On the Great Disruption Mark II, elections and life marching on

16 May 2013 – According to Craig Roussac, the anti-“green” anti-“sustainability” sentiment washing through the corporate world right now is all par for the course – The dip before the next next phase of the cycle. What’s coming, he says, is The Great Disruption Mark 11.

About to hit the industry, he says, is sophisticated technology that can turn massive quantities of data into fine grain knowledge unlike anything we’ve seen before. It will provide hard evidence for what, till now, has mainly been felt to be a good thing.

Roussac’s company, Buildings Alive, is precisely about collecting and interpreting data related to the environmental performance of buildings.

Set up just last November, the company now has eight full-time staff, including a Russian doctor of science (with qualifications oh just a touch more demanding than your average PhD; see below), and 50 buildings it monitors. Roussac himself has recently been awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, which he will embark on early next year at the University of California, Berkeley.

So you can see he keeps a close eye on what’s going on.

By this stage, you might be getting a sense that Roussac isn’t too fussed with the scale-down of sustainability jobs in places such as Stockland, which we wrote about this week. A massive nine-and-a-half full-time equivalent jobs culled from a previous team of about 14.

Roussac doesn’t think it’s part of a backlash. It’s more like a new phase he says, a consolidation. “Safety used to be a focus then it was quality. And then environmental performance. It’s just the innovation cycles.”

Way back in 2008 when he set up the sustainability team at Investa he wanted to call it something to do with “research and innovation”.

We get that when it comes to energy and building technology, but sustainability is about broader concepts, like social sustainability and equity, isn’t it?

But the data analysis disruption won’t stop at the technical side of property, he says.

The amount of information that can be captured from social media sources such as Twitter alone is changing the game.

“If you look at social research 10 years ago, you would do your surveys and get responses with relatively small samples and make some sort of conclusions. Now we see studies that use 500 million tweets for their data.”

“So now you can measure positive and negative effects on people based on massive data,” he says.

“Social science is being turned on its head with all this data.”

The problem, he says, is that sustainability until now has been more about a set of values than measurable outcomes.

“Sustainability has been about beliefs and ethics, and ‘yes, we believe in this stuff’, but the next phase is about evidence.”

But times and technology march on and now there is the evidence to measure and identify the good and the bad. Not just in the realm of building systems but in the impact of the design of buildings and the built environment on people.

And if you doubt the value of evidentiary data a quick glance at who Roussac is getting aboard his good ship green buildings will put paid to that.

One, the Russian scientist we mentioned, is Dr Serguei Zavtrak. He has a PhD and DSc in mathematical physics from the Belarusian State University, which required publication of at last 50 academic papers outside of the Soviet Union. He has 100 published academic papers. Zavtrak is also a former deputy director of science at the USSR’s Institute for Nuclear Research in Minsk.

Another of the new staffers includes Mitra Bahadorian, a systems and R&D engineer who has just completed a PhD in predictive control of mobile robotics.

Interestingly, all of Roussac’s staff, except himself and company co-founder Jesse Steinfeld, didn’t previously work in buildings.

It says so much about where the world of buildings and property is going.

What these people are also doing is figuring out the human impact in building operations.

The world of convergence is no longer an idea. It’s happening now.

Andrew Mather

Election blues

Is it really? There’s a dearth of guts and fire in the belly around the country except for NSW and Western Australia, it seems. State governments are running cool or cold. But even in places such as Queensland, the noise on the street is that premier Campbell Newman had better start spending some money before the next election or he could face the kind of wipeout he sent Labor’s way at the start of last year.

WSP’s Andrew Mather, who has a global outlook with his company, now under the banner of Canadian owners, says markets have tightened “quite a bit” in Australia, but for no particular reason that he can work out, except that there is an election looming.

South-East Asia is also in slow-down mode, but it’s hard to see why. Africa, being resources based, is also understandably slowing, while Canada, also resource based, has slowed down but not to the same extent.

“China is still going strong for us and part of the reason people say Australia is slowing down is because China is slowing down, but I don’t see that. Here I think it’s more political uncertainty causing the current mood and the concern that if they elect a new government will it cut hard to get back to surplus.

“The long run-up is hurting Australia.”

But what the fuss is about is hard to work out. After all, the deficit is just 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product, he points out.

The bigger issue is why the government insisted it would deliver a surplus right up until December last year, he says. Everyone would have understood if it had said, “Times are tough, we need some stimulus.”

In infrastructure there is definitely slow public sector spending, particularly in WA and Victoria.  But in NSW the purse strings are loosening.

“NSW is the shining light at the moment. But in WA, too, the state government is putting ‘quite a lot of money’ into the giant Elizabeth Quay  project.”

The nice word about WA is that the conservative state government is proactive on requiring sustainability outcomes for projects.

“WA is being very mature about that.”

Staff-wise, there’s been some minor cuts but more than outweighed by new hires, Mather says.

David Parken

Architects say post-election outcomes will be positive

At the Australian Institute of Architects, chief executive David Parken was preparing for his institute’s conference on 30 May in Melbourne and the Built Environment Meets Parliament summit in Canberra on 26 June, organised with other industry organisations in the built space.

Parken says there will be opportunities for more sustainable outcomes in urban issues – whichever major party wins – after the September election.

“The Coalition doesn’t support intervention unless there is a proven market failure, but they do understand that they’re the ones that set the national standards in terms of urban issues. I’m hopeful of Greg Hunt, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage.

“There is a number of people in the Coalition who understand that cities are important.”

Asked about the pressure on fees for architects that we’ve heard about lately, Parken says there’s no doubt that’s the case but “it takes two to tango”, he says.

In the end it’s about “selling time” but it’s “pretty unfortunate to hear that some people are seeing sustainability as an optional choice with some reports (such as from Davis Langdon) that prove the cost and business case for green buildings, and that they do deliver higher returns, are future proof and are a quality product.”

Parken thinks that on a market activity basis, the NSW residential market is expected to kick off after being subdued for a long time. Especially if the state government does deliver on planning reform.

“A lot of it will be infill [housing].” The forecasts are for a 40 per cent jump in construction in the next three to four years. While in Victoria it’s expected that housing construction will be down by 15 per cent compared with the last five year averages.”

But Parken says some of the fear of the mining slowdown needs to be taken in context.

The fact is that mining investment will stabilise at about $100 billion a year. In 2002 it was at about $20 billion a year.