Caryn Kakas

10 October 2013 — Caryn Kakas, the Property Council of Australia’s head of external and government affairs has some surprising views. One is that the residential market can achieve national harmonised sustainability standards under a single rating tool. Another is that the loss of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam in the Upper House is a major blow for the property industry and the broader cities agenda.

According to Caryn Kakas, head of external and government affairs with the Property Council of Australia, there’s reason to be optimistic about green housing in Australia. Not only can we expect to soon have minimum national sustainability standards, she says, but a “pathway” to delivering mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency in houses as well.

Kakas was appointed to her role earlier this year, after five years heading up the Property Council’s Residential Development Council, so she knows what the thinking is at the big end of town. Her advocacy work in Canberra no doubt also provides some good insights into the political process.

Still it’s a big call.

Yes there are a few stars and outperformers. See our article on Right Homes in Perth for instance, or on architect Tone Wheeler who is pushing the design envelope towards more sustainable homes in the volume build market through Rosewood Homes.

But overall, many people say that in terms of sustainability the volume residential market is where the office market was a decade ago. Except that the office market was never that bad.

Minimum standards

 There are minimum standards in some states, but the feedback from insiders is that the standards are low and there are too many instances of builders not building to specifications and shaving costs by using cheap glazing and insulation that’s poor or sometimes non-existent.

Working exactly in the wrong direction are the housing and building lobby groups – the Master Builders Australia and the Housing Industry Association – which fiercely oppose moves towards greater sustainability on the grounds of delivery costs, but ignoring operational costs.

This pair was mostly to blame for the retreat by the Council of Australian Governments on nationwide minimum green standards and mandatory disclosure for the energy efficiency of houses.

Regardless, Kakas is confident of change. What’s more surprising is that she thinks it can happen within the term of the Abbott federal government.

Reframe the problem

Kakas was deeply disappointed with the COAG retreat on improving sustainability in the resi market. Her work with the Residential Development Council included major policy document to support harmonised rating tools and mandatory disclosure.

“What went wrong last time [in COAG] is that the proponents hadn’t done their homework. They put the cart before the horse but not focusing first on rating tools,” she says.

What’s needed is to reframe the problem, change the language.

With a pro-business government you can tackle the lack of national standards in housing as a pitch for smoother business flow: “removing red and green tape”.

The thinking is that once you have some developers backing up this argument, you might just get inside the front door of business-minded politicians.

“Business says we want a rating tool that keeps us from having to brief eight governments; and develop eight sets of marketing materials to target buyers, instead we can do it once and for all.”

Another reason that Kakas is optimistic of change is that she’s playing the long game.

“I’m a glass half full sort of person,” she says. “What we need is a simple, single environmental rating tool that captures not just building fabric and energy efficiency but carbon emissions and water.

“I reckon that’s the key to getting resi right.” Right now the so called “green” resi industry is rife with greenwash –a solar array or a water tank do not make the house green, Kakas says.

And rating tools are confusing and complex. It’s hard to blame consumers for glazing over at the mention of rating tools. There’s NatHERS that rates building fabric, BASIX in NSW that provides minimum standards, AccRate and a range of voluntary rating tools. Queensland had a mandatory disclosure program – a “tick-the-box system that didn’t measure anything much” and was possibly no great loss when Newman dropped it, Kakas says.

Feedback from the industry is that buyers of volume build homes are not engaged in the sustainability argument.

Kakas says there’s some truth to that and adds that Right Homes in Perth, which built a nine star zero carbon home, reported that consumers struggled to understand what was on offer.

The reason is often lack of understanding and for this Kakas puts the onus back on the industry.

“It’s very hard to make a zero carbon argument unless we can explain what it is to the buyer. That’s what we’ve been working on. Unless you have a way to communicate this at a level where it’s really simple, you can forgive the consumers for being ignorant.  This is why we undertook research through ASBEC [the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council] to look at what needed to be done to deliver a low carbon future for housing..”

Kakas agrees it’s going to be hard to encourage consumers to adopt green homes voluntarily in the same way that the market drove take up of environmental ratings in office buildings.

She can see an argument for mandating certain standards through COAG, but says consumer education is key to driving change.

First you need to get some ducks in a row, she says.

“You have to get the framework to allow everyone to come back to the table.”  A big problem with COAGs past is that those responsible for the policies under discussion were often “not in the room”.

Inside the tent

The PCA is working towards industry wide reforms with the ASBEC, which has released major policy platforms to support the argument, including the Net Zero Emission Homes report.

Kakas, who chairs the ASBEC sustainable housing committee, says the umbrella group has just signed off on a 12-month project to produce “a big 2020 roadmap” for all aspects of sustainable housing that will resemble a 2020 roadmap developed in the US.

What about the Master Builders Australia and the Housing Industry Association? Is there any way they brought to a greener table?

Kakas says it’s important that these groups are involved.

“We are trying to engage with them and their members to understand the work we’re doing. We need to get them inside the tent.  There are both economic and sustainable opportunities in this space.”

The big developers – who happen to be their members – can wield some fairly persuasive power in that direction, Kakas says.

The Greens connection

Getting the right people in the room for the Property Council has included the surprising liaison with Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

Kakas was deeply disappointed when we spoke, as the count for the Senate seat was looking bad for Ludlam.

She points to a huge volume of constructive work that the Western Australian senator has taken on.

“We’ve had phenomenal working relations with Scott,” she says. “He’s been a genuine support. I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He’s quite sensible and quite focused.”

Work has included a joint policy document by The Greens and the Property Council that Kakas describes as a “massive piece of collaborative work on transit oriented development” to find how Perth can manage growth from its current population of 1.9 million people to almost four million projected in 2050.

Joe Lenzo, executive director of the Property Council in WA, told The Fifth Estate his members expressed surprise at the collaboration, but Lenzo says he simply points to the results.

Kakas says Ludlam was also “instrumental” in getting the national rental affordability scheme back on the table when the last federal government cut it by $1.2 billion, and he was strongly involved in the National Broadband Network, the cities agenda and on energy efficiency for housing.

[Ludlam, by the way, lost with a primary vote of 124,268 against the 65,511 in primary votes for the Palmer United Party, which won on preferences. Ludlam is appealing a decision by the Australian Electoral Commission not to hold a recount.]

The cities agenda and Direct Action

Another disappointment has been the axing of the Major Cities Unit by the incoming Abbott Government.

“My personal view is that the loss of the Cities Unit is a loss of opportunity in the agenda that the government wants most, which is economic participation and economic productivity,” Kakas says.

“We add ‘prosperity’, to make up the three ‘Ps’ that form our point of view. Those are the benchmarks of what we need to deliver in a strong economy and cites have a role to play in that.

“For the government it’s back to basics. It’s a philosophical issue of where their responsibility should be.”

If proponents want to move forward with a cities agenda they will now need to move forward through COAG – but a “reformed COAG”, which means having the ministers responsible for the issues under debate actually present at negotiations – something that hasn’t always happened.

“In its current form it was inoperable because the people responsible for various policy areas weren’t in the room,” Kakas says.

However, Kakas doesn’t believe the cities play is over.

“I don’t believe it means the cities agenda is off the table.”

Property Council chief executive Peter Verwer has flagged the British model of city deals, which have emerged under a conservative government, designed to unlock urban productivity.

“They’re all about jobs, economic growth, leveraging sustainability and otpimising government revenue,” Kakas says.

Watch this space, she says, pointing to recent blog by Verwer.

Kakas says the mood after the election is “quite a level of optimism”, certainly from a consumer and business sentiment point of view, because of the sense of stability promised by the Abbott Government.

“From that perspective everything [the Coalition] promised they would focus on they have focused on from day one. They’ve removed the unease and the split government, the uncertainty of what would be on the agenda.”

The clarity is welcome. “It’s not about negativity on climate change but recognising the new rulebook by which change can be driven.

“It’s not that business doesn’t care about the climate agenda. But it wants there to be clear rules.”

The next challenge is how to make the government’s Direct Action policy work for the property industry.

“To green existing buildings is a core goal of ours,” Kakas says

And having money coming into the space will be a positive.

 There is a “huge opportunity to figure out how business can engage.

“There will be a strong showing to government that business will step up to the plate and demonstrate a ‘huge appetite’ to take on this opportunity.”

And that’s exactly what Kakas is there to help achieve.

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  1. Yea,the MBA in particular is such a backward looking organisation. If they truly had the interests of potential homeowners at heart they would embracing and promoting More efficient houses.

    The recent Victorian Gov’t sponsored (sorry name slipped my mind) study demonstrated that simple redesign can make the house greener AND reduce costs of construction.

    Frankly the building industry as a whole has been quite negligent in relation to home user comfort and energy efficiency- as these concepts are intimately entwined.