For tradies working to hard deadlines and budgets to construct buildings off predetermined plans, it can be hard to see how they can contribute meaningfully to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. The 10 founding signatories of the Australian Builders Declare movement, launched last week, are on a mission to shift this attitude and encourage the industry, which employs around 9 per cent of Australia’s population, to do its bit.

Last week, a group of 10 passionate building and construction businesses declared climate and biodiversity emergencies, making Australian builders the first in the world to do so (as far as the founding signatories are aware).

There’s now 70 signatories and counting – numbers the founding signatories are pretty happy with considering the movement is competing with a global pandemic for attention.

There are murmurs that European builders are set to follow, with tier 1 global construction company Multiplex a driving force behind the climate emergency movement in that region.

Australia’s Builders Declare movement, which calls for industry-wide mobilisation to protect the world from the twin emergencies of catastrophic heating and biodiversity loss, was started by Aligned Building, Sustainable Homes Melbourne, Granted Construction, Positive Footprints, Michael Limb Builders, Sanctum Homes, G-Lux Builders, RICCON Development & Construction, Green Building Institute and Crisp Green Homes.

The founding signatories contacted by The Fifth Estate stress that the door is open to all players – big and small – in building and construction, including building designers, builders, suppliers and tradespeople. So far, the list is dominated by smaller specialist builders, although the invitation has been extended to the major tier 1 builders as well.

Developers have also been invited to get involved, which now looks to be the missing link in the built environment declare movement (surprisingly given how strong many developers are on sustainability and climate), with Australian architects, engineers, planners and builders now on board.

One founding signatory of Builders Declare is the Green Building Institute, a provider of training and education for sustainable building.

Manager at the company Daniel Wurm has long been passionate about sustainability, but he told The Fifth Estate that what really drew him to the declare movement was the lack of trades people sighted at the climate strikes in September last year.

Purposefully flying the high vis colours himself as he marched the streets, Wurm asked a few tradies still working on sites why they weren’t joining the march.

Their response? “Well, what can we do, we can’t just stop driving our utes?”

Wurm says it was this sense of powerlessness and fear in the industry that prompted him to join declare as a founding signatory, armed with the knowledge that builders can in fact play a pivotal role in combating climate change, especially when the global building and construction industry accounts for nearly 40 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and contributes to a lot of habitat loss.

“Even though it’s a declaration of the climate emergency, it’s not a negative message. It’s recognising that there’s something we can do and do about it,” he says.

Like other declare movements in the built environment, Builders Declare can be broken into two components: Reducing the ecological footprint of individual business operations (through offsets and other measures), and cutting down the emission and biodiversity losses associated with the final constructed products.

There are plenty of tradespeople who “can’t wait” for an affordable, viable electric alternative to the standard ute

Neither are particularly easy in an industry that is fairly resistant to innovation and change, says Simon Clark, one of the founders of Sustainable Homes Melbourne, another founding signatory of the movement.

But there’s signs the industry is warming up to change. Wurm says there are plenty of tradespeople who “can’t wait” for an affordable, viable electric alternative to the standard ute, for example.

And while some might argue that designers have control over the embodied and operating emissions of a building, anyone who’s been on a building site knows that the finished product can vary a lot from the intended design.

It’s this discrepancy that prompted some of the leaders in the Architects Declare movement to prod a few of the more sustainably-minded builders to start their own declare movement, and commit to construction techniques that align with their strong environmental performance designs.

This might involve taking care to avoid leaks for an airtight envelope and selecting lower emissions materials such as CLT or recycled bricks.

But Wurm recognises that it won’t be easy when the industry faces systemic issues, such as impossibly tight margins and time frames to complete projects, which pressures builders to cut corners and costs wherever possible.

Critically, Clark says the Declare movement will offer the highly competitive industry a place to come together on an issue that requires cooperation to solve so that they can learn from one another.

“The real strength of having the network of builders and architects that have declared is it will be a brains trust to unlock best practice.”

Clark says that many builders are still not skilled up on constructing with more sustainable materials such as cross laminated timber, and that having a forum to share these skills and techniques will be valuable.

Wurm agrees, and says it’s already been exciting to get like-minded builders talking about the challenge of lowering the environmental footprint of the industry.

The other big challenge for built environment professionals is getting clients on board with achieving climate and biodiversity goals, which is tough when many still perceive high environmental performance as a sort of sacrifice (more expensive, no airconditioning).

Clark says it’s about educating the client that there needn’t be a sacrifice and that there are in fact many benefits to more environmental builds, including lower bills and improved comfort and health.

The group is still in its infancy but it will be interesting to see whether it will play a role in conversations about regulation, such as pushing for high minimum energy performance standards.

Learn more and become a signatory at the Builders Declare website.

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  1. Assuming that tradies always ‘follow the plans’ is the biggest mistake the industry has made in what has been a ‘top-down approach’ to greening the industry. Lots of decisions are made by builders and tradies, not designers or developers, and that is why taking action needs to start with the boots on the ground.
    Communicating the message of climate change action also needs to start with the boots on the ground. Tradies are very skeptical of people in suits telling them how to build.