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Doing more with less

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive
Green Building Council of Australia

Nothing hides failure like success. During boom times, companies can be remarkably inefficient and still turn a profit. In leaner times, however, efficiency is everything.

All economic indicators suggest that the current market conditions we face are simply the ‘new normal’. If this is true, then we must look closely at the way we do things. This means working smarter, not harder – and it means doing more with less.

Resource efficiency is not a recent phenomenon. ‘Make do and mend’ is not a rallying cry for über-hip craftsters, but a reminder that in the past, people had to ‘make do’ with what they had. ‘Waste not, want not’ was the dominant paradigm for centuries.

Now, we must relook at efficiency – and examine everything from how we improve our processes to how we make better use of our materials.

At Green Cities this year, keynote speaker Gunter Pauli reminded us that one person’s waste is another person’s raw materials. Pauli captured our imaginations with innovations such as stones that could be transformed into paper, coffee grinds that could become protein to feed tropical mushrooms, and maggots that could be farmed for their healing properties and as a source of protein for other animals.

I’m inspired by innovative manufacturers that are beginning to embrace ‘cradle-to-cradle’ thinking as a way to provide nutrients for nature or resources for industry. Interface’s Net-Works project, for instance, is transforming discarded fishing nets into new carpet tiles. Net-Works is aiming to achieve a ‘closed loop’ in carpet tile production, clean up oceans and beaches and create financial opportunities for some of the world’s poorest people.

Consumers are catching on to the ‘waste not, want not’ trend and are finding simple ways to reduce their consumption and reuse what they have. Upcycled fashion ranges from the sensible – like super-strong handbags made from old seatbelts – to the extreme - such as knitted jumpers made from the hair of the family’s pet dog. Humble ‘life hacks’ that make do and mend range from using bread clips to save a favourite pair of thongs to an ingenious use of soft drink tabs to offset hangers and save wardrobe space.

Collaborative Consumption, a trend articulated two years ago at Green Cities by Rachel Botsman, is encouraging people to share everything from cars to crash pads. Open Shed is my particular favourite, enabling people to make money from lending out their idle objects from lawn mowers to ski gear. Collaborative consumption, of course, is older than we think – libraries have been around as long as the written word.

Improving the efficiency of our people is another area on which to focus.  Technology, teleworking and flexible, activity-based working will all contribute to more productive workplaces. So too will high-performance, healthy buildings.  During the election campaign, the GBCA released modelling which found that improving the performance of the federal government’s building stock has the potential to boost public sector productivity by almost $2 billion a year, based on productivity gains achieved in Green Star-rated buildings around the country.

Our modelling also found that a modest 10 per cent enhancement in the energy efficiency of federal government buildings – far below the 66 per cent average improvement recorded by Green Star-rated buildings around Australia – could save $35 million a year in the government’s electricity costs alone

Certainly, we are already seeing a shift to retrofitting as building owners recognise that upgrading their aging infrastructure delivers dividends – both environmental and economic. One example that continues to impress me is GPT Group’s Green Star headquarters in Sydney, which achieved an outstanding 96 per cent waste diversion rate, exceeding the highest Green Star benchmark by 16 per cent. 

For a start, the project, which spans floors 50-52 of one of Sydney’s most iconic office towers, represented a challenge – not only for its location within the upper-reaches of a CBD skyscraper, but for the ambitious structural changes that were required to the base building itself. And here GPT has managed to achieve more – with visual, productivity and environmental improvements – using less – reducing the size of the GPT tenancy from five floors to three.

GPT’s fitout, which received a 6 Star Green Star – Office Interiors v1.1 rating, features many repurposed items from the old fitout. New joinery was made from old timber wall panelling and old office furniture was given a simple upholstery refresh.  Old floorboards from Kempsey High School’s hall now form a point of interest as wall panelling in the office’s reception area, while Coca-Cola bottles have been given a second life as a component of the Emeco 111 Navy Chairs found in the kitchen. What’s really interesting is that clever design and an activity-based work environment have reduced desk space by 17 per cent. Despite the reduction in floor space, GPT staff say they feel they have more space, not less.

When I talk to people, I often find it’s not an unwillingness that stops them from reusing, recycling and reducing consumption – it’s that they don’t know where to start. This is why the Green Star – Performance rating tool will revolutionise the way we approach the ongoing management of our buildings. Green Star - Performance provides a snapshot of a building’s performance and identifies where efficiencies can be made. It’s about making improvements to ensure building owners, managers and tenants can get the best ‘bang for their buck’.

The ‘new normal’ is a chance to look at our built environment with fresh eyes. As we upgrade old buildings or construct new ones, we must start with question: “how can we ensure this building delivers more while using less?” 

Tell us your inspiring examples of how the built environment is doing more with less. Share with us on Twitter using the hashtag #talkaroundthegreenhouse.