New star on the green catwalk
Green business now stands for good business, and Australia’s design and building industry is leading the trend worldwide. Dave Drayton reports.
As cars, tourism and even coffee went eco-friendly, it was inevitable that the building and design industry in Australia would eventually follow suit.
And while Australia cottoned on to the trend slightly later than Europe, it has by now well and truly caught up, according to the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).
“Australia is definitely one of the world leaders. We have transitioned a lot faster than a lot of the other countries,” says Suzie Barnett, Executive Director of GBCA.
Around 11% of buildings in Sydney’s CBD are “green-star” rated, which means their environmental impact has been assessed based on management, indoor environment quality, energy, transport, water, materials, land use & ecology, emissions and innovation.
“[This percentage] is quite high given that this ‘green-star’ only came onto the market in 2003,” Barnett says.
However it seems the greatest catalyst for this change is not a moral or ethical decision but a business one, with companies that remain stubborn in their ways left behind.
“Buildings with a five or six green star rating are becoming fashionable to companies wanting to present a ‘clean green’ image to their customers,” says construction and property recruiter Julian Murray.
“Developers and construction companies as well as government agencies are now seeing green methods of construction and environmentally sustainable projects as a key selling tool at the point of sale.”
In an interview with the GBCA, Managing Director of Leighton Properties, Mark Gray, said it is the leadership of the property and construction industry that brought about such rapid change in “both the way we deliver and use buildings”.
“Green Star ratings have become integral to the design and construction of developments, from single buildings to whole precincts, which has been fostered through increased stakeholder and community awareness.”
Murray expects that this is only the beginning of the transformation.
“As base line consumer perception changes to favour organisations that are perceived to be green, business will invariably change to match the needs of their consumers.”
The GBCA, which has 830 registered members, was established in 2002. From a small organisation, it has rapidly grown into what many consider to be the foremost authority on the subject of green building and design in the country, alongside counterparts such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), Green Biz Check and The Fifth Estate.
Be it a drive for dollars or genuinely caring for the environment, Barnett says what matters is that green building is no longer a niche market, it is being indoctrinated throughout the industry.
“It’s the whole industry, I can’t pinpoint any one company because it has actually become the norm rather than the exception.”
Barnett believes the shift towards green building is so strong that newer buildings that don’t adhere to green star ratings are doing themselves a severe disservice.
“They can build the building and it’s going to be obsolete before they even open their doors,” she says.
Murray expresses a similar opinion.
“Large infrastructure projects funded by government are now under intense scrutiny from the public in relation to their environmental impact and as a result, contractors are having to provide environmentally sustainable construction blueprints in order to win contracts.”
Barnett says the perceived cost differential, often seen as a significant deterrent to going green, is misguided.“Every time we crunch the numbers on this we find that there is no correlation between building green and [higher] costs.”
Gray explains that the reduced cost of technologies is due to the increased adoption of sustainable practices, which “has produced improved cost and value outcome”.
The GBCA is banking on the increasingly green attitudes of industry heavyweights such as Stockland, Lend-Lease and Mirvac to lower prices of sustainable products and materials for smaller companies.
According to Barnett, the effects of this are already showing.
“Things like using low-VIC paint and e-zero laminate particle board have become pretty much standard practice,” she says.
Nicholas Bernhardt, the managing director of Green Biz Check, agrees.
“Green products and practices are now more widely available, accepted and expected,” he says.
Barnett believes that greening is becoming so mainstream that “the industry has now shifted to say ‘We’re not actually looking at sustainability as additional costs, that’s just what it costs us to build it”.
Government regulations are also influencing the green trend, albeit in a more forceful manner.
“If it’s not the demand that’s coming, it’s the regulation,” Barnett says.
Regulations such as the Local Environmental Policy (LEP) planning reform, and the imminent Building Efficiency Disclosure Bill encourage an environmental consciousness across the board.
“These new plans will also provide the framework for planned growth and development in each local area - enabling economic investment and protection of environmental assets,” says Barnett.
“Green-washing” has proven so popular that the GBCA now also caters to the education, health, retail, public, multi-unit residential and industrial sectors.
And to encourage building and design companies of all sizes to run more sustainably, the GBCA membership fees are set according to the size and worth of a company.
“We don’t have a criteria for membership. Our belief is people who are members of the Green Building Council are paying that fee because they want to be more educated and more switched on,” Barnett says.
Building on its success and looking to the future, the GBCA has taken up a new challenge: to make existing buildings as sustainable as their newly built counterparts.
“We’re looking at evolving that asset, at investing that capital now to get that asset to be greener in the future.”
But Barnett also argues green renovations could benefit from a little more help from the government.
“We’d like to see some focus from the government, whether it’s a cash incentive for a developer to do it, whether it’s a tax incentive…Things like that.”
Various incentives have already been established around the country, at different levels of government. Overall, they have had a positive effect, assisting major developers in making the transition to become environmentally friendly, and Barnett sees this as a real solution.
“Basically, our strategy was: if we can get the top tier developers demanding this it will actually mean economies of scale for everyone else,” she says.
But the market is suffering from a lack of environmental sustainability experts.
“The CSIRO believe we need 3.25 million people to be skilled up to actually deliver what we need to deliver in the market over the next five to ten years,” says Barnett.
“The sooner we can skill up the workforce to these ‘green-collar jobs’ the sooner we will be able to bring those costs down and also have the expertise in the market so it becomes a lot more accepted than it is now.”
Murray says he has noticed a “significant increase in the number of positions created with an environmental focus, but more importantly, these positions are becoming more and more senior within the construction sector”.
Asked for the ideal framework to help green building to continue to flourish, Barnett says the GBCA seeks “a balance between stringent regulation and government incentives”.
But Bernhardt from Green Biz Check says it is arguable how effective incentives and grants may be “without an overall business environmental sustainability policy on developing greener practices”.
While Australia may now be ahead of the pack when it comes to a greener future for the construction and design industry, a delicate balance where government regulations direct and guide this shift is required to ensure Australia’s ongoing focus, commitment and innovation in this field.