Chris Buntine

Something Chris Buntine has observed in his first year at Northrop is the increasing appetite for sustainability in the industrial sector. 

The sector is booming thanks to the rise of online shopping, with more automation meaning more workers are occupying offices to manage the facilities. 

This is creating demand for office space in industrial precincts that is as comfortable and sustainable as premium-A-grade office space in the CBD.

The ambition, he says, is well matched by his organisation, which is “very committed” to climate action and has added several new recruits to the sustainability team in recent times.

“They’re taking it very seriously all the way up to the CEO and all levels of the organisation.”

Buntine, who joined Northrop a year ago as sustainability group manager after leaving Aurecon where he was sustainability leader for nine years, says that even through the disruptive forces of the global pandemic, there’s been an increase in ambition on climate action and sustainability. 

This has been across the board – from developers, investors, consultants and governments – with little in the way of scaling back.

The ambition is in place, but the industry isn’t equipped to get there

Unfortunately, he doesn’t think the built environment industry is set up to meet the lofty goals.

“I don’t think the built environment is geared to deliver on the expectations of the community around climate action.”

He says the way projects are procured and specified is the problem.

To this day, Buntine says sustainability is still effectively a box ticking exercise. Green Star rating tends to be specified and then the project teams fall back on the same familiar criteria in the credit matrix to achieve that standard. (He says the updated version of Green Star released this year is much better)

The biggest problem is that these kind of briefs don’t encourage an innovative design-driven approach to achieving best-in-class in sustainability, which is what is needed to achieve carbon neutrality and climate resilience in buildings.

“Many are still dealing with the older version of Green Star, and industry is able to do that without changing the process much.”

But as buildings need to address rising climate risk, zero waste targets and high levels of wellness, the industry will need to get much more ambitious. 

“We really need integrative design, but that has been discouraged with the way sustainability has been described in the brief.”

Ideally, Buntine would like to see the new Green Star tool coupled with a compelling sustainability brief, and a culture and process that ensconces the entire project team in delivering on big picture sustainability goals.

“We’re really hamstrung as a consultant in the sustainability space: We’re asked to achieve a Green Star rating, embed energy efficiency. It’s almost a sentence in the design brief.”

And in a very competitive sector where sustainability is still seen as an extra cost, it’s hard to push beyond the minimum level specified by the client.

“That is essentially how Green Star is treated.”

He expects this will change as more value is placed on all electric, renewably run buildings: people will want to work there, and therefore investors will want to invest in them.

Builders are the next frontier

Buntine might be optimistic about the trajectory of the built environment to take action on climate and sustainability, but says builders are yet to show the same appetite as the rest of the industry. 

He says investors, developers, consultants and governments are all stepping up to the mark but the aspiration from builders on sustainability and climate action remains lacklustre.

“Outside of the Tier 1 and a few boutique residential builders there is little in the way of bold goals or action on sustainability.”

It’s uncommon, for instance, for mid-sized builders to have a sustainability team or organisational sustainability strategy “despite sustainability being part of many of their jobs”.

He thinks builders have a massive opportunity to capitalise on the investment flowing into sustainable, high performance buildings.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for more builders to make a commitment to carbon neutral and sustainability leading buildings, which will strengthen their business and brand.”

Engineers Declare gearing up in 2021

Buntine is also heavily involved in the Engineers Declare movement as its coordinator. He was also on the steering committee responsible for mobilising Engineers Declare and the Engineers Declare Act.

The movement has spent its first year getting its feet by growing the network across capital cities and regions. The focus for those signing up has been “getting their own house in order” by ensuring that their own company’s operations are carbon neutral. 

Next year will be about capability building and influencing low carbon outcomes in the projects that engineers work on. This, Buntine says, is where engineers can really make a difference.

Part of the capability challenge will be skilling up engineers outside the sustainability team in low carbon design. Buntine says other engineers tend to know very little about sustainability, with no formal training or education in sustainability required to work in these disciplines. 

“An example is if you talk to a structural engineer and ask them what the carbon footprint was for the last structure they designed, very few structural engineers will know the answer.”