Alex Harrington at The Fifth Estate's Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts Sydney.

The property sector’s sustainability agenda has had a strong bias towards environmental sustainability. An enviable track record of over a decade of NABERS Energy ratings has driven a level of commercial competitiveness unparalleled in other industries or countries.

During this time over 72 per cent of Australia’s office space has been rated, accounting for over 383,000 tonnes of CO2 abatement. This is a commendable achievement that has driven a market expectation that buildings are efficient in terms of their level of energy use.

While many have questioned the integrity of rating schemes, particularly when they become integral to an organisation’s marketing program, they have offered a fundamental benefit for sustainability. Rating tools provide a framework for consistent metrics and benchmarking. They may not get everything right but to be without them is akin to travelling through foreign lands without a Babel fish.

Globally, the expansion of indices like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Global Reporting Initiative have expanded the reach of a common language around sustainability performance. As a result information has become critical to organisations seeking community validation of their environmental performance.

The rise in social media and global communications has driven an increasingly level of transparency and accountability for corporate entities in ensuring a high standard of environmental performance. Beyond the property sector, the growing level of corporate disclosure and the ability to rapidly share information has expanded our knowledge of broader environmental impacts.

Appreciating the risks of exposure to every day chemicals like phthalates, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds has evolved from a foreign scientific concept to an immediate recognition and awareness today when we encounter that familiar smell (never mind that children of the seventies spend much of their childhood deeply inhaling our flotation arm bands just before we jumped into the water). Today’s scientists too are uncovering more and more how the chemical world infiltrates our day to day in a way that will only increase our sensitivity to potential environmental hazards, with new research identifying that we absorb phthalates through our skin just as much as we do through our lungs.

Do we need to shift focus?

The response to these impacts is not to go live in a controlled environment bubble, but it does raise the question about the shifting focus from environmental performance as an outward focus to how our environment affects humanity. The question then becomes what are the metrics the industry should be expanding in order to demonstrate a positive benefit for humanity?

In 2014/15, 1414 buildings were rated against NABERS Energy; a two per cent increase on the previous year but for the same period only 34 buildings were rated for Indoor Environment. While the IE ratings fell by 22 per cent for the same period last year, even then only 44 ratings last year suggest indoor environment quality does not have the market significance of a NABERS Energy rating. But surely indoor environment quality has a far greater effect on humanity than the degree of energy efficiency (suspend for a moment the broad health impacts of coal burning for the purpose of this discussion)? Particularly as we typically spend over 90 per cent of our time indoors.

This raises the question about whether the property sector (or any other sector for that matter) is identifying and leveraging the opportunity to positively contribute to the state of humanity. This question extends further when considering the broader social impact of property.

Our world is rapidly changing. The world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property and similarly the world’s largest taxi fleet owns no vehicles. We are more connected, in real time and globally than ever before. Yet social network connection is not a panacea for loneliness, equality or opportunity. It is just more visible when we succeed or fail at these things.

Ubiquitous computing is here and we have more data on us, about us and for us than ever before, yet we use only a fraction of what we have access to. The celebrated start of ubiquitous computing began in the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre in the 1980s. One experiment was to have a light signal to everyone in the centre when the coffee machine had brewed a fresh pot. The result was a gathering of people at the coffee machine that resulted in a level of information exchange not otherwise facilitated through the daily work processes. Naturally the experiment was more about the technology angle at play here but what about the human interaction benefit, and can this be valued?

There is a danger in our pursuit of specific performance achievements that we fail to quantify the broader benefits or consequences of our actions. This is particularly true for social consequences when the metrics are less defined, used and established.

Even when it comes to more relatively simple measurements of indoor environment quality, the numbers suggest there is not yet the competitive drivers for uptake. It remains to be seen what will happen with new initiatives such as the Well Building Standard. The elements of NABERS IE are consistent with a significant part of the Well standard but the industry has not embraced this as a human benefit imperative. Typically the sector is more attuned to benchmarks that offer stronger marketing capability so perhaps Well (and its owner Delos) will have an advantage.

If property is about bringing people together without compromising human health (and ideally enhancing it) in a way that increases human connection, productivity and happiness, then why is this not more broadly part of the value proposition?

Alex Haarington is chief operating officer at The Warren Centre.

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  1. Thank you for opening this discussion Alex, I believe the social impacts are integral to sustainability and are greatly undervalued by our industry. In my opinion, sustainable communities are also inclusive communities. Communities that value the participation, and contributions of all its members.

    We are going through a period of significant social change, with the advent of the NDIS approaching. There will be unique opportunities to include previously segregated and isolated community members into mainstream communities, and workplaces. This also presents a unique opportunity to enrich the lives of our most vulnerable people, whilst we also benefit from their contributions.

    There are many opportunities for our industry to support this change, including:

    Allow the opportunity for a developer to trade off building amenity for community amenity, where SEPP 65 requirements are waived for the provision of community housing / services.

    Another example, the GBCA can recognise the community benefits of inclusive play spaces in their communities tool. Inclusive play spaces can absolutely transform communities, by creating opportunities for inclusion, and changing negative community attitudes towards disability.

    Our vision for sustainability must include the desire to empower, value, and encourage the participation and contribution of all our community, including the most vulnerable and marginalised.

  2. Interesting that you look at the everyday toxic chemicals but not the new range of toxic refrigerants been promoted as low gwp.

    Today we have a range of natural refrigerants that will reduce energy of airconditioning by up to 50%.

    Why are people not following the safety guides of toxic flammable refrigerants? If systems leak all this refrigerant will be dumped into offices.

    People need to be very aware of the new refrigerants and ask why your plantroom does not comply.

    1. Agreed, refrigerant gases get nowhere near enough airplay….given what you point out, and the inevitable leakage. And then there is the issue of the massive GWP of synthetics.