Digby Hall

After all these years I still get that little shiver of anticipation when I receive a request for a tender proposal titled “sustainability” or “ESD” – that’s my thing, my passion, my business, and I know I’m good at it. Yet, with unfortunate and increasing regularity (you’d have to be Australian to understand), my shoulders eventually slump a little when it’s revealed that the tender is really only focussed on energy efficiency or Section J (which for those outside Oz is our building code’s standard for minimum energy performance).

The thing is – we already do this on every single project – because to reduce energy consumption in a building or on a campus or in a city is to save money for our client and ultimately their customers. It’s a financial no-brainer, and the wonderful thing is that what might have been a costly innovation 10 or 15 years ago (think solar panels with a 20 year payback) has now become the financially responsible thing to do (think solar panels that now have a 5-7 year payback, without subsidies).

Wherever I look now, building owners are installing PVs simply because the costs have plummeted and the returns keep getting better… pile on the disruptors of battery storage and electric cars (love your work Elon) and these returns will continue to improve year on year. This virtuous economic cycle is already self-sustaining and even political skulduggery won’t stop it.

My issue is not that Energy Efficiency is a bad thing – of course it isn’t – but when it’s the core of a sustainability brief it often becomes a distraction from issues that are far more pressing and challenging – such as social return on investment, community & asset resilience, and climate change risk. Energy Efficiency is not a proxy for all of these other dimensions of sustainability, but nowadays it’s an easy win and I’ve seen too many clients and project teams pat themselves on the back for having made a “green building” simply because it consumes less energy, and that’s where they stopped (post-construction cigarettes all around).

Rather than being a distracter in the Sustainability brief, “Energy Efficiency” needs to be relocated and treated for what it is – fiscal responsibility. When energy cost reductions can pay for a university’s entire research grant budget or for new beds for a hospital, that train of thought tends to gain its own momentum.

Our sustainability agenda now needs to mature into the deeper challenges that, if not addressed, pose risks with much greater consequence than only paying for more energy:

  • countering greenhouse emissions (which is different to energy efficiency)
  • building social prosperity and shared value
  • knitting communities together through resilience planning
  • human health and wellbeing
  • addressing poverty and leaving no person behind

All of these things are still measurable and can be traced back to a balance sheet, but they are much more complex, time consuming and challenging. They’re also more meaningful. They require not only design and technical expertise but an equal measure of communication and engagement skills, holistic thinking, empathy and care.

You can wrap energy efficiency up in whatever spin you like, but it still comes down to the fact that reducing energy consumption saves money, we have a rapidly expanding arsenal with which to achieve this at a good return, and we’ll deploy that arsenal on every single project whether you ask for it or not… after all, making a good return for a client is sound marketing practice.

We might even surround ourselves with highly energy efficient buildings (which of course we need and of course it’s still a challenge with some clients), but if we don’t get these other things right then we will still lose the game… we will miss this moment in time in which we have the ability to create beautiful and truly sustainable cities and communities.

If you’re writing a “sustainability” brief for a project, place “energy efficiency” into the various design disciplines and focus instead on all the other things that we’ve been distracted from. Your brief might seem a little smaller, but it might also have more meaning. It might even give your project the edge it needs.

Digby Hall is principal sustainability consultant with Umow Lai

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  1. Great article Digby! I definitely know your pain. I remain encouraged seeing more clients than ever before who value ESD initiatives that go beyond energy and emissions, and now seeing so many ESD professionals across the industry, many of which are now on the client side – a testament to how much leading clients now value such expertise.

  2. Well said, Digby. I see applications coming in every day for new residential and commercial buildings that have barely addressed energy efficiency and don’t even pay lip service to any other sustainability criteria. Developers in particular continue to be driven by yield based on getting the most number of dwellings on a site rather than considering the market for larger spaces suitable for ageing in place, people with disabilities, etc (who can afford to pay extra in our area). There is absolutely no understanding of the health and wellbeing impact of VOCs, lack of views and tiny spaces. They are leaving a 50-100 year legacy of poor physical and mental health and transferring the high cost burden of living in these buildings to the occupants.

  3. Valid point – going beyond the low hanging fruit and becoming a leader in energy is something local councils have REAL capability to achieve. We have seen it in the amazing work that Adelaide are doing and there an opportunity for others to follow.

    That is why the conference focuses on business and financing models to do this and look at the opportunities beyond the obvious. Explore community energy and emerging technologies.

    Would love to chat about this as it is certainly something I would like to see highlighted further at my event below:


  4. Great point that energy efficiency should underpin all design across disciplines as the base point and wider sustainability needs to be tackled also.

    Unfortunate that energy efficiency and renewable energy generation are conflated though. Putting PV’s on a building does not make it energy efficient.

    I would also argue that energy efficiency is the major issue that needs addressing deeply for new buildings to help mitigate climate change. Buildings contribute around 40% of CO2 emissions, and a significant portion of this is from heating and cooling buildings. Deep energy efficiency can cut this by 90% and result in much healthier and more comfortable buildings for users also.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to make this point so clearly Digby.
    The issues you raise are often in my mind but it’s great to have it articulated so clearly and precisely – a reminder of why so many of us are attracted to this space in the first place – and the future we must continue to strive for!

  6. Come on, how about we all get real about new build vs existing and the fact that most GHG’s in the built enviro are in B,C and D class buildings. Mostly those owned by High Net Worth types located here or overseas who simply spend the bare minimum on upkeep to maximise their yields and then offload the asset in 3/4 years or less or a nice capital gain.
    These asset owners care as little as Abbott does about reducing emissions or really addressing sustainability at its heart.

  7. Great to put Sustainability back on the agenda in the built form, where energy efficiency has taken the spotlight for the last 10 years thanks to our building code. Whilst our Code promotes very basic design features and thermally efficient building materials into the mix, it needs to be remembered that it sets a minimum building standard. Those of us involved in the building design industry need to promote the benefits of passive solar and passive design principles and incorporate the life cycle of materials and products to embrace Sustainability objectives.

  8. Thanks for putting the elephant in the room in the spotlight! Being on the interior side of a building, these issues have been of major concern to me (and many others!) for a long time. For example back in the ’90’s Graham Treloar (may he rest in peace…) recognised that the embodied energy of churn in office fitouts outweighed the overall energy consumption of a commercial building over its lifetime – imagine the discrepancy in these figures now with energy efficient buildings! The social and well-being issues are however the main point here… no point having a wonderfully sustainable building with unhappy and unhealthy people in it!