Nadia Salajic, Hickory Group

On Matthew Clark and Direct Action, the missing Major Cities Unit and the kind of manufacturing we really need

12 December 2013 – Holden sacks thousands of Australian manufacturing workers. Melbourne based Hickory Group picks up a small number of these and throws up a nine-storey apartment building in five days.

But then the building was modular, constructed mostly indoors in factory conditions, and assembled on site, like lego blocks, the apartments stacked one on top of another. It’s a totally different ball game to regular construction. Not something for an ordinary chippie to turn their attention to in an afternoon.

According to marketing and communications manage for Hickory, Nadia Salajic, “It’s a different sensibility. With manufacturing you’ve got to design everything up front; you’ve got to order everything up front and you’ve got to warehouse everything.”

Modular takes quite different set of specialised skills to do properly. It turns out automotive workers have it in spades.

Salajic says, “In the last 12 months we’ve hired 20-30 people in manufacturing from the automotive industry. It’s a good time to take on those people. Builders are construction trained and we need someone trained in manufacturing.”

So while the pollies and the newspapers are bleating about whether or not we should have saved another Aussie icon (that’s 100 per cent American owned) and lines Holden up with Vegemite and Arnott’s biscuit, there’s not much talk about doing the positive thing and casting about for an Aussie icon that’s worth subsidising to the tune of $150 million a year, which is what Holden wanted, until it can rocket along on its own, like a Commodore.

Hickory reckons it’s onto a good thing, and quite frankly it seems to be pinching itself that it has so little competition. Its first big splash was with the Little Hero mid-rise apartment block inserted quick time, block by block in a tight Melbourne laneway. The cognoscenti in building and design world were impressed.

Why not the pollies and the media? Tim Horton, Adelaide thought provocateur in these matters got blank looks at ministerial advisory level when he put forward an idea for a kind of Button plan for innovative sustainable building materials instead of cars.

Hickory Group has been around for a while.

Brothers Michael and George Argyrou founded the traditional apartment construction division 20 years ago, and their team on the company website looks like one happy bunch of operators. But then why wouldn’t they be?

They’ve been building up a line of product that is on a growth path. They’ve got a stack of projects to demonstrate that their pre-fab construction is fare more than someone’s start-up short-lived fantasy, including an entire hotel for the Art Series, a $50 million mix of private and social housing in North Coburg, with solar passive design and grey-water recycling, rated six-star for energy efficiency; an apartment project in the Pilbara that has concrete-free footings (no digging); and even a wind power station at Elaine in country Victoria.

Why wouldn’t this lot be smiling? This is a company on the move.

The modular team has rebranded its operations from Unitised Building to Sync Building Systems and is now 150-strong, and there are 450 people in the conventional building operation.

The company recently added a new pre-fabricated line, Sync Building Systems, which produces modular bathrooms. One recent job was to supply Brookfield Multiplex with 245 bathrooms for its the new 307-bed St John of God Hospital in Midlands, Perth.

Salajic says the pre-fab bathrooms are indistinguishable from regular bathrooms. But the savings don’t quite materialise because people tend to plough the savings from the pre-fab methods into upgrading the finishes, she says.

In modular construction the biggest advantages are in waste minimisation and building time, which translate to lower risk and potentially lower finance costs. It’s the kind of all round benefits to the economy and the planet that make sense.

And that’s before you think of the aching-wrench of a subsidised automotive industry, overseas owned, suddenly deciding to desert an industry and thousands of workers – not to mention the spill on effects – because the exchange rate didn’t go its way, or so it said.

Matthew Clark

Matthew Clark jumps back into business with some Direct Action

When Matthew Clark left his role in heading up NABERS a few months ago there was serious disappointment from some senior people in the sustainable property industry who think he had done a great job treading that tricky path of encouraging private industry action through the right government policy settings.

They can relax. He’s back. Along with former colleague at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Henry Adams, Clark has returned after a long sojourn in Asia, ready for work – and it’s with a new consultancy that will specialise in government policy and sustainability.

The new outfit, Common Capital, will work with both the private sector in helping to put its case to government and with government agencies as they try to foster the right kind of private sector responses to their needs.

The good news is that the new team is already pitching in where it’s most needed right now, working with the federal government alike on how to shape its Emissions Reduction Fund, part of the Direct Action policy.

And gee, we know it needs some serious help, judging by comments in our recent coverage of Direct Action.

And of course you can only criticise for so long. The really important thing is to help shape a thing that’s still not shaped and make it work best you can. After all there’s a pot of money there, why not help make it work?

With the ERF (get used to that acronym folks, Erf…) Clark is helping to provide advice on “how it could be more effective, and helping other people frame their ideas [in submissions to the government] so they can communicate them more effectively” , he said on Thursday.

Among the interests that Common Capital is working with are the Insulation Council of Australia and New Zealand, which is keen to put insulation back in the spotlight of energy efficiency where it belongs, the Energy Efficiency Council, the Property Council, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and the Energy Efficiency Certificate Creators Association.

“A lot of what the government is trying to do is to understand where it can work more closely with the market rather than going and doing it by themselves,” Clark said.

And what better example of that than the NABERS program? Where the objective of the government was to provide “credible information and advice” as Clark put it, and help the industry lift its building performance game.

“We’ve got quite a lot of experience in working with government and also with partners in industry.

“Our core skills are working between the two.”

Clark says the government is keen to get a green paper up soon on the ERF, before Christmas even, and for the scheme to be running by June or July.

Another area that Clark’s new outfit hopes to work on is in the residential area – how to engage interest in energy efficiency in the same way perhaps that NABERS did for commercial.

“There is a lot of opportunity there,” he says

We agree! (Bug off Chevron)

The Major Cities Unit

What happens to a Major Cities Unit when it’s suddenly not so major any more?

It’s a mystery.

It came up in conversation with the Lucy Turnbull interview last week and if Turnbull didn’t know what hope was there for the rest of us?

There have been media announcements that the Major Cities Unit had been axed.

The media said it was axed, we probably thought so, (Okay, we did think so).

Well it seems that though the unit itself is actually not existing any more (there’s a difference between that and “axed”), its spirit is still alive and kicking, though not entirely visible and not entirely engaged in the real world.

For now, it seems, it’s been traced to a kind of disembodied existence in a kind of half life, renamed the Planning Analysis Branch, but without being given any physical activity to do, which as we know can make you quite invisible, at best blurry and cloudy.

There is talk of another tranche of the State of Australian Cities report, but what the scope of this will be under the New Feds is not clear.

Even more intriguing is that this invisible or blurry unit or branch of about 15 people is growing, and it’s acquired a few people from the high speed rail ex-branch, and even some from the regionals ex-branch. (All sort of existential questions pop up here: does growing something that isn’t all there make it more “there”, or give it more meaning? Can you have a part of a “meaning” or purpose? Perhaps half-hearted purpose?)

Of course bringing such elements together: cities planning, fast trains and regions is in theory exciting. It smacks of the holy grail of planning – integration. And common sense – even more exciting.

The old crowd, when it was fully visible which merits we call it “old” since we don’t know what it’s new reborn shape will be, managed to resurrect an urban design protocol, provide a set of nine criteria that various cities could use voluntarily to assess their metropolitan and capital cities planning systems, and had some nice co-operation from the Capital Cities Lord Mayors to help.

Maybe those very visible CCLM people will gallop to the rescue.

In any case not all is lost. It could be a new government finding its feet, starting to realise that the entire business world wants to be rational and sustainable and wants a plan and a purpose in its infrastructure, physical and intellectual. And that those business leaders (we’re looking at you Jennifer Westacott) who tell it it’s okay to wreck everything that sounds like “climate” or “carbon” or “sustainable” or any of the above, are actually being a bit deceitful. A quick look inside most corporates will find  internal strategies that at least aim to be sustainable. If not, then by definition, they won’t be around for long.

The women and the men agree, too much unconscious discrimination, and no we don’t want the unconscious one either.

Feedback on a great article by CBRE’s Amanda Steele in Spinifex that went viral a few weeks back, Amanda Steele: on gender balance and sustainability  has been exciting and inspiring by the strength of its support, Steele said this week.

Steele reports “hundreds of tweets” on the article and loads of calls and written support to say the  article, which addressed a bubbling cauldron of discontent from women in the property industry, was positive, humourous and struck the nail precisely on the head.

What was most gratifying Steele said, was the number of men who contacted her saying, “I’ve benefitted from this and I’m conscious of it and feel bad.”

“They also wanted to say they enjoyed the sense of humour,” she said.

“There are a lot of men in our generation who can absolutely see that kind of discrimination occur – unconscious discrimination more and more and that their gender has benefited.

“So I’m really pleased with that response.”