Simon Wild

By Tina Perinotto

4 February 2011 –
The Australian property industry has the power to radically transform itself and society, both here and overseas, says leading sustainability design consultant, Simon Wild.

The key to its success lies in industry and community collaboration.

“We’re in a position in the property industry – experts on ESD [Environmentally Sustainable Design] – we have an enormous amount of power to transform the industry and to use that learning to transform other industries,” says Wild, a director at ESD consultancy Cundall.

“And it’s society we need to change.

“It’s not a person on a white charger who says, here we are, we’re going to save the world; it’s not what the I or the company is about. It’s about transforming the industry as a leader in collaboration with others.”
Bolstering the power for change is the fact that here in Australia ESD is a market-driven industry.

“From the Green Olympics to now, it’s been a market-driven change rather than legislative-driven, and that has huge power, not just within Australia, but in other countries,” Wild says.

“Certainly from a China and Hong Kong perspective, the way the property industry changed in the last 10 years is met with fascination in the sense of, ‘how did they create a market for green and then deliver on that with a competitive edge?’”

In the United Kingdom, a legislative-driven market has seen the focus fall almost entirely on minimum compliance.

Wild says if the Australian property industry has come this far, it can go a lot further, in spite of being a small market in a small country. But it needs to focus on the bigger picture.

“It’s no longer about what happens to a person when he walks into an office,” he says.

“It’s about where that person lives, how far he has travelled, what his mode of transport is… it’s about what this individual building is doing within the greater concept of the community.”

Collaborate to build a better future
In the same way that the Australian property industry has punched above its weight, Wild thinks Cundall in Australia might have an opportunity to do the same.

His company, with no more than 75 staff around the country, is about to deepen its commitment to what it calls “collaborative leadership” by placing significant resources into a number of “capacity-building” exercises for the industry.

Soon to go live is an unbranded website, Collaborative Future, to showcase three key tools that will enable this leadership to unfold.

One will be the now well-known NABERS Google map that Cundall developed, to show where all NABERS-rated buildings are located.

Another will be the results of the company’s “cool wall” workshops that it has held across a number of stakeholder groups to tease out possibilities and strategies for sustainable urban planning, plus a tool to continue the program online.

A third will be a pocket guide to the Green Star rating tool – Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA)-approved – to provide a practical guide to experiences in trying to achieve Green Star ratings for buildings.
Wild hopes the GBCA endorsement of the website will encourage people to use it.

In an industry that thrives on fierce competition, initially this seems counterintuitive. But it’s part of a trend that Wild acknowledges is already active in the property industry and the wider world.

Property group Investa, for instance, has a stand-alone website, Green Buildings Alive, designed so the industry can share building management insights; building design company Arup recently launched the New Agenda website, with a similar focus on collaborative workshops to cross-fertilise knowledge across professions to assist viable urban community programs.

Wild also points to the crowd-sourcing technique used by companies such as Procter and Gamble to solve problems by calling on the collective knowledge of people from outside the company’s field of expertise.

For Wild, this collaborative approach is an inevitable part of the evolution of the sustainable property industry.

“It’s what we need to do as an industry,” he says.

Wild likes to quote an African proverb that’s also a favourite of Al Gore’s: “‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

“Al Gore says we need to go quickly together.

“We recognise that industry leadership doesn’t mean you have one person taking the industry forward, it’s about several people leading the industry together.”

The vision is a bit like a flock of birds, where the leadership position is rotated constantly, he says.

Beyond technology
Feedback from the cool wall workshops, he says, is that when it comes to green technology for buildings, the industry has pretty well nailed it.

“We’ve seen almost all technologies used in buildings, co-gen, tri-gen, quad-gen (tri-gen with fuel cells), solar thermal absorption, double skin façade, wind turbines, PV (photo voltaic),” he says.

“We know technology, we know how to design a building; we can do five-star and six-star… what’s next?”

The feeling in the cool wall workshops is that it’s not about the buildings anymore, Wild says.

“Human-centric” design to date, he says, has been about the impact of the work environment on the health of the occupant, dealing with issues such as indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

It’s now about a wider human-centric design, and this is the same idea the GBCA is developing in its new communities tool.

Wild believes we need to go further, and try to understand the true cost of everything we do, not just measured in carbon or energy, but in our bio-footprint.

“We spend a lot of time with developers talking about six-star showerheads versus seven-star showerheads,” he says.

One less beef burger? Seven star showerheads?

But you can go to a fast food place and eat a beef hamburger, which uses water equivalent to four months of showers to produce. (And the same amount of water that the average Ugandan consumes in 12 months).
“You could use seven-star shower heads or achieve the same result if you eat one less beef burger every two or three years.

“I’m not saying ban beef burgers, but we need to make the correct decisions. We can only make those informed decisions if we have a common measurement.”

Cool Walls

There’s another saying that Wild likes: “It’s okay to be an expert, as long as you start the conversation as a beginner.”

Wild would love to run more and bigger cool wall workshops: in government, and wider stakeholder groups to focus on issues such as sustainable urban planning, structural engineering, local councils, communities, architecture, property development, contracting and property ownership.

“The next step is we want to get a couple of people interested in leading government cool walls in Canberra, to really start to set some objectives,” he says.

Where it all began
What started this move into the broader industry and community for Wild; this passion to have maximum impact on the shape of the world to come, and perhaps prevent some of its potentially worst excesses?

Cundall’s Sydney office was founded in 2003 in Australia by Wild and Tim Elgood. Since then they have been joined by two other directors, Paul Davy and Caiman McCabe.

It claims to be Australia’s largest specialist sustainability consultancy in the built environment, with offices in most major cities, and soon Perth.

Do his fellow directors share Wild’s view of the world?

Yes. No question, he says.

The company’s vision is, “Together we create change in the world” and in fact everyone who works for the company is committed and passionate about sustainability, he says.

“We don’t have any climate sceptics in our company,” Wild says.

It’s no surprise that it is part of the vetting process when the company hires people.

It was a personal journey that inspired Wild to strike out and push further than the welfare of his own business.

He says it was partly prompted by a novel he read, Climate Wars, by former international affairs journalist and historian, Gwynne Dyer.

“It portrays a time when Bangladesh is under water for 75 per cent of the year and environmental refugees are flooding into neighbouring countries,” Wild says.

“It’s a Doomsday view but it’s connected very well into the science around climate change. It presents a very negative view but for me it drove my thinking into ‘I don’t want that to happen to my kids, I don’t want that to happen to my grandkids.’”

Wild says his personal epiphany was triggered more by resource scarcity than climate change, in which he’s always believed.

“It’s no longer for me just about climate change, it’s about peak oil, peak gas, peak phosphorous, peak bio-capacity –  – the earth’s bio capacity peak in 2030.

As he looks around, Wild sees evidence of collaboration as a movement that is growing and becoming ever more powerful.

Despite the immense challenges of climate change and resource scarcity, it is these very things that give him the passion and optimism to pursue his vision.

Will we survive? “I think we will,” he says.

The Fifth Estate – sustainable property news and forum