Rosetta at Fishermans Bend?

Just reflect for a moment that the Rosetta spacecraft launched ten years ago has travelled a total distance of 6.4 billion kms in order to land a satellite on a remote comet. It did this without needing any maintenance or repairs en-route.  This is an enormous technical achievement; what earthbound technology of this complexity continues to work without maintenance for ten years? 

This disinterested search for fundamental knowledge without thought of financial return is expected to deliver new insights into comets, the solar system and even possibly the origins of life itself.   None of this could have happened without government involvement, many collaborations and the investment of billions. 

 Rocket science is awe-inspiring and there must have been great intellectual leaps along the Rosetta way, but it wasn't all blue sky stuff.  To achieve such reliability Rosetta was subjected to extensive vibration, thermal and vacuum testing and in the process was subjected to temperatures as low as minus 180°C and as high as 150°C.

A great deal of the technology would have been the result of painstaking iterating and reiterating calculations, testing and re-testing materials and equipment to meet tough performance requirements and answering contingent 'what if' questions. 

 What it demonstrates perhaps, is that the scale, cost and technical sophistication are not as critical as having a clear goal, steadfast political support and a permanent non-political management structure to bring it about.

 It humbles me that there are such clever people, makes me aware of my limited understanding, and proud that our society can work together in this way. 

Mankind's paradox has been described as 'standing knee deep in sewerage shooting rockets at the moon.'  We can go to the moon but we pollute our cities and land and oceans and continue to consume resources in a way that is causing the climate to change. Why can't we collaborate like Rosetta more often to bring about more desirable changes?

 Compared with Rosetta just reflect on the level of technology and design in the construction industry where it's an achievement if a building is finished without it leaking!  'What if ' lessons are there for designers, developers and builders from this ten year space story? 

What if we emulated Rosetta and set ourselves the goal of designing building components that required no maintenance for at least ten years and that also generated solar power for the building?   It's easy to site solar panels on roofs of individual houses but the roofs of apartment blocks are usually not large enough.

 What if we set ourselves a ten-year goal of developing standard wall panels for apartment buildings that as well as satisfying all the normal structural, insulation, fire rating, acoustic and other criteria, also generated solar power for each of the immediately adjacent units in the building; a hi-tech, ten-year goal to improve long-term sustainability via clever panels that require no maintenance.

Fuel cells are another proven technology with enormous potential. They work like a battery, the science behind them was first enunciated as long ago as 1824 and one of the world leaders in this field is Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited based in Melbourne.  A prototype solid oxide fuel cell for a house would be the size of a domestic washing machine and would not only supply all the electricity, heating and hot water for an insulated house in winter, but also works 24 hours a day so surplus power could be sold back onto the grid further reducing emissions.  It has even been suggested that the cells might be supplied and leased to householders by the electricity authority, which would obviate any argument about the price of the surplus power. 

While fuel cells have found practical use in spacecraft and submarines, domestic applications are far too expensive at the moment and it needs the patience and perseverance of a ten year Rosetta type task force to bring the costs down and make this technology both affordable and available.  It would be a great step towards a sustainable society.'

It doesn't even have to be that large or as clever as the above 'what ifs' as the following fifty-year old example shows.  Between 1954 and 1958 I had the good fortune to work in the Development Section of the Housing Division of the London County Council where new 'type plans' for flats were designed and evolved. There were four of us in this group and we also designed standard components for use in all LCC housing and which were then tested in the way domestic appliances are tested by Choice magazine.  

A range of good Scandinavian type wooden windows appropriate for a cold climate was developed in collaboration with a manufacturer, and by opening and shutting a window thousands of times, it was found that the hinges needed a nylon washer to prevent long term wear.  Another example; a die cast aluminium refuse hopper was designed for use in all tall blocks and piloted through prototypes and tested in a similar way.  And as there were often paint failures in the damp English climate it became obligatory for samples of paint to be tested for weathering before it could be used.

The cost of all this wasn't high but the savings were considerable. The testing was done by an old boffin in a white coat in one of the basements of County Hall.  It wasn't high-tech, didn't cost a lot and saved millions in maintenance costs.  It was a simple problem solving, 'test and improve' iterative approach to maintenance like Rosetta's.

By way of background the Housing Division was split into separate sections of a dozen architects, each group operating as independent offices; an excellent system.  There was a Swedish section and a Corbusier inspired group among others, and people gravitated to the office whose design ideology they found most sympathetic. 

Each group designed, documented & supervised the construction of their own jobs and as a result the design of LCC housing was more diverse and not as look alike as the Housing Commission towers in Brunswick and South Melbourne.  The LCC saw no need to reinvent the wheel and adopted well designed standard 'type plans' for the indivjdual units.  These standard plans were continually refined and design or construction flaws that became apparent were corrected next time. They also enabled costs to be estimated and controlled more easily and long term maintenance costs to be reduced.  Each section was responsible for designing these standard units into real buildings on specific sites.

The Alton Estate in Roehampton, South London (below) built as low income rental housing in the 1950's has been praised by Sir Richard Rogers as one of the best housing estates in Europe and remains as an exemplar for Fishermans Bend fifty years later!

 Alton Estate, Roehampton Lane, London

rosetta 2

Alton Estate, Roehampton Lane, London
Alton Estate, Roehampton Lane, London.

The LCC was replaced by the Greater London Authority, and London has the same problems as Melbourne and Sydney as far as housing shortages are concerned. But we don't have their firm intention to build housing for sale and rental for all income levels in order to cope with the backlog and population growth.  Check out Boris Johnson's Homes for London: the London Housing Strategy 2014,it puts to shame the 2010-2014 Victorian Liberal government's complete lack of any policy other than unrestrained developer housing for sale.

At the other end of the scale there are also many simple things in buildings that could, with a little wit, be improved tomorrow at no extra cost.  In my Katsalides designed apartment in St Kilda for example, there are three top hung awning windows that wind open 30 cms at the bottom between reveals.  They let the light in, keep the rain out and ventilate well enough but the outer faces cannot be cleaned from either the inside or the outside!  Not that I'm into regular window cleaning but after 18 years the outlook is seen through a grey film. 

This is simply uncaring or unthinking design and not good enough for a people clever enough to manage a ten-year Rosetta.  Windows that pivot horizontally so the outer face can be cleaned safely from inside the flat were in use at the LCC fifty years ago and there are other types of windows that achieve the same end!  All that's needed is for the Building Code of Australia to stipulate that windows must be able to be cleaned from within the flat so developers would be forced to comply!

The long-term economic benefits of a 'Rosetta' type organisation to improve both housing quality and sustainability for all sectors of society would be enormous.  Economies of scale would pull the costs down the way the way they did in these flats, and much less electrical energy would be needed from coal fired power stations. 

Left to private industry and developers there will no doubt be some market innovations and improvements but we are unlikely to see breakthroughs as fundamental as the above without some sort of governmental structure and social objective.  

The recent election of a Labor Government in Victoria creates the opportunity for a more practical and socially oriented approach at Fishermans Bend like those above.  The redevelopment of this area is a long-term project and ideally suited for a sustained Rosetta approach. 

The outgoing Minister took development control in this area out of the democratic hands of Port Phillip Council and despite their opposition, recently approved a 24 storey flats building adjacent to a primary school site. 

There is a strong need for the new Labor government to take an immediate grip of the planning of Fishermans Bend to correct its current direction.  At the same time policies must be evolved for the inclusion of low income rental housing and how it would be financed, along with the setting up of a Rosetta task force to improve design quality and sustainability of the whole development in multifarious ways.

Martin Foley, Labor Member for the electorate of Albert Park, which includes Fishermans Bend, was re-elected with the support of Greens preferences. 

Fishermans Bend is a sufficiently large, long term and important project in a metropolitan sense that a separate portfolio, Minister for Fishermans Bend, should be created for Foley, who not only listens to local action groups but has been dedicated in his opposition to the market based approach of the previous government. 

I'm still an optimist and in ten years time I hope to record the metaphorical landing of a successful Rosetta satellite in Fishermans Bend.

 Don Gazzard LFAIA

(1) Space info borrowed with thanks from an article by Neil Beattie in The Conversation'.
(2) (For an fuller explanation of fuel cells go to'Ten Technologies to FixEnergy and Climate' byChris Goodall.