Petie Walker would like to see more financial accountability in construction of sustainable buildings: “Going from 4 to 5 Star should only add two to three per cent to a project cost, from 5 to 6 star three to four per cent”

by Lynne Blundell

FAVOURITES – 21 May 2009 – For a kid who had no idea what she wanted to do when she grew up, Petie Walker has done all right. Winner of the 2008 Women in Business award for the development industry, Walker is a highly respected young project manager at Leighton Contractors, overseeing some of the industry’s leading sustainable construction projects.

It all began while she was studying property economics at Queensland University of Technology; she was not so keen on the theoretical subjects but became passionate about the nitty gritty of construction.“

My parents were in property so after starting a number of different degrees and not knowing what I wanted to do, it seemed natural to study property. I fell in love with the building subjects and never looked back.

“I loved the touch and feel nature of building – the tangibles of it after economics,” says Walker.

And there has been no shortage of hands-on work since she joined Leighton in 1997. She began working for the company as a building cadet while completing her studies. Not that there was a job going at the time – that was something that Walker had to make happen.

Strangely it was the roof of the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, a Leighton project, that helped her choose her future employer.

“I used to look at the roof of the Brisbane Exhibition Centre – I really loved the look of that building – and so I chose Leighton. But there was no job available so I let them know how keen I was.”

After a year or two of working on tenders, Walker landed her first on-site job at Oyster Cove Navigational Loch, a $2 million project.

“It was a great job in all respects. I learnt so much in six months – it was just me, the foreman and the site clerk. We were right next to a lovely man-made loch with heaps of mud crabs crawling everywhere. We’d throw the pot on and have a great feast.

“I also learnt not to pretend I knew things when I didn’t because there was no getting away with it.”

Taking on sustainability

Sustainability was not on the agenda until early 2000 and it was a new challenge, not just for Walker, but for the construction industry generally. Her first sustainable project was at the Royal Airforce (RAF) Base in Townsville.

When the Defence Force asked what sustainable initiatives Leighton would be bringing to the project it was very new territory.

“There were no real guidelines back then – we talked about site orientation, heating and cooling aspects of the project. We didn’t have any idea about the broad picture of sustainability – it was just about energy saving. We’d looked at indoor environment quality and things like transport and water in isolation rather than as  all being part of sustainability.

“It was a very steep learning curve for us, as well as for the tenants and the developer, and a lot of work went into creating a cohesive team. We employed a relationship manager to bring us all together and it worked extremely well. Now we do that for all our projects that involve an alliance.”

Once introduced to the concept of sustainable construction, Walker took to it like a duck to water. Leighton also grabbed hold of the challenge, making it an integral part of business practice, and is now a leader in sustainability in northern Australia, says Walker.

Leighton Contractors’ Green Square South Tower (left) and North Tower – two of Brisbane’s greenest office buildings

Her next project was the Green Square South Tower, Queensland’s first commercial building to receive a Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA). The project was awarded a 5 star rating for office design, which included an Australian Building Greenhouse Rating (ABGR) of 4.5 stars, and an “as built” 5 star rating.

South Tower achieved maximum points under the transport category, for initiatives such as the provision of cyclist facilities and public transport amenity.

It also achieved a high score under the water category, for the use of water efficient fixtures and fittings, water metering, and rainwater harvesting and reuse for landscape irrigation. A 90,000 litre water tank was installed as part of the water initiatives.

The next project was Green Star North Tower, Queensland’s first building to receive 6 star office rating for Office Design. The project was originally aiming for 5 star but when the team saw the opportunity to go for more, Walker priced the changes as a variation for the developer for three per cent of the contract value,

“They jumped at it and we achieved an extra star for incredible value,” she says.

Currently Walker is project manager for Leighton’s latest sustainable project at 111 Eagle St in Brisbane, owned by GPT, and also aiming for a 6 star Green Star rating.

She is particularly excited about this latest project because of its “sexy sustainability features”.

The building uses river heat rejection, which allows heat to be rejected into the Brisbane River instead of churning through the town water. Walker concedes people worried there might be harm to the environment when they first heard about the concept.

“We undertook detailed dispersion modeling with the EPA and there is no harm at all to the environment. And it results in incredible water savings.”

Other features include chilled beam air conditioning – possibly the largest application in the world at 63,000 square metre- gas-fired cogeneration, and black water recycling.

Around 95 per cent of demolition and construction waste will be diverted from land-fill and recycled, something Walker would like to see become an industry norm.

Petie Walker on a recent GBCA panel: making a difference in sustainable construction

She would also like to see more financial accountability brought to sustainable development.

“I get a little disappointed when I see stories about sustainable buildings that have been built for 30 per cent over the original budget. This was understandable when the first few sustainable buildings in Australia were built – they were the ones making a point and helped put sustainability in the spotlight.

“But the time for that sort of development has gone now. We need to be financially sustainable as well.”

Going from 4 to 5 Star should only add two to three per cent to a project cost, from 5 to 6 star three to four per cent, Walker says.

Pushing for a more sustainable supply chain

In the last few years the focus for Walker has been to bring about change in pricing and attitudes of suppliers. She’s keen to see more smaller companies stepping up to the mark. She cites cement suppliers as a prime example of the change that is occurring.“

In early 2006 when we were tendering for the Green Square South tower we wanted 40 per cent cement replacement [where cement is replaced with fly ash to help reduce emissions].“

Boral said it was business as usual and there was no commercial impost for the product but all other concrete suppliers added a significant cost premium. We refused to use them.

“Last year when we tendered three out of four suppliers said they could provide the same product for no added premium. These things need to be integral to business, not add-ons and we’re starting to see that happen.”

Other supplier such as steel manufacturers are also jumping on board, some such as Rio offering 90 per cent recycled steel. PVC minimisation by replacing it with HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is recyclable and uses less energy in manufacture, is another area of change.

As for the future, Walker is happy to be working in sustainable development. She laughs when recalling reactions in the early days when she turned up on male-dominated building sites.

“I can’t tell you how many times people thought my name was Peter Walker and the surprise when I turned up. But it didn’t take long for them to get over that – as soon as people see you know what you’re doing there is massive acceptance.

“My biggest challenges in the early days were more about being a young site engineer and not always knowing what I was doing. The biggest lesson was never to pretend – that way you earn respect and you also learn a great deal.”

And the best part of the job?

“What I like best about working in sustainable development is the type of culture it builds. Of course I enjoy the buildings we deliver and the fact that they make a difference but it is immensely satisfying to see everyone getting right into it.

“On the last project we had subbies growing trees for the neighbouring schools. There were also worm farms and recycling projects. It brings out the best in people when they feel they’re working for the greater good.”

Key points:

  • Sustainability was not on the agenda until early 2000
  • Steel manufacturers such as Rio are offering 90 per cent recycled steel. PVC is being replaced by HDPE, which is recyclable and uses less energy in manufacture
  • Going from 4 to 5 Star should only add two to three per cent to a project cost, from 5 to 6 star three to four per cent,

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.