Learning Curve

Rock Development Group

That was something of an odd reaction, according to Maria Efkarpidis, because what Rock Development Group (Rock DG) was putting forward was hardly radical. Instead, it was a return in principle to a very old traditional way of living – the community and its living and working spaces grouped around marketplace where its members can eat and socialise.

Belconnen Fresh Food Markets is situated in the ACT just to the north-west of Canberra’s city centre, close to Lake Ginninderra, an ornamental stretch of water. Belconnen was established in 1966 and the Market, ten years later. The Markets already form a local focal point, with eating and entertainment facilities in addition to fresh meat and vegetable shops. The idea is to increase that focus with a full-scale development called loop.

loop earth was completed in March 2012, comprising 560 square metres of retail and 570 square metres of office space. This is just the first of five interlinked building projects. But Rock DG hit a number of hurdles in late 2012 which more or less put the project on hold while waiting for Government to resolve a number of issues which have taken longer than expected.

Next will be loop harmony to be located to the south of the Markets with 900 square metres of retail space and 2,100 square metres of office space with five storeys of car parking (despite ambitions to curb car use, parking space in Belconnen is at a premium). This is scheduled to start early in 2014. After that will come loop eternity and loop fire – 171 apartments plus 940 square metres retail and 2,700 square metres office space (starting mid-year); loop water – 1,400 square metres retail, 3,200 square metres office and 38 apartments; and loop spirit, air and sky – 1,000 square metres retail space and 185 apartments.

The location of the project, equidistant from two major shopping centres, the lake and its attractions, is part of its appeal. Canberra was essentially planned as a car-friendly city in the days before anyone worried about gas-guzzling or emissions, and Maria suggests loop is a step toward getting consumers out of their cars again. “At first people asked, ‘why would I want to live at the markets?’ The answer was simple: we all like to eat and to socialise, so what better place to do it? For us it was a perfect fit.”

A personal factor for the Rock DG partners was that their late father had so loved the markets. “You have the benefits of everything in the one location, which is why it was the logical step for us to take.” A lot of eyebrows were raised at first, but people have long since stopped questioning what we’re doing. “Australia in general has now started to see that the closer you are [to attractions] and the easier it is to get around without necessarily using a car all the time, the more benefits there are.”

It hardly needs to be said that loop is intended to have impeccable ‘green’ credentials; however, it has stumbled a couple of times on challenges associated with new green technologies – notably when it tried to install geothermal systems into loop earth. These trials have now been overcome and the completed building is fully sustainable via solar arrays mounted on rooftops. loop aims to minimise waste, with extensive use of recycled materials during construction. Rainwater is captured, and waste water is recycled and returned to the precinct. Composting is made easy. Residents can monitor their electricity usage in a precinct wide energy management system; electric vehicles will have plug-in charge points and excess electricity is returned to the grid.

“We are building a sustainable community – everyone else is just constructing environmentally improved buildings. We are giving the [property] market a different product. There is considerable interest around Canberra for a project like this.”

Maria describes Rock DG as “property developers with a conscience; not least because the three partners have a total of nine children and our philosophy is what our father and mother taught us. That is, whatever you do has to benefit your children in the long run. For us, since we are in property, what better way to leave something for our children than a consciousness about the environment? Whatever we build, we want it to last but we also want it not to harm the environment.”

Rock DG started off in supermarkets and property management and has progressed almost organically, one might say, into development. Having purchased sizeable plots around Belconnen markets, the partners decided to do something useful with them. The group aims to build not just a series of buildings, albeit with good ‘green’ credentials, but, Maria says, “it’s a matter of building a community. Growing up in Canberra, we realised the beauty of it was that you are more safe and secure; you could go out and wander about; there was more communication with people. This is slowly being lost.” Maria and her partners want to restore the feeling of a secure and easy-going community as part of building sustainable properties.

That includes ensuring local involvement. “Everyone working on the project is from Canberra, which helps to reduce our carbon emissions.” Initially, says Maria, there were suggestions that they should engage top architects from Sydney or Melbourne for the project, but this idea was rejected on practical grounds. In any case, Canberra is not without its own resources. “There are great architects here that win many awards and do amazing work.” For this project, Colin Stewart Architects was chosen; the partners had worked with the firm on previous projects and it was our first choice. Northrop Sustainability, Red Box Design Group, Tract and ACT Planners are also working on the project.

Architects were quick to comprehend what Rock DG had in mind, and Maria says – perhaps surprisingly – that the builders and construction companies were also able to embrace the concept with enthusiasm. But the group that had the most difficulty in taking up the idea of loop when it was first proposed some four years ago were the real estate agents. “They thought the idea of building a sustainable community around the markets was just the silliest thing anyone could think of doing.” But now, their attitude has changed, with the agents pestering Rock DG for completion because they have people asking about the properties. It was interesting, she adds, to see that construction companies are not negative – the number of sustainable buildings transpiring in Canberra is escalating, so for the builders it was an obvious progression.

loop looks to keep Maria and her partners at Rock Development Group busy for the foreseeable future. “We are looking at some other property in Canberra but at the moment that is on the back burner,” she explains, given that loop was delayed by the extended planning process, something beyond the team’s control but nonetheless putting construction back by nearly two years. Maria acknowledges that the partners – the family – have been learning about property development as they go, but it has been a more than interesting learning curve, and Rock DG is now in a position to advise others on a number of sustainability issues. “We are looking forward and eager to start construction again. Anyway, if you are not learning every day, you are just not living.” Ultimately, property development is something the group wants to do; “it has its moments, like everything else, but it’s very enjoyable.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

May 29, 2020, 4:33 PM AEST