Simon Carter: get rid of the Y2K mentality and start the process of real change

By James Paton

– 7 August 2009 – Simon Carter started thinking about sustainability long before the word became fashionable.

Growing up in New Zealand, he spent many hours on the beach and in the bush, pondering changes in the environment and the consequences of human activity. Carter, whose father is a scientist and professor at Victoria University of Wellington, talked with his family about ocean currents and erosion. While hiking, they observed native trees destroyed by possums, which had been introduced to the country in the 19th century to establish a fur trade.

“We had an appreciation of the natural systems of the world,” he said.

When Carter entered the architecture and property fields later in life, he brought that perspective and interest in the environment with him. At the firm Bligh Voller Nield, he pushed for the application of sustainable design across all of their work. Carter went on to work for property services firm Colliers International as the head of sustainability for the Asia-Pacific region before leaving late last year to launch a Sydney-based consulting firm, Morphosis.

Carter, 35, has seen the sustainability movement gain momentum in his 10 years in Australia, though he believes many companies in the property industry still take a superficial approach. Buying carbon offsets, putting employees through one-day courses and doing some branding is not enough, he said. A more thoughtful, long-term strategy is vital, he added.

“Sustainability, or green building, has enormous breadth across the Australian property industry,” Carter said during an interview recently. “Now thousands and thousands of people are involved in some way or another. But you have to question the depth.

“I think what needs to happen is a huge shift in gear. Guys, we’ve got to take this to another level and start going back to the core principles because what we haven’t nurtured is a culture of innovation,” he continued. “What we’ve nurtured is a Y2K mentality, which is, tell me what I need to do and then I’ll go and do it. A lot of people perceive that the problem is solved, which is a million miles from the truth. They’ve only just started the journey.”

In a number of cases, sustainability has taken a back seat as players in the property sector cope with the global financial crisis, according to Carter, who was trained by Al Gore as an “ambassador” to spread the former U.S. vice president’s message about climate change.

“However, in many parts of the industry it is full steam ahead, but with perhaps more of a focus on consolidation rather than expansion of programs.”

Other times, firms commit to the sustainability effort, only to fail on execution, Carter said. Too often they feel an urge to act right away and to simply check items off a list, one by one.

“The whole point is, don’t just run around implementing stuff,” he said. “There is a hope that we can solve this problem without having to go deep. It’s a sort of panicky behavior. I read this wonderful quote the other day. ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ The point is eventually you’ve got to pause and find the stuff that is really going to change the thinking.”

Carter said the conversation begins with how a company defines sustainability and what it seeks to sustain, and frequently leads to making forecasts. In a recent meeting with the board of an engineering consulting firm, Carter asked the group to predict what the Australian property landscape would look like in two years, five years and 10 years.

Motivating all employees to “take on an aspect of sustainability that really floats their boat, to find something that really inspires them,” and holding weekly meetings to keep the green dialogue going are significant steps as well, according to the sustainability consultant.

Some companies have the right idea, Carter said.

Asked to name the leaders across the broad property industry, Carter highlighted Investa Property Group, “which has achieved year, on year, on year improvements in the performance of their portfolio of existing buildings,” as well as Stockland and Lend Lease. Among the commercial property agencies, he said Colliers, his former employer, stands out.

He declined to identify the laggards.

At Colliers, Carter had a prime opportunity to influence the sustainability discussion in the industry. The large commercial real estate agencies, including Jones Lang LaSalle, play a key role, being in the middle of the action, “talking to all the various stakeholders in the industry and creating the discourse,” he said. However, by leaving the firm to become an entrepreneur Carter believed he could become “more nimble” and move faster to effect change.

Today, Carter is based in Bondi Beach. But from time to time, he returns to New Zealand, where his father, Lionel Carter, specialises in Antarctic research as a professor of marine geology. Back in his homeland recently for the Property Institute of New Zealand’s annual conference, Simon Carter addressed what he sees as the myths of green building.

One of the myths involves leasing, he said. “Just because it’s got the green rating now does not mean it’s going to perform green in the future. The second round of leasing could be really interesting. Will they have a green asset on their hands in five years?”

At the same time, older buildings can become the green models in the industry. One example, he said, is the property renovated by Mirvac at 101 Miller Street in North Sydney. The 16-year-old tower was upgraded and new technologies designed to improve energy efficiency and to reduce emissions were added after anchor tenant Optus relocated.

For companies that have struggled in the brutal global downturn, it’s difficult to accept, but another myth, he said, is that sustainability is too expensive. What many firms fail to realize is that the cost of avoiding those efforts or deferring them to another day is higher, he said.

“Avoiding spending the money now, their assets are going to lose value,” he said.

The conversation has obviously changed significantly since Carter arrived in Australia about a decade ago. At the time, “I was finding that the idea of orientating a building towards the sun was considered a radical innovation,” said Carter, who worked on an array of green properties, including Olympics projects and military barracks, as an architect at BVN.

These days, some Australian companies have figured it out and have plotted a proactive course, he said. The GPT Group, to cite one firm, estimates the ecological footprint of a project to reduce the environmental impact and used that more advanced kind of analysis in the Rouse Hill Town Centre retail development in New South Wales, Carter noted.

But the vast majority of firms in the sector still react merely to what their competitors are doing, what regulations are imposed and what their tenants expect today, he said.

Carter also expressed frustration with the “culture of consumption” that persists in society despite all the green construction going on and criticized those new green buildings that are “incredibly expensive to produce and are symbols of affluence, prestige and decadence.” He pointed to the Swiss Re Tower, a part of the London skyline, as a classic example.

“We talk about having a sustainability movement,” he said. “But it’s not really a sustainability movement. It’s an incremental reduction of our unsustainability. We’re moving forward. The work being done is really valuable. But it’s not going to be enough.”

He said that the goal, getting to true sustainability, “will require a massive shift in thinking.”

James Paton is a freelance journalist based in Sydney.
Contact: jwcpaton@gmail.com