Day day two of the Green Building Council of Australia’s Transform event contained some nuggets on how far Australia is lagging on low carbon building materials, how to manage the trade off between sustainability and affordability in the residential market and what Microsoft is up to with its ambitious sustainability targets.

The industry’s appetite for detail about materials and embodied carbon is still growing. The sense, overall, is that Australia has a lot of catching up to do.

Built’s national sustainability manager Joe Karten and Hudson Worsley, founder & director of Presync, shared progress on the preliminary work of an industry and NSW government initiative to stimulate an appetite for low carbon materials.

The Materials Embodied Carbon Leadership Alliance (MECLA) has gathered 400 professionals from the building industry, government, major suppliers and users of both traditional and low emissions building products for the program.

The group is looking to explore the opportunities and challenges of  using low emissions technologies and building low embodied carbon buildings. The focus is on steel, concrete and aluminium.

Worsley pointed out that suppliers are ready to produce low emissions materials but customers aren’t demanding it. Nor are they willing to fork out substantially more for these products.

The goal is to increase the scale of demand to drive down the cost of these materials, and as Karten noted, “if it’s got lower embodied carbon that means it’s less energy, so should be lower cost.”

Many participants in the roundtable discussion spoke of the tradeoff between sourcing low carbon materials and the distance it then has to travel from more mature markets such as Europe, with aluminium emerging as a pain point for many.

“You also want to avoid unintended outcomes, where you want low carbon materials that have those food miles to get here. So it needs this systems-thinking around what is the actual outcome, not just ticking the box on a schedule,” Worsley said.

The roundtable participants also noted that Australia is so far behind other markets that it will need to mature the market for low carbon materials rapidly to meet decarbonisation targets.

Most agreed that setting ambitious targets around embodied carbon, like Atlassian did with its Sydney headquarters, is a powerful way to drive demand. 

The GBCA hopes to incentivise engagement with embodied carbon by asking for a 10 per cent reduction in the new Green Star rating tool, which goes up to 20 per cent for 6 star buildings and eventually will climb up to a minimum of 40 per cent.

“That’s our expectation, people should be aiming for a 40 per cent reduction in the carbon content of materials between now and 2030. That’s our goal.”

The other way the rating tool plans on driving uptake of low carbon materials is by giving users a choice to either reduce the carbon as part of the build or pay for it later in offsets.

Simone Concha, who is executive manager sustainability at the Western Sydney Airport, spoke about the major airport project’s commitments to reducing embodied carbon. While it doesn’t have a specific target to reduce embodied carbon, she said it does have requirements to optimise recycled content in its sustainability plan which she said will involve reducing embodied carbon.

Things are heating up in the residential market

Another overdue priority for the industry is the residential market. New developments include Green Star for Homes being tested by 10 organisations, with a first version of the rating tool is expected mid-year.

ANZ’s Christina Tonkin noted that sustainability is the “hottest part of the finance sector” and that the challenge for the built environment is ensuring green money filters from the commercial market into mainstream residential development.

ANZ has started offering products for the resi market, such as interest free loans for New Zealand homeowners to install insulation.

Stockland Communities group executive and CEO Andrew Whitson said the tension between affordability and sustainability is acutely felt in the mainstream residential sector.

“Our approach transforming the residential sector can’t be transformed from the top end of town.”

He said that Stockland’s customers are often first home buyers who are making tradeoffs between floor coverings, furniture and rooftop solar.

“These are the real tradeoffs people are making.”

However, he said a tipping point is approaching where deign and technology is allowing the company to deliver a sustainable home at no extra cost.

Landcom has a 10 per cent objective for affordable housing by 2025, according to the organisation’s acting chair Peter Roberts. Meeting this target involves joint ventures with Community Housing providers, and build-to-rent projects that provide affordability.

The organisation has also been looking at interesting ways to incentivise greener homes. For example, it’s offering $15,000 rebates on land values at Macarthur Heights when buyers make sustainability commitments, including higher BASIX scores.

Rod Fehring, executive chairman at Frasers Property Australia, said there is a limit to how much extra you can expect customers to pay for sustainability, suggesting that it’s an “innovation challenge”.

“You’re not really trying if you just assume you can pass costs on.”

The challenge, he said, is working backwards from the broad definition of affordable housing as not paying more than 30 per cent of household income.

In the context of dropping interest rates, which is acting a counterweight to the actual price base that’s growing, combined with flat incomes, he said “it makes it very difficult to keep yourself treading water in terms of your ability to create an affordable product relative to that definition.”

“So, I think it’s not easy and getting harder and harder to deliver, without overt subsidy, to sustain in perpetuity access to affordable housing.”

Microsoft playing to its strengths

The Fifth Estate could catch the entire event but it wasn’t going to miss a chance to hear how Microsoft was planning to meet its ambitious sustainability goals, including backdating its carbon reduction efforts to when the company first started in 1975.

As well as aiming for carbon negative by 2050, Microsoft senior technology advisor Leon Smith told the audience that the tech giant also wants to be water positive and zero waste by 2030.

Looking beyond its own boundaries, the company is leveraging its technology prowess to build a “planetary computer, an open source system to better monitor, model and manage the world’s ecosystems to protect the land.

It’s also had an internal carbon tax to incentivise itself to bring down emissions, and committed to invest $1 billion in its climate innovation fund.

It’s energy-hungry data centres are a key challenge for the company but Smith was focusing on its buildings and campuses in 120 countries. 

The company likes to play to its strengths. At its 200 hectare Puget Sound headquarters, which houses over 60,000 people, it installed an AI powered energy smart building system that managed to reduce ienergy use by 20 per cent using just software. No expensive hardware needed.

For a new part of the facility, its heating and cooling will come from what it’s calling the “machine in the woods”, a massive geoexchange-tech based thermal energy centre that taps into the underground energy source that is the constant underground temperature. It’s projected to save over 50 per cent of its energy bills when it goes live.

Its technologies are also helping other companies meet its sustainability goals. It’s helping fashion company HM put a stop to its fast-fashion ways by developing a circular ID so that it can track assets over time, and created smart recycling bins automatically weighs the clothing and gives customers individual feedback about their donation.