Two years working in Thailand opened Caroline Noller’s eyes to the enormous impact buildings have on communities and the environment

FAVOURITES – 5 May 2009 – Caroline Noller of GPT is second in our series of profiles on the new breed of sustainability managers….

When Caroline Noller was constructing cities out of soap boxes as a child she thought only about the excitement of creating buildings and roads.

The displacement of communities and forests or the energy consumed by her wondrous creations was definitely not on her mind.

These days, as head of corporate responsibility for GPT these issues are daily preoccupations.

And becoming more so each year, as the urgency to reduce the ecological footprint of buildings increases.

Noller began her career in property as a quantity surveyor working on major building sites in Sydney, her favourite job during this time working on-site at the Sydney Opera House forecourt.

“What a great place that was to work – what better office could one have?” she says.

She looks back at this period as perfect training for a sustainability manager.

“I was exploring in a very detailed way how buildings go together – working dynamically with buildings. I had to mediate between the builders and architects to get the best design for the best cost.”

But it was while working in Thailand during the 90s that she saw the real impact of commercial buildings on communities and the environment.

Building impact hidden in the West

“I saw things in Asia that are hidden from us in the West; equity issues were so apparent. Displacement caused by the construction of new buildings is enormous – people are thrown out of their communities and large slums spring up.

“The two sites I was working on in Bangkok were the first to have sewerage treatment. The rest simply put sewage straight back into the Chao Phraya River where people washed, bathed and cleaned their teeth.”

It was at this point that Noller decided if she were to continue working in property it would have to be in a capacity that championed sustainable practices.

She joined GPT at a time when green star ratings for buildings didn’t exist. Her job was to develop a system for rating the energy consumption of GPT properties.

Looking back a great deal has changed – green star ratings are in place around the world and governments are introducing regulations to ensure greater energy efficiency in buildings.

It has made a significant difference in the way people think about energy and resource use. Property managers who five years ago scoffed at the idea of waterless urinals and low flow taps now embrace them as standard; tenants expect to have low energy lights as standard.

Professionals want negative impact from buildings

But have things really changed enough? Caroline Noller fears they haven’t.

“We did a survey recently of professionals in the industry to see how much impact they thought buildings should have to really slow climate change.

“Responses ranged from a negative impact to 10 or 20 per cent of the impact they [buildings] are currently having. When you consider that we are aiming for 30 per cent of the current impact as part of best practice, that is pretty mind boggling.”

And complacency is already a problem, even with the current ratings system.

“Unfortunately there is complacency out there. Companies say they are aiming for ABGR 5 star or a 6 GreenStar but they are also trying to work out the cheapest way of doing it. The star should not be the goal – there needs to be a long term idea of where we need to be and how we get there from where we are now. The gap is large,” says Noller.

Eco footprint is the real goal

Her ideal would be to replace current ratings systems with one similar to the ecological footprint measure used at GPT. This takes into account water usage, land value, and costs of construction, including extraction of building materials and of transporting these materials.

These costs are converted into a figure showing how many hectares of land the building occupies that could be used for other purposes, thereby showing its ecological footprint.

“The star system suits the property industry mentality because it is very competitive but I’m not convinced it is the best method. A combination of a ratings system and the ecological footprint would be a very interesting one.”

Social sustainability – next major target

Meanwhile, Noller will be focusing on her next major challenge at GPT – working out how to make a positive social impact on communities through property.

“We sat down in 2003 and set sustainability targets for our buildings. We’ve reviewed these in 2009 and we have delivered on them all and in eco efficiency exceeded them.

“In 2007 we did the same for social targets – how to create better, healthier and more productive communities through our business.”

This is particularly relevant with GPT shopping centres, which are often located in disadvantaged areas with high unemployment and, often, higher crime rates, Noller says.

GPT is currently working on programs and partnerships aimed at increasing participation of disadvantaged people in their communities.

“It’s the next phase – we want to interact more meaningfully with disadvantaged people who currently don’t participate in their communities.

“If these programs work it will be very exciting and potentially transformative.”

GPT Treadslightly – measuring the impact of buildings

Since the early 1980’s humanity has been living beyond the planet’s means – that is, we have been consuming more of the planet’s capital than it can regenerate. The most recent WWF Living Plant Report suggests humanity used 1.3 times the planet’s available natural resource capacity in 2005. At this rate, we will need the equal of two planets worth of resources each year by the mid 2030’s to support humanity’s ecological footprint.

Property assets account for as much as 40 per cent of global resource demand through property capital formation and operation each year. In this context and considering the long-lived nature of our assets and investments – reducing the ecological impact of property and improving society’s capacity to act more sustainably is essential to GPT’s long term business success.

Since 2004 GPT has worked in partnership with the EPA Victoria and an international not for profit group, Global Footprint Network, on the development of appropriate footprint qualification methods for property assets. In particular this partnership has resulted in the development of simplified calculators for retail base buildings and retail tenancies, which GPT has tested and used for three major developments and in excess of 500 retail tenancies.

In December 2008 and February 2009 GPT subjected an expanded calculator set and enhanced methodology to international peer review. This was done to ensure that these calculations represent leading practice and valid methods to underpin the wholesale use by GPT for all asset and tenant classes.

GPT will progress engagements with the sector more broadly in 2009 to increase awareness of the value of this impact measure in guiding material social and environmental actions to support for long term sustainability.

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