The Green Building Council’s yearly Transform conference was held on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. As usual, there was as much interesting content off stage as on. 

The crowd was energised, happy, positive. So energised, in fact, that some of us might have feared our internal Eveready bunnies would finally run out. But no, each of the sessions that our team attended on day one, the networking breaks and the chat at drinks later to celebrate 20 years of the Green Building Council of Australia, yielded yet more energy – to connect more, learn more and imagine even more myriad possibilities for the future.

Two years of exile from human contact will do that. 

But the kind of optimism we saw on Wednesday is hard baked into the sustainability world; it sort of goes with the job. 

What’s different this year is the clear spread of interest in this space. No longer will sustainability people be able to say they’re knocking on the doors at the big end of town but that no-one’s listening.

There’s been a new crowd milling around outside the space for a while and now some of them have started to stroll right in. (Like they own the joint.) Let’s call them investment bankers. And their consulting vanguards.

The first clue was the head of a big building outfit who told us that, just that morning, he’d delivered a talk to 150 investment bankers. Why? Because they wanted to hear all about building materials and embodied carbon.

The second clue was the news that top engineers are being poached, not by competitors, but by the same monied bunch. Why? Because if you’re a big investor and you tell your stakeholders your expensive property portfolios are clean and green, you’d better be able to prove it. 

Ticking a box is no longer enough; the fear of greenwash is too great these days to risk dodgy numbers. You need someone who can “look under the hood” and knows what they are talking about.

Just wait ‘til the bankers and financiers need to start proving their nature/regeneration credentials. That will be fun.

There’s a third indicator, but we know this one already. Sustainability experts are already hot property, commanding salaries of up to $300,000 or more, with companies at the big end of town. 

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense, even without the talent drought.

There’s enormous amounts of capital swirling around the globe looking for a home. And what better, safer asset class that guarantees irreversible growth than anything that helps save the planet. 

Facebook might fade, oil and coal have surged in price but it’s a last gasp thanks to the evil of war. But the one thing that excites, has a long-tail dividend and no downside is anything that will keep this planet alive and beautiful. 

It’s like the location and scarcity value in property – no-one’s making any more of it. So you know that anything that adds to clean the air and water, a great and safe place to live, and a city that’s buzzing with health and vitality is a pretty good investment bet.

It nicely fits the narrative that’s driving capital markets and their risk analysts. They want whatever gives them the biggest bite of the cherry in an increasingly uncertain world.

Suddenly sustainability is no longer like Cinderella moping around at home, hoping someone will value her integrity and kind heart; it’s the belle of the ball. (And attracting the attention of the rich prince.)

On stage, the brain gain was in full view.

Under the skilled hand of the moderator, GBCA chief executive Davina Rooney, we heard about EY’s introduction of mandatory green leases into its offices. Four years ago the idea of green leases was a bit “meh”. Today, Selina Short, managing partner for real estate, hospitality and construction in Oceania, says it’s a given. “Four years ago, I’m going to be honest, [sustainability] was part of the conversation, but it was over to the side,” she said.

“I can say with absolute confidence, if we were having that same debate now, it would be a very different conversation. Not only the governance, the structures and the contractual elements that we’re putting in place, but also the mindset of the partners.” 

At the investment management end of the commercial market Denis Coupland, managing director of real estate management services at Colliers, demonstrated on stage his crowd were fully aware that sustainability equalled quality and continuous improvement.

It’s good too to see the real estate agents on board for sustainability. We’ve always maintained that the property consultants are the most influential people in the industry. Their job is to have super tuned antennae so they can tell their clients which way the wind’s blowing, what kind of building is in demand, the size of the windows and what view they need to have. In resi they will tell the hapless home owner what granite benchtops to have and what shade of beige to paint the walls. It wasn’t so long ago the agents looked really uncomfortable if you cornered them at an event and asked them about the “s” word.

Even the car makers, responsible for one of the biggest chunks of our emissions, aided and abetted by the oil industry, that have dominated our urban planning and traffic management, massive road infrastructure and the way our retail outlets turned into vast single purpose shopping centres, are moving in. 

Closing the first day of events was the giant Volkswagen company keen to demonstrate it was a new comrade in arms, and wanting now to now help save the planet (and its business, it must be said – existential threat will do that). And good to see the company’s Australian boss Paul Sansom was not afraid to take a gutsy step to dismiss the hydrogen solution embraced by some of his competition, when he pointed out the tedious machinations involved in producing hydrogen as opposed to the elegant simplicity of plugging in something at home with energy created free on the roof.

“Even before hydrogen begins to power a vehicle, it has to be produced, compressed, chilled, transported to the hydrogen station, and some 38 Watts of the 100 Watts of the original electricity remains.

“With the greatest respect to certain car manufacturers, if your bet is on this technology rather than EVs, you’re backing in the wrong horse,” Sansom said. 

There was so much good “meaty” material on offer to feed the intellect at Transform, the mostly vegetarian fare during the breaks made an eloquent point. 

Davina Rooney’s hand was evident throughout: calm exterior and a sense of strong intellectual machinery at work under the surface. A bit like watching Ash Barty on centre court: graceful, effortless serves and volleys; each smashing home point after point.

But there was emotion too.

The session before lunch that brought together the founders of the movement to honour its 20th birthday might have been in danger of saccharine sweetness. Instead, it galvanised and strengthened. And it did that magical thing when someone taps the personal emotional synapses that can unleash an unending storehouse of energy – the secret weapon of any transformative movement.

It’s never logic and structure or plans alone that change the world – it’s crazy thinking

David Gottfried has got all of that in spades. He’s the man who dreamed up the original idea for a green building movement. Beamed in from the US on Wednesday, he credited fellow like minded thinker Ché Wall—who he met at a conference in Mexico City in 1998—with providing the spark to turn his musings and ideas into something more material. And not long after we saw the powerhouse of Maria Atkinson who—with Wall—co-founded the GBCA, with Tanya Cox becoming its longtime chair.

Gottfried’s message to the younger folk was that they now carry the responsibility of the movement. No more competition, he urged. Today needs to be all about collaboration. We’ve run out of time.

He noted the ample science and technology that we have at our disposal to save this planet. (And let’s not forget the rivers of capital looking for something useful to do.)

What’s still missing is our willingness to harness the most wasted resource on the planet, Gottried said, in a message that rammed home: our brains. Our amazing capacity for imagination and great leaps of possibilities; our minds’ enormous plasticity. We need to do whatever it takes to unleash that capability, he urged.

Let’s take a lead from this man who had that crazy idea in 1998 to save the planet through our buildings and cities.

Tina Perinotto

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  1. Sustaining an unsustainable system does not make for a more sustainable future. It sustains the unsustainable making it a ‘sustainment’(Tony Fry). The ‘greenest building’ in the systems of our unsustainable society is only perpetuating the unsustainable economic, urban fabric and cultures we hold tightly to – we all are perpetuating this false economy on the long tail of commercial consumerism hoping not to change too much in order to have a future for our planet. We need to be careful not to perpetuate the GBCA green star approach as a panacea for our problems: that is misleading and fooling people: and aiding and perpetuating the unsustainable systems we are trapped in. There needs to be a break in the cycle. Not perpetuation of it. It’s not hydrogen or electric – it’s about not buying cars. It’s not about more houses (NatHERS or green star) or more expensive air conditioned buildings (green star or otherwise) it’s about less air conditioning and less building, and locking up more land for biodiversity and biosphere preservation. Changing what we do – less economic growth focus.