Cundall might be leading the pack on climate action but for David Clark, an Australian partner of the global engineering firm, the company has a long way to go – as does the rest of the engineering and design profession.

“When I’m looking at buildings, I realise a big chunk of achieving net zero emissions in the sector will be through design and engineering decisions.

“Architects and engineers will therefore play a massive part in solving the sustainability challenges in the building sector.”

Although close to 1000 engineering companies, architects, consultancies and organisations have declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in Australia, a commitment to speed up our transition to a low carbon world and to address the climate and biodiversity emergency, Clark isn’t convinced that everyone is pushing the envelope far enough, his firm included.

Cundall has declared 2020 the “year of net zero”.

“We have to get our industry to get projects to zero carbon, and stop using excuses like ‘it’s not in the brief’ or  ‘the client is not interested’ or ‘my fees don’t allow me to do this’.”

David Clark, Cundall

He says if the client isn’t interested, initially, then designers have a duty to persuade them otherwise.

“It’s really easy to design a green building if the client wants you to and it’s in the brief… persuading the client to work towards zero carbon should be the duty of every designer, not just ESD consultants.”

Zero carbon needn’t be a significant additional cost, and if it’s not possible to agree to deliver today, at least have a defined transition strategy, and build in future flexibility to get to net zero in an agreed timeframe.

For example, Cundall is working on a very tall residential building in the Sydney CBD and pushing to eliminate fossil fuels completely. Gas for cooking was replaced with cleaner and safer induction cooktops, avoiding installing gas pipes to every apartment. For technical reasons, some gas boilers for centralised heating and cooling systems remain. But it will be much easier to change these central systems in the future than it would be to replace the cooking system in every privately owned apartment.

Get your affairs in order first

Cundall has spent the better part of a decade reducing its own carbon impact as a One Planet Company, and is now certified carbon neutral under the Australian government’s Climate Active Scheme.

But Clark knows the company’s own workplace sustainability achievements were the easy part – influencing industry and delivering zero carbon projects is where designers can really make a difference.

The company already has some best-in-class green buildings to its name, such as the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong, the only building in the country to receive full petal certification under the Living Building Challenge and a net exporter of energy.

While immensely proud of the company’s involvement on this project, at two storeys and situated on a campus Clark recognises the research centre had more design and technology opportunities available when compared to, say, a high-rise office building in the middle of a city.

Does the industry lack ambition? Sure, there is a commercial element but “until we stop pretending that what we are doing is enough we won’t grasp the level of change needed.”

Clark wonders if the industry lacks the ambition needed to do the really challenging work.

“I get that there’s a commercial element but until we stop pretending that what we are doing is enough, we won’t grasp the level of change needed.”

Engineering needs to become synonymous with sustainability

Clark says it’s also time for sustainability to infiltrate the entire engineering profession, rather than be treated as a distinct field with its own dedicated team of sustainability specialists.

“How do we engage every engineer, structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, hydraulic etcetera. and at every level from graduate to partner, and on every project, in every country? This is a challenge Cundall is tackling itself globally.”

Momentum building behind climate action, but inertia still plagues the built environment

Clark broadly sees momentum building behind the decarbonisation agenda, with the bushfires, drought and extreme weather events likely to prompt further calls for action both mitigation and adaptation.

Corporates are jumping on board in droves and not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because of public pressure, mangement and investment risk. The number of major companies that have backed out of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine project are proof that reputational damage is rapidly becoming a serious cause for concern.

Despite the fresh wave of energy behind sustainability, Clark is still observing a lot of inertia in the built environment.

He says all companies proclaim to be “sustainable” and “innovative” on their websites but aside from a few highly marketable exceptions, the same average buildings keep getting built.

“No one will admit that they churn out business as usual. But if everyone is ‘innovative’ and ‘sustainable’ then why are we still seeing unshaded full height glass boxes entirely reliant on air-conditioning to be comfortable still being built everywhere?

“Being 10 per cent better than minimum compliance is the same as saying you’re 11 per cent better than being illegal. We need a step change. We need a target of zero, not an arbitrary percentage improvement.”

Setting the bar high – at net zero – is key

Clark is a big fan of net zero targets. Setting an absolute goal, even if it’s not clear how it will be achieved, gives an organisation something specific to focus on.

He says zero carbon target draws a line in the sand that “affects everyone”. A zero target means more capable players have to pick up the slack of the less capable, or less willing. So some industries will need to achieve carbon negative practices to compensate for other industries that are still emitting greenhouse gases.

It might sound unfair but it’s the tough reality we face if we want to stay under the 2 degree target set out in the Paris Agreement, Clark says.

“We ignore the science at our peril, it was right 10 to 20 years ago and we have seen the predictions come true.  Why should we ignore what it is saying now?”

And unlike targets for reducing emissions by 20 or 50 or 80 per cent, zero emissions targets are absolute and therefore harder to renege on.

Clark says the days of percentage reductions as targets are over because they are too easy to justify with dodgy accounting.

“Zero is unequivocal. It means we know where the finish line is. The only question now is can we get there in time?”

Exert real influence through advocacy

Cundall is also dedicated to advocacy and shaping the way forward, with Clark the chair of a Technical Advisory Group dedicated to defining net zero carbon and other step changes in performance for the Green Building Council of Australia’s next iteration of Green Star to be released later this year.

“If we get this right, it will really drive industry forward by delivering the step changes needed and prove to government that industry through its willingness to deliver is driving change that tougher legislation is not only achievable, it is essential.”