A New Normal walks the walk as they turn Melbourne into a self-sustaining city.

A movement is emerging from Melbourne that many are looking to as the benchmark for radical action in the built environment profession. ‘A New Normal’ is a collaboration between fifteen leading architecture and design firms with one united goal: to battle climate change, one audacious design project at a time.

A New Normal has all of the early markings of success, with as much attention given to financial planning, science, engineering and project feasibility as it does to imagination and innovation. The projects look to the cultural consumer as well as investor and policy maker: a deliberately even-handed spread that quells logistical doubts as quickly as it sparks genuine excitement. 

‘A New Normal’ will be launching previews of all fifteen projects at Melbourne Design Week 2021, with a hub being launched in Melbourne’s Central City. So, as A New Normal finally makes its grand debut, we ask: could this be the movement that finally shifts the needle on how we approach sustainable design in Australia?

A few friends met for dinner

It was a winter’s night in 2019 when Ross Harding hosted the dinner party where A New Normal began. A select group of Melbourne’s leading architects gathered for a dinner at Harding’s Fitzroy home, and over a home-cooked meal, their host made a personal plea to his guests: join me in a mission to create the world’s first self-sustaining city, right here in Melbourne. 

It was no small task. To create a fully self-sustaining city is a considerable undertaking, a systematic dismantling of legacy policies, beliefs, and processes in order to create an urban center that is not just a consumer, but a producer. 

There’s only a handful of cities around the world who have attempted it, with even less who have succeeded. And certainly, none on the scale of Melbourne: there’s Tokelau, New Zealand (population: 1,411) who generate 100% of their electricity through solar, and Ecovillage, Scotland (population: 400) who have established a closed-loop power, food, and water system. Masdar City, Abu Dhabi (population: 1,300) have completely removed fossil-fuelled cars in favour of electric cars and trains, while Samso Island, Denmark (population: 3,724) boast 11 wind turbines which cover the entire population’s electricity supply. All inspiring examples, but with a population of over 5 million people, Melbourne would be a different game altogether.

The Numbers Game

Ross Harding, by trade, is a mechanical engineer with a background in finance. He is not an architect, nor a designer, and this is integral to his prowess. What Ross knows is something that is frequently overlooked in creative design initiatives: people respond best to finance, not feeling.

“We are the logical mind in an illogical process,” says Harding. “We have two years of calculations backing our projects. We want to normalise the concept of a self sufficient city to make it tangible, practicable, profitable, and engaging. Through these numbers, we’ve shown that it can work.”

The numbers are indeed compelling. $1.4 billion — that’s how much we’d save by halving the cars on our roads, and converting the remaining to electric. 1% — that’s how many Melbourne rooftops would be required to power 38% of the city. And if nothing else, this: every year, Melbourne burns enough coal to fill the Eureka Tower 100 times, enough oil to fill it 40 times, enough natural gas to fill it 30 times, enough waste to fill it 50 times, and enough water to fill it 1000 times. But here are the numbers you really need to pay attention to: 100 billion dollars and ten years. That’s what it would take to transform Melbourne into a 100% self sustainable city.  

We’re talking about a city that could clean and store all of its water, create all of its own energy, and process all of its waste. It would boast a completely carbon-neutral footprint, and be entirely renewable — that is, we’d never run out of resources. Not to mention that the transition will pay for itself in less than a decade, and create some 800,000 new jobs. If 100 billion dollars sounds like a lot, that could be because the Australian Government’s current contributions are much, much less. Harding’s proposed investment is seventy-two times larger than the current forecasted budget on renewable energy, and one-hundred-and-sixty-six times larger than the proposed spend on our waste and recycling infrastructure. It’s big. But it’s not impossible.

One project pitches an electrified vehicle ‘pit stop’, connecting people to the process of electrifying existing cars through the ‘new normal’ service station car conversion experience. Image courtesy of A New Normal.

Finding Infinity

Crunching the numbers and harnessing their power is Harding’s company, Finding Infinity. The Melbourne-based organisation works with citizens, businesses, and government organisations to find “financially viable and technically feasible solutions, and use a bespoke mix of creativity and engineering expertise to help create the future.”  Alongside their consultant and creative services, Finding Infinity have a mysterious third offering: Incunabula. A latin word meaning ‘the beginning’, it is here that the New Normal movement will operate, the collective’s first foray into turning their plans into action. 

“The only barrier is people: us,” reads the Finding Infinity website. “But it’s not our problem, it’s our opportunity.” It’s this eternal optimism that undoubtedly attracted the ten architects to Ross Harding’s house in 2019 as he made his pitch. If it’s not us who are going to kick-start the process, he asked, then who will? 

Since that dinner in 2019, the collective brainpower behind A New Normal has been kicked into overdrive. The fifteen architects and designers engaged on the project have each claimed a certain sustainability challenge — such as producing clean power, or designing fossil-fuel-free transport — and created their own project scope, eventually providing a detailed plan and render of the proposal. In Ross’s words, he’s just the janitor, sweeping up around the team as they churn out plan after exciting plan. And now, with the launch of Design Week, we finally get to see their work in action. 

Taking the plans to the people

The rollout of A New Normal comes down to a simple concept – bridging the gap between technology and culture. Just like Harding’s OFF.THE.GRID. dance parties in London and Melbourne, which were fuelled by solar power a decade earlier, A New Normal would engage the imaginations of the general public in order to convince private investors of their feasibility, closely followed by documentation that showed just how much money, time, and resources it would take to make the project a reality. Never one to shy away from lofty goals, Ross has given the project one year to secure funding. At least, that’s the plan.

“We’ve got fifteen projects launched. One is already funded, and I want the other fourteen backed by the end of the year,” says Harding. “So let’s get on with it! I don’t want a response of, ‘Oh! They’re cool, wacky projects.’ I want the money.”

A selection of the New Normal projects will launch at Melbourne Design Week 2021 from an empty office building on Little Collins Street. Inside will house installations curated by the project leaders, vignettes that introduce the audience to the world of A New Normal. These small-scale installations address big-picture problems: transport, logistics, water, gas, solar, waste management, and architecture. (For more information around each initiative, head to the New Normal website here.)

Clare Cousins Architects are imagining a city after gas: transitioning our buildings from running on dirty fossil fuels to clean electric power. Image courtesy of A New Normal.

Meet the designers

Mathew Van Kooy and James Loder of John Wardle Architects were the first to move in with their rooftop solar installation, and eagerly anticipate the audience response at the launch. “This prototype experiments with using existing fabric of a building, rather than a new development,” explains Mathew. “We’re looking forward to the public engagement and possibility of private sector investment — we can see our design working across social spaces, nurseries, even corporate settings.”

Their rooftop installation will use over 300 solar panels designed to capture the maximum amount of sunlight at any given time. Their modular, ‘pack-up, pack-down’ creation works with a series of buttresses that support the panels, forming an intimate shelter for people to congregate under. It’s a prototype for the larger-scale installations they have planned, where Melbourne’s unique rooftop culture will be transformed into self-sustaining green spaces across the metropolis. 

Down on the street below, Jefa Greenaway, from Greenaway Architects, and Grimshaw Architect’s Alison Potter have grand plans on the streets below. Their project, Electrify Transport, has the ambitious goal of halving the number of cars from 2.6 million to 1.3 million by 2030, and converting the remaining 1.3 million cars to electric. For Jefa, this is more than just creating a healthier city — to the tune of annual healthcare savings of at least $0.6billion a year — it’s also about reconnecting, and respecting, the land upon which Melburnians stand.

“Incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems into the design process is about empowering Indigenous voices and agency,” says Jefa. “If we can embed that into design, and infuse that as part of Indigenous design thinking, we can recentre these places of importance, and these places of leisure take on greater significance.”

Creating cultural change

Clare Cousins, from Clare Cousins Architects, is overseeing Electrify Architecture for A New Normal, which imagines a city after gas. The process of switching from gas to electricity as an energy source is relatively straightforward, with one significant structural change: the addition of large heating pumps that would need to be installed. But, in the A New Normal spirit, Clare is turning that challenge into an opportunity.

She’s got her sights set on the central Melbourne apartment towers with above-ground parking, which effectively reduced human interactions between the building and the street from the first five-floors of a building. By reclaiming some of this parking space for the heaters (kindly cleared by Jefa and Alison through their initiative), Clare proposes they go one step further and totally transform the podium-level parking to communal spaces.

“From basketball courts to marketplaces, we can repurpose these areas as community spaces,” says Clare. “This changeover of technology then starts to benefit everyone with the creation of socially-sustainable design and a return to Melbourne as a ‘walkable city’ — not just staring into carparks!”

Still, Clare is frank about the cultural mindsets that need to change in order to make these projects possible. Gas, she points out, has an emotional connection for homeowners. With 90% of Melbourne homes still owning a gas connection, the average consumer is hesitant to change over their familiar gas cooktop to induction heating. It’s these kind of embedded cultural narratives that need the biggest shake-up of all. 

The time is now

There’s a clear sense of urgency when it comes to redefining the way we approach large-scale sustainable development and design. But the barriers to entry are vast: complex regulations, varying state policies, slow-to-move government initiatives, and a general difficulty around engaging the general public. This is the most exciting part of A New Normal — it’s not that it should happen, or could happen, it’s already happening. And it needs your support.

During Melbourne Design Week, a former office building in Melbourne’s centre is a hub of education around what A New Normal could look like. It’s a key opportunity to explore the projects, and the ways these concepts could be adopted into Melbourne’s urban development. If Ross Harding’s goal for all ten projects to be funded by the end of this year comes to fruition, Melbourne will be on its way to becoming the world’s first self-sustaining city.