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Crunch time: demolish or renovate old buildings

03 July, 2012

The building boom of the 80s has left Brisbane and much of Australia with a bunch of ageing commercial buildings and a big bill to replace or upgrade them so they can withstand the challenges of the future.

Queensland University of Technology construction researcher Professor Jay Yang said the average age of Queensland's office buildings was around 29 years and they had reached a critical time for major upgrading and refitting for ongoing use.

"If our office buildings are left as they are they will continue to have high energy consumption and high output of carbon dioxide. They may not cope with changing business operating patterns," Professor Yang said.

"'Relifing' old buildings makes better use of existing assets instead of acquiring more land for new ones and has a lower carbon footprint than demolition and new build.

"Today, because we have an increased awareness of the importance of the office environment for the physical and psychological health of its occupants, optimising floor space and the work environment, which often involves gutting the building and starting again, also needs to be done. This will require new approaches to managing construction waste."

The decision-making on key issues and project management processes to underpin solutions to these sustainability challenges will be investigated by Professor Yang, in partnership with researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, under a Queensland International Fellowship awarded by the Queensland Government.

Professor Yang said the infrastructure Queensland was building on the back of the resources boom to meet burgeoning population needs could one day be obsolete or underutilised as the resource market dried up and people moved elsewhere for work.

"We need to consider the life-cycle financial viability, future maintenance and running costs of these new items as well as the waste they will create when they need upgrading or replacement so that we don't leave future generations a costly burden," he said.

Professor Yang said Germany led the world in decision-making on ageing buildings and highway infrastructure that was past its use-by date.

"The country has already faced many of these problems when the buildings from the massive rebuilding of cities that followed World War II came of age," Professor Yang said.

"Germany's population is decreasing and there have been population shifts that have left their motorways for example parts of the Autobahn, still incurring maintenance and running costs, but carrying far fewer cars than they were originally designed for.

"It's important that we learn from Germany's experience for the Queensland context so we don't overdevelop, prepare for reuse and other alternatives, and think about minimising waste now. Future-thinking is integral to construction sustainability," he said.

"In partnership with Professor Dr Frank Schultmann from KIT, our research will focus on the critical factors in the evaluation of ageing built assets and multi-criteria decision making in their redevelopment linking it to regional planning issues and sustainability principles."

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