Sustainability is “the golden thread” that winds through the entire value chain of a building, infrastructure or a city, according to Lynne Ceeney, global head of sustainability for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff. But the task is getting clients to realise it is more easily undertaken before projects go to tender, otherwise it gets perceived as an expensive “bolt-on”.
Ms Ceeney is in Australia this month as part of the company’s launch of a new sustainability strategy, one that includes a commitment through the World Green Building Council to push the low carbon buildings agenda at COP21 in Paris. The firm has also been the first professional services consultancy to sign up to the new GRESB Infrastructure initiative, she told The Fifth Estate.
The size of the firm, with 35,000 employees globally ranging from ecologists and engineers to urban planners and sustainability strategists, meant it had a major opportunity to “influence the good”, she said.
“That’s the role of a big global company. We have influence. We need to use it in the right direction.”
The GRESB Infrastructure initiative is a good example. Ms Ceeney said the investment community was now becoming interested in the sector, and the firm’s role as the first professional services partner is to help set criteria around transport and water.
She said working with investors could lead to “light bulb moments” where they understand the value sustainability can add, and the degree to which it can mitigate future risk. In turn, it helps the firm “better understand how the lending community thinks”.
The light bulb moments are crucial. An example is a project the company undertook in the Middle East, where extreme heat limits the months of the year where outdoor areas are workable. By modelling the outdoor environment around specific buildings including airflow and shading, and applying a biomimicry approach to develop a solution, a design was developed that extended outdoor life for an extra month.
That created economic, social and environmental benefits – and effectively created extra real estate that enabled the building owner to leverage better returns.
“That’s a light bulb moment,” Ms Ceeney said.
“The more ‘I see’ moments we get, the more we draw the middle forward.”
The global picture
Ms Ceeney said a major challenge is getting governments on the same page worldwide regarding a low carbon future.
COP 21, she said, was interesting due to the large presence of the corporate world, something she sees as positive.
In terms of both policymakers and private sector clients, there’s a need to get people to look at the benefits of sustainability.
Clients need to be told, “This project is going above [minimum] regulations because it will be beneficial.”
There are leaders and laggards, she said, but 60 to 70 per cent of people were in the middle. And if the leaders take two steps, then the 60 to 70 per cent will take that one step – and that will have a massive cumulative impact.
One building that took the two steps forward approach is the Zero Carbon building in Hong Kong. A demonstration building, it’s low-rise and hosts substantial rooftop solar photovoltaics, and also has surrounding green space to enhance biodiversity and address urban stormwater drainage.
Ms Ceeney said it had become a drawcard for office workers to go there and have lunch, and this in turn has enabled the building owner to charge higher rents for cafe spaces in the building.
Opportunities for innovation in financing are starting to appear. In California, for example, High Speed Rail is being financed through carbon pricing, as the HSR will help the state achieve its goal of an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 1990s levels.
In the UK, a tunnelling project that created a large amount of excavated soil was coupled with a project to use the soil to create new bird habitat, with the mounds strategically positioned so they buffer the surrounding urban area from storm surges.
This type of integrated thinking has to be the way forward, she said.
“What we’ve got to get to is those that are commissioning projects to look at the bigger picture before drilling down to the details,” she said.
This is something that is already starting to occur in some parts of the US and Europe, she said, due to the mayoral model. She thinks the new Greater Sydney Commission might also show a more holistic approach.
Projects need to be looked at the same way, she said. Budget is something that comes up a lot with clients, when elements specifically framed as sustainability initiatives are perceived as “bolt-ons”.
“In a tender, if you add ‘sustainability’ to it, it is automatically seen as more expensive,” she said. To circumvent this, the firm has focused on developing long-term working relationships with clients, so those conversations can be had before the tender goes out.
“It is [usually] too late at tender. We need to be having those conversations before people commission projects,” she said.
The higher up the conversations occur in the decision making process, the better, as that’s when consultants can add value, she said.
“The problem is when it’s a transaction at the end of the pipe.”
Ms Ceeney compared reframing the sustainability imperative to someone going to the doctor with a health concern. Despite the fact they are obese, have heart problems, and admit to a bad diet and unhealthy lifestyle, if the doctor then says, “Okay, keep doing what you’re doing.” and simply treats the heart problem, without addressing the lifestyle, that is not a good doctor.
A “good general practitioner approach” also means showing clients economic drivers they can understand, that show the value of sustainable approaches.
“That’s the creative side,” Ms Ceeney said. “So many people think of it as a tax instead of a value thread that winds through everything.”
One of the strategies the firm uses is looking at the trends that make a client or project “future ready” for the next 50 years, including climate change, resilience, technology and society.
“We look at the business model and value chain and how we plan for that for the next 50 years,” Ms Ceeney said. “We need to at least be cognisant of what’s coming over the horizon.”
An example is the electric vehicles trend, she said. As the number of them on the roads grows, cars will cease to create as much noise and pollution. Take away those factors, and suddenly the picture changes for property near roads.
These are the types of conversations that need to be had with regional and local governments, she said, and this process is “opening up the silos”.
Future trends also impact the value and usefulness of individual buildings. For example, if a chemical manufacturer puts up a “cheap building” that cannot cope with temperature rises, and those rises impact the integrity of the industrial process, it shows that building something “decent” could be more cost-effective in the long term.
People need to think long term about the lifecycle of buildings, Ms Ceeney said, and that includes looking at long-term use and also reusable buildings.
The challenges for cities
In the bigger picture, densification and urbanism are major challenges worldwide, and at the core of addressing them are resilience, sustainability and liveability. To address those challenges also means asking what are the compromises people living in cities are prepared to accept.
Ms Ceeney said she hoped navigating the community’s concerns and big picture issues would lead to higher standards for development.
People are much more aware, she said, of some of the negatives that come with density, such as lack of amenity, growing rates of obesity, compromised health and wellbeing and lack of green space.
The precinct approach, she said, was a “maturing” way of more integrated thinking about cities that looked to the city of the future and approached it in a more holistic manner. It’s looking at a city being like a brain and shifting towards smart cities.
But getting from here to there means dealing with the type of short-term thinking she saw in the 1990s when working in the north of England, where she saw people burning their floorboards simply to keep warm.
“They were not thinking long term, obviously,” she said.
And because the word “sustainability” doesn’t work for all clients, or all people, she said the conversation had to be more about “benefits”.
“So, we’re not talking about ‘climate’ [to the community]; we’re talking about making their home more efficient.
“My job is not to have all those conversations with clients myself. My job is to equip 35,000 people with the right tools and information to have those conversations.”