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