The business case for sustainable buildings

Edge Environment Pty Ltd

By Jonas Bengtsson*
Wednesday, 29 July, 2020

The business case for sustainable buildings

2020 may well be remembered as a year of biblical proportions. From fires and floods through to pandemic and recession, modern communities have been challenged like never before, lurching helplessly from one emergency to the next. Sitting comfortably at the top of the leaderboard as the largest contributing country to global emissions per capita, Australians were forced to confront this uncomfortable truth as 46m acres of native bushland recently burned as the world looked on.

Complicit within this, the Australian building industry alone contributes 25% of national carbon emissions — and yet this issue remain unresolved and unaddressed in the recently released National Construction Code (May, 2019).

Without appropriate legislation in place, and in the absence of decisive leadership, it is now the social responsibility of architects, designers, builders and owners to put our own house in order. We can no longer ignore the devastating impact that Australia’s $360bn construction industry places on the world around us. Collectively, we must address the sustainable building crisis and shift our near-term thinking away from outdated philosophies, and direct intentions towards long-term solutions that work in harmony with the local conditions.

Holistic approach

Focusing beyond the simplicity of operational emissions and embracing a holistic building approach right from the ground up is key to achieving these goals. Sustainability, by very definition, is about planning for the future; for people and for place. Only when that framework is firmly established and supported by law can the industry seamlessly transition into an environmentally and financially sustainable future.

What is the actual role of a building, if not to better connect us to the land, to enhance our mutual living space and to improve on personal interactions?

Buildings are a natural extension of the world around us. They provide home, shelter, refuge and safety. They draw communities together and are an individual expression of our cultural heritage. Research has long demonstrated that environmentally friendly ‘green’ buildings not only deliver the financial benefit of reduced operating costs, they have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of employees.

Consider 2m healthy life years gained annually in the EU by improving indoor air quality, an 18% more productive workforce from the provision of natural daylight and 25% better functioning staff simply by accessing a view. Enhanced air quality, green spaces and natural sunlight all combine to improve workplace attendance and wellbeing as well as quality of productivity.

From operational to embodied

Until now, the building industry has concentrated primarily on reducing operational emissions by way of ticking the ‘green’ box. These factor inclusions are now almost assumed and undisputed within new builds and major retrofits. But neglected up until this point — and where now requires focus — is the embodied energy calculation for the entire project: the cradle-to-grave environmental and social impact, from demolition and reconstruction, to geographical placement, product selection and function. Working in tandem, these factors all directly contribute to the true sustainability of a build.

With the balance now shifting from operational to embodied, it forces the industry to more closely examine the materials we commonly use, and asks of us as individuals to take responsibility for it at all stages of the process. Understanding the complete environmental impact and closing the resource loop is the crucial next stage in achieving sustainability. This is an area ripe for improvement, and while it is common practice amongst sustainability professionals, it is not yet an industry-wide approach. Even with multiple rating tools in place the process is far from simple, and it is not easily achieved.

Calculating the true embodied energy costs of any build can be a subject for debate in itself — and is riddled with contradiction. Concrete is a typical example. A massive contributor to carbon dioxide emissions because of the high proportion of cement it contains, it is also effective in retaining heat. Furthermore, it is widely and cheaply available. As for end of life, it will either be discarded in landfill or downcycled into roads — invalidating the invested energy and carbon.

Steel suffers a similar fate, as the recycling process is as energy-intensive as the initial production. Even timber mostly ends up in landfill, where the decomposition process negates the CO2 once absorbed in its natural state.

Embodied energy and carbon is where the legislation is desperately needed so that these essential considerations become the norm rather than the exception. Until we begin to embrace the circular economy, to see buildings as an extension of our natural world and take full responsibility for our creations, true sustainability — and therefore economic viability — will continue to evade us.

Corporate responsibility

For commercial businesses, environmental impact and associated risks are now a board-level consideration as shareholders demand transparency and board members are required to understand the level of responsibility they are taking on as a consequence of their roles.

Corporate annual reports are becoming increasingly more complex, and items such as climate change and societal impact are being included as standard alongside investments and operational costs. It’s imperative that the full business case for sustainability includes all three elements, from sustainable resource use and optimisation of operation to consideration of the wider ecosystem and community impact. Each tangent is inextricably linked to the other and all combine for a happy bottom line — which includes a happier environment.

So how do we tackle this?

Meaningful change is only possible if the right tools and framework are in place to facilitate it. Only by simplifying the current process and supporting it with appropriate legislation can the building industry collectively begin to address these issues.

Time-saving information tools such as BPI Rating must become commonplace, removing any barrier to knowledge and allowing professionals to research and select the most appropriate materials and resources. Removing industry-speak and transitioning the language into the common vernacular is another important step towards accessibility, as recently undertaken by Green Star. We have common goals and we must commonly communicate to reach them, aligning frameworks and driving methodologies. It’s the only way our legacy will take a different path.

We have the knowledge, we have the language, and now we have the tools to reconnect our buildings with the land and the people. Sustainability will always be a multi-faceted debate and whilst there is not a singular answer, significant change is entirely within our own hands: the business case writes itself.

*Jonas Bengtsson is CEO and co-Founder of Australian sustainability consultancy Edge Environment, and Founder of BPI Rating, an online database of building materials that aims to improve transparency of information, sustainability and resilience in the Australian built environment.

Image credit: ©

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