The Sydney Opera House is among a select few World Heritage-listed buildings globally to achieve green certification. When we earned a 4 star Green Star – Performance rating last year, it sent a message that green buildings need not be new. Even the most iconic, historic and challenging buildings have a part to play in reducing our impact by being high-performing, energy efficient and sustainable.

Naomi Martin

There’s a lot to do. Today, some 340 million square metres of commercial and public building space in Australia needs upgrading. Yet the general consensus in the property industry is that the task is too costly and too complex. Despite operating costs of about $27 billion a year, many people view it as “too hard” to improve the sustainability of these buildings. This is simply not the case.

In six years, the Opera House has gone from an organisation without a public sustainability commitment and only a basic recycling policy, to an organisation with a number of sustainability initiatives that drive its environmental and operational performance as well as its artistic programming, including some of the world’s leading environmental thinkers and speakers such as Naomi Klein, David Suzuki and the animated eco-hero dirtgirl.

I believe if you can green the Opera House, you can green anything. So how do you tackle the challenges of implementing sustainability in a non-traditional building?

1. Use the unique character of your organisation

We’re incredibly lucky that the Opera House was built with pioneering sustainable design. Our seawater cooling plant installed 40 years ago still serves the building well and saves an estimated 15 megalitres of water a year while the chilled ceiling in the Drama Theatre cools the room efficiently and silently.

As a performing arts centre, our heritage listing has proved both a challenge and an opportunity. When our 363 Concert Hall lights were upgraded to 100 per cent LED bulbs, we saved 75 per cent on energy usage as a result of the new fittings – while maintaining heritage values and improving theatre performance.

The project, six years in the making, had a number of innovations built in: we used heat sinks rather than fans to avoid creating noise into the theatre; we took advantage of a heritage setting that mimics the warm incandescent lights original to the venue; and a temperature-monitoring facility reduces the risk of failure. This project has contributed to a 10 per cent overall energy reduction over the last five years.

Elsewhere in the building, staff have developed safe and green cleaning methods to protect our heritage bronze and concrete surfaces, using olive oil and baking soda.

Looking ahead, sustainability will play a central role in our “Decade of Renewal” – a program of works that will preserve the Opera House for future generations of artists, visitors and performers. We are currently working with an environmental consultant to identify sustainability opportunities including measures and targets to be adopted and reported on by the Opera House and those engaged on Renewal projects.

2. Show them the money

Every sustainability initiative needs to deliver value to an organisation. Comprehensive records such as electricity, fuel, water, waste and paper usage are your friend – being able to track improved efficiency of resources such as this demonstrates tangible value to your organisation.

Since FY2001, the Opera House has achieved a 16 per cent reduction in energy use, saving an estimated $400,000 annually in energy costs. Since its implementation, the Concert Hall lighting upgrade has saved nearly $70,000 a year.

Tracking savings can also help justify smaller initiatives. For example, the Opera House held a staff paper diet competition in November 2014. The paper-saving ideas that were submitted will save $12,800 a year, all from an outlay of less than $400 on prizes.

It’s not just resource efficiency that saves money – savings also come from labour efficiencies. Prior to the Concert Hall lighting upgrade, the lights in the ceiling lasted 300-1000 hours, and needed at least three people to change them safely. As well as providing endless opportunities for the joke, “How many theatre mechanics does it take to change a light bulb?”, this was challenging work. Now, the 50,000-hour lifespan of the new bulbs equates to a saving of more than $300,000 in labour, which can be diverted to other tasks each year. And the joke still works, just only every nine years.

Grants are also a great way to support organisational change. The Opera House was lucky enough to get an NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage grant for energy efficiency in 2011, which built capacity in our the building team to deliver energy efficiency projects and delivered valuable results to support further internally funded sustainability projects.

3. Trust your instincts

When implementing sustainable change, it’s important to respect that your fellow employees know their craft, but you should also trust your instincts – particularly when people say, “It’s just always been like this,” or, “It’s never been a problem before.”

When I started at the Opera House I asked whether we could change the lights around the dressing room mirrors to more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. The production crew questioned this because the cool-colour temperature of a fluorescent bulb versus warm incandescent stage lights can make the artists apply their make-up too orange.

I later found out the facilities team had in fact already changed these lights over to a warm fluorescent bulb, but hadn’t told anyone.

While some might say the lesson here is in communication, I think the more important point is that sometimes change doesn’t necessarily have to be bad – you just need to be willing to challenge the status quo and explore alternative ways of doing things to get the right result.

4. Learn to surf

Like trying to catch a wave, put yourself in the way of the big projects and try to jump on. Sometimes you might feel like you’re struggling to stay afloat, but other times, you will get a long way quickly.

In 2015, our new head of contemporary music and Vivid LIVE producer Ben Marshall wanted to make the 2015 festival the most sustainable yet. We trialled a number of modest initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint – food surplus to OzHarvest, back-of-house recycling checks, fuel-efficient limos and reusable water bottles to encourage less bottled water. We also purchased 100 per cent GreenPower, tracked unavoidable event-carbon-emission and purchased offsets. In no time at all, we had the support of the entire organisation from the social media and publicity team to our Food and Beverage tenants.

Events such as Vivid LIVE are what the Opera House does best. Find what your organisation does best and think about how you can make sustainability part of it.

5. Trials are good

Some argued that the low-carbon initiatives undertaken for one-off event such as Vivid LIVE 2015 did not go far enough, but the fact is trials such as this deliver great value and get people thinking.

Vivid LIVE 2015 was the first time we convinced all food and beverage operators at the Opera House to donate edible excess food using a shared fridge. From the success of this pilot, a new shared OzHarvest Fridge will be placed in the Opera House’s new underground loading dock in early 2016.

Back-of-house recycling checks also made a significant difference to our recycling rates. By simply having someone watch and give a chocolate every time food and beverage staff returned uncontaminated recycling to the waste room, the recycling rate jumped 200 per cent to 400 per cent from non-monitored days. These results have informed new plans for waste monitoring to be implemented in early 2016.

Our initial trials of energy-efficient lights leading to the Concert Hall upgrade are a case in point. I encourage you to jump on opportunities to start small, measure impact and then use successes to spur on bigger projects.

6. Don’t forget social sustainability

For some organisations the greatest opportunity to do good may actually be in social, not environmental, sustainability. As part of the Opera House Reconciliation Action Plan, Indigenous programs have been are embedded into our activities. This provides opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in programming and education initiatives as well as employment and training, while promoting broader cultural awareness.

The Opera House is also committed to providing universal access for those people with a disability.

7. Know how you measure up

Find an externally verified measure of performance that is meaningful to you. Until the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star – Performance rating, the Opera House struggled to find a rating system that could provide a relevant external benchmark of our unique heritage building and complex organisation.

As well as being accountable to the latest industry standards, another key benefit of an externally verified benchmark is its ability to communicate a metric of success within the organisation and beyond. I could be providing in-depth detail of our energy savings to blank stares then say, “And we got four stars!”. Wow, four stars – that’s awesome! No way! Gee wiz, four stars? Get yourself a rating, and people will buy in.

8. It’s not about you

The take-home message – whether in a standard office building, or in a non-traditional building such as the Opera House – implementing sustainability in an organisation relies on recognising, rewarding and supporting everyone to embrace sustainability as part of everyday business.

When I look across our organisation there are so many people actively making a contribution to our sustainability commitment. There’s Nat, who every week takes manual Indoor Environment Quality measurements across the building; Katherine, who is teaching the finance team how to do digital signature stamps to reduce paper; Simon, who is managing a project to upgrade our BMS and chillers; and our Green Champions team, who promote staff engagement to our 800+ employees. Everyone plays a part.

But it’s not just about championing our people; the Opera House is an icon. As a symbol of modern Australia, the Opera House is in a privileged position. We have an opportunity to demonstrate sustainability leadership to help influence change across Australia and send a message that improving sustainability is possible, whatever building you are in.

Naomi Martin is environmental sustainability manager at Sydney Opera House.

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