch Antony's Brisbane presentation    

The Australian Council was established in Brisbane in 1988, and has been reinforced over the years through various direct collaborations with central CTBUH (for example; our 6th World Congress held in Melbourne in 2001). It is now focused mainly on delivering bi-monthly seminars on tall buildings and urban habitat in each of the major Australian cities (primarily Brisbane and Sydney, with a plan to extend to Melbourne soon).

This Australia trip had its origins six months previously at our Dubai Congress in March, when discussions with ACTBUH had led to a request for assistance with arranging international speakers for the Australia program. Co-chair of our working group on the Seismic Design of Tall Buildings, Andrew Whittaker from University at Buffalo, had presented the recently-published CTBUH Recommendations for the Seismic Design of High Rise Buildings to audiences in Brisbane and Sydney in August and I had agreed to visit in November to talk about tall buildings and sustainability.

Brisbane Skyline      Sydney Skyline
Brisbane Skyline from Mount Cootha   Sydney Skyline from Botanic Gardens

My presentation, entitled “Urban Futures: Green or Grey? The Aesthetics of Tall Building Sustainability” was very well received in both Brisbane and Sydney, judging by the Question and Answer sessions and the positive feedback from attendees after the presentation. This was good, because the message I was delivering was potentially controversial; that the vast majority of built tall buildings around the world today are nowhere near the evolved state they need to be in to help face the twin challenges of climate change and optimal urban domains. In particular I feel that we are missing the opportunity for a new expression in tall building design, more reflective of the age in which we now reside; an aesthetic that is less about the steel-and-glass modernism that has dominated tall building design for the past 50 years and more about a sensible degree of opacity in facades, plus organic matter and greenery embraced as a positive part of the overall material palette, as well as contributing to a positive environmental strategy. I presented a seven-point plan for consideration in the design of future skyscrapers.

Riverside Center     Riparian Plaza     Lumiere
Riverside Center, Brisbane
Harry Seidler
  Riparian Plaza, Brisbane
Harry Seidler
  Lumiere, Sydney
Foster & Partners

There were other sub-plots in the presentation; how greenwash and the emphasis on design rather than as-built performance in worldwide sustainability rating systems is hampering the embrace of real environmental progress, and how tall buildings have an opportunity to lead the way for the benefit of the building industry as a whole; not only because denser cities with less energy-intensive suburban sprawl is a better model for urban development but also because the financial and professional investment in each tall building offers the opportunity for experimentation with environmental technologies, for example, which is more difficult to justify in smaller buildings.

I finished the presentation with an overview of some of the hypothetical tall building design projects I have created in conjunction with my students of architecture over the past five years (for more on this, see here). Much of this work tends towards the utopian and I guess I was a little nervous that this combination of tough words on the state of the tall building industry, and the somewhat utopian vision as a possible answer, would serve to negate the overall message in an audience of predominantly practical, ‘at the coal face’ architects and engineers. However the inverse seemed to happen, and many from the audience made a point of mildly berating me for my apologetic air concerning the utopian ideas and pointed out that most were actually quite practical and, more importantly, achievable if the right conditions could be created. And that thus became one of the main outcomes of my presentation – the thought that we perhaps need to concentrate less on the design of the individual building and more on the social, political and economic conditions that have allowed the best tall buildings to flourish in places the world, in the hope of recreating those conditions, and hence the better buildings.

Brisbane Skyline    Brisbane Skyline
Brisbane skyline from Story Bridge   Towers under construction in Brisbane

So both presentations, in Brisbane and Sydney, fostered some excellent thought and discussion however this visit had objectives beyond just delivering a presentation. It was essentially a fact-finding mission for the Council, to see how the situation in Australia is currently (both economically and environmentally), to see how we can better support the Australian chapter of the Council and, of course, to bring organizations which are not yet involved with the Council into our network and initiatives. I am very pleased to report that all three objectives were met. Economically (although there are quite clearly the same tell-tale signs of plunging stock markets and job losses as seen recently in the US and Europe) Australia seems to be, at worst, a few months behind the western world in feeling the brunt of the credit crisis. At best, however, there are many who believe that with much of the economy benefiting from natural resource export to China (coal, iron ore and copper ore), it is actually much better placed to weather the economic storm than many other nations.

I was also extremely impressed with some of the sustainability initiatives being implemented there, in particular the post-occupancy, performance-based ratings system for measuring energy and water consumption, waste handling and building occupier satisfaction developed through the NABERS scheme (see Especially after reading Henry Gifford’s paper entitled “A Better Way to Rate Green Buildings” on the plane on the way back to Chicago (furnished to me by a colleague at Bovis Lend Lease – I would encourage you all to read this at, I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the path that LEED and BREEAM and others need to start following: an energy rating based on hard consumption data produced after a year or two of operation, rather than noble intentions (often untested in their effectiveness) at the design stage, often several years before occupation.

Aurora Place     Capita Centre     Governor Philip Tower
Aurora Place, Sydney
Renzo Piano Building Workshop
  Capita Centre, Sydney
Harry Seidler
  Governor Philip Tower, Sydney
Denton Corker Marshall

So during my five days in Brisbane and Sydney I had meetings with the Queensland Government Department of Public Works, Laing O’ Rourke Construction, Leighton Property Ltd, Cottee Parker Architects, Cundall Engineers, JPW Architects and Meinhardt Engineers. I also attended the November luncheon of the Australia Property Council at the Westin Hotel in Sydney – along with 700 other people – and heard the newly-in post New South Wales MP / Minister for Planning Kristina Keneally outline her vision for urban infrastructure in Sydney. Of all the people who graciously met with me and gave of their time, I must make a special mention to colleagues at Bovis Lend Lease who received me in both Brisbane and Sydney, giving me a tour of their fantastic ‘The Bond’ headquarters on the quayside in Sydney.

Sydney From Top Of Sydney Tower     Sydney Opera House
View from the top of the Sydney Tower
  Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon

In between all these meetings and presentations, I managed to capture about 500 tall building photographs for the CTBUH Tall Building Image Database, and delight in the many new developments that have occurred since I was last in Australia 14 years ago – Harry Seidler’s Riverside complex in Brisbane and Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place in Sydney to name but two. In particular I was impressed with how many recent Australian tall buildings seem to meet the ground positively (something many other cities struggle with) – creating multi-layered, public urban domain that is just a pleasure to be in – Australia Square in Sydney or virtually the entire Brisbane River north shore from Story Bridge to the Botanic Gardens to name but two. Yes, as I sit aboard a Qantas flight on my way back to Chicago writing this, I think we could certainly learn a thing or two from the Australians, in more way than one. My great thanks in particular to Brett Taylor and Jim Forbes for making such a worthwhile trip possible, and to Jim for the incredible couple of hours on his boat in Sydney Harbour!