DLG Shape 3 Michael Manikas

Michael Manikas talks fitouts, sustainability, and encouraging more Indigenous students to be interested in the built environment. 

Michael Manikas wears many hats. Among other things, including a stint at the Green Building Council of Australia, his role as a quantity surveyor (CEO of institute of Property Surveyors) and a number of Indigenous inclusion advisory roles, he is the general manager of Indigenous-owned Australian fitouts and refurbishment company DLG Shape. 

The fitout company has been around for six years, notching up major clients such as federal government departments, including defence, which Manikas says is its biggest client. 

“There’s just so many buildings [that need attention] that it’s like the Harbour Bridge,” he says, referring to the urban myth that the “coathanger”, with its $A20 million annual maintenance budget, needs to be constantly repainted due to its size. 

“We’re constantly going through and refurbishing: kitchens, offices, accommodation, living quarters… There’s been a lot of activity”.

“The cost factor is stopping people from [investing in more sustainable options]. It’s not an investment if it’s being ripped out after five years.” 

As for sustainability, it’s important, he says, but unfortunately there’s a disconnect between the need for sustainability and the harsh reality of how office fitouts are managed.

The biggest problem, Manikas says, is the lease terms of offices – generally five to 10 years – which are comparatively short compared to the lifespan of furniture items. 

“The cost factor is stopping people from [investing in more sustainable options]. It’s not an investment if it’s being ripped out after five years.” 

The background to these structural hurdles is the current growth in fitouts driven by rising demand for flexible, activity-based working and high-quality office upgrades to try and attract staff back into the office, Manikas says. 

But the big barrier to a lot of movement in the sector right now are the supply chain issues and labour shortages. 

“Everyone seems to be blaming COVID for everything,” Manikas says. But now the excuses for delays are being “compounded by the Russia-Ukraine war”.

One of the things Manikas can influence, however, is empowering his fellow Indigenous people.

Indigenous participation in the built environment is “extremely low”.

With the fitout company, Manikas is setting up programs to donate second hand fit out components to Aboriginal-focused charities, at the same time, ticking the sustainability box by saving the items from going to landfill, sadly the fate of much office furniture captured by the parameters of commercial realities.

“I call around Aboriginal organisations to see if they need any furniture,” he says.

The Fifth Estate has explored the issues of office fitout waste in detail over a series of books called The Tenants and Landlords Guide to Happiness. This flagged industry practice of “make good” which means a tenant needs to return the space to the same order in which they found it; the tendency of the landlord to fit out the space anew to attract a new tenant and the tenant’s desire to create their own new fitout.

The other issue that hampers progress in this field is the immensely short time available to “rescue” perfectly good furniture that must be carried out between the vacancy of the premises and the legal expiry of the leasehold. It can get complex when there might be high voltage cables and partly disassembled hardware such as carpets and partitions.

See the first chapter of this series carried out in collaboration with the Better Buildings Partnership.

A Biripi and Worimi descendant from the Cook and Syron families, Manikas knows the property industry well. 

His past roles have included deputy chair of the NSW Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Property Council of Australia, membership of various advisory groups for universities and industry associations as well as a role as head of  industry development and market engagement for the Green Building Council of Australia.

In one of his current roles, Manikas directs The Dreaming Foundation, which he co-founded and which is funded by Biripi Capital to look holistically at the Close the Gap targets and provides independent sustainable funding towards all targets. 

  • See an article that Michael Manikas wrote for The Fifth Estate on a legal ruling on the Rocky Hill open cut coal mine which was rejected on climate change grounds but also the impact the mine would have on Aboriginal communities.

There is a lot of unmet demand for Indigenous engagement and Reconciliation Action Plans 

Manikas also spends a significant amount of his time fostering connections between industry and Indigenous people.

There’s growing demand from the private sector wanting to engage with Indigenous brands like DLG Shape, and there’s more and more Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) pathways available for Indigenous professionals to enter the industry. 

But the problem, he says, is that the workforce numbers simply aren’t enough to meet demand. 

With around 50 staff, and the ability to pull talent from the pool of more than 400 people around the country, DGL Shape is looking to universities to fill the gap in supply of Indigenous talent.

“I am passionate about getting more young Indigenous people into the construction sector. My focus is engaging with schools and universities, and we jump on any opportunity to do this.” 

“I am passionate about getting more young Indigenous people into the construction sector.”

The company is currently working on a project at the Williamstown Royal Air Force base. To take advantage of the location near Newcastle University, it contacted the university, which resulted in the hire of Indigenous student Joseph Stephenson to gain experience on the project.

Indigenous participation in the industry’s professions is also low, Manikas says.

He knows of just two other quantity Indigenous surveyors in the country; four Indigenous architects working in the commercial space from a pool of just 20 registered Indigenous architects according to the Australian Institute of Architects and only two or three project managers.

“It’s extremely low.”

Plenty of jobs for Indigenous professionals, but not enough Indigenous students to fill demand

The data shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander architecture and property students number 255 out of 1.5 million students. That’s an average of two or three students a year in each state in construction, Manikas says. 

The problem is not a lack of opportunities, he says, but a lack of students.

Manikas says that while he has seen many Aboriginal cohorts in universities enrolling in legal studies or health, the interest is lacking for the built environment. 

“Law is seen as something they can have an impact on. Because of issues like the female Aboriginal cohort having the highest rates of incarceration, the referendum and constitution, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and Land Rights. A lot of legal issues are attracting the smart ones into that field. 

“Health is a big issue with life expectancy rates and suicide rates. Many are going into the health sector to help with mental and physical health.” 

“How can we reach Indigenous professionals [in the built environment] if they don’t exist?” 

Attracting Indigenous talent into the built environment sector “will be a 20 year plan. It’s not something that will change overnight.”

However, this lack of students is making it more difficult for smaller companies to be able to access the talent.

“Tier 1 construction companies like Lendlease snap them up through programs like career trackers – which make it very difficult for smaller companies to meet their RAP employment targets. 

“There are jobs there for them, but there’s not enough of a cohort to fill them.  

“How can we reach Indigenous professionals [in the built environment] if they don’t exist?” 

Manikas is working with universities to develop strategies to attract school kids to enrol in university programs.

Attracting Indigenous talent into the built environment sector “will be a 20 year plan. It’s not something that will change overnight.”

The Opportunity Hub (DHUB) in Dubbo works with 1500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students over 27 schools around the Dubbo district from Year 5 upward. It runs a government-funded mentoring program that is trying to “spread the word about what can be achieved”. 

One initiative that Manikas flags as beneficial is the NSW government’s Connecting with Country draft framework, which is being used by government agencies to ensure built environment projects are connected to Aboriginal heritage.

“It is great for our people and great for the property industry… incorporating Aboriginal design into major projects. 

“This will create more opportunities and interest in the sector for young people to get involved.” 

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