INTERVIEW, ENGINEERING: Engineering consultancy Norman Disney & Young (NDY), has helped guide some of the most ambitious sustainable building projects both in Australia and overseas.
At the same time the company is in the process of reducing its own operational emissions, and looking to achieve net zero by 2026 across scopes 1, 2 and 3.
The company recently released an ESG report, outlining its commitment to a range of the UN’s sustainable development goals, first and foremost of which was reducing environmental impact.
Global sustainability director Mark McKenna says while the company was already carbon neutral and committed to achieving net zero status for its operations by 2026, what this actually meant remained unclear.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity around carbon neutral versus net zero.
“The way we look at it is carbon neutral means you can purchase high quality offsets to compensate for emissions that you generate, but it doesn’t really place any onus on reducing your emissions.
“Whereas net zero you’ve got to actively commit to reducing your emissions, irrespective of the fact that your business might grow, you’ve actually got to keep reducing even as your business gets bigger.”
In NDY’s view, McKenna said paying for carbon removals projects was key to delivering on the pathway to net zero.
“It’s a really contentious subject at the moment globally, but that’s what we’ve landed on,” McKenna said.
There’s a range of carbon removal processes to choose from, ranging from highly technological direct air capture, to nature-based processes like tree planting and even ocean-focussed solutions.
The cost difference between offsets and carbon capture projects is immense. According to McKenna, high quality Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) go for around $20-30 a tonne, whereas initiatives like carbon capture and storage can price from $200-300 a tonne.
“It’s a pretty complex area and to be honest there’s so much conflicting information out there from the markets themselves so we’re treading pretty carefully in that space,” he said.
Even for the experts in reducing carbon emissions the practicality of achieving net zero emissions is extremely challenging.
“Greenhouse gas emissions run all the way through all of the components of your business, from the printers you buy, to the energy you purchase, to travel, software and hardware, as well as just getting to and from work, that’s part of our scope three footprint. So we’ve got to take ownership of things that we don’t directly control.”
All this certainly doesn’t mean it is something the world can afford to shy away from. McKenna says that Covid could have created an ideal smokescreen for businesses to put sustainability on the backburner, but many have remained committed to their goals, including NDY.
“It would have been really easy for us to ‘tools down’ while everything kind of worked itself out during Covid,” McKenna said.
“But the challenges like supporting communities, supply chains, modern slavery, climate change, all of those things we still need to act on them otherwise they’re just going to keep getting bigger.”
McKenna said one of the more encouraging changes he’d witnessed in recent years was a kind of trickle-down effect, with smaller businesses that aren’t as beholden to public and shareholder expectations, following the example set by larger companies on sustainability.
“There are many companies, developers and major clients that are expected to do the right thing because that’s what their shareholders ask, so that’s long been the reason for why they’ve acted on sustainability,” he said.
“But the level below that, where they don’t necessarily have to do anything because they’re not required to report, or there’s no legislative requirements that they’ve got to meet. We’re starting to see some of those types of clients coming through, because…they feel like there’s an imperative to do something.
At the same time as tackling its own emissions, NDY currently has around 300 projects it is involved in where sustainability is the main remit.
“We operate in three distinct areas,” McKenna said, “advisory, in buildings and in master planning and infrastructure.”
Earlier this year, The Fifth Estate reported the company assisted Kador Group subsidiary Kamirice achieve the first ever WELL Platinum certification for an existing building, thanks to the hard work of NDY’s Hayley Koerbin who is also an accredited WELL professional.
Other major contributions to projects in Australia include the expansion of the War Memorial in Canberra, creating new commercial and retail space in NSW’s historic Locomotive Workshops and the Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre PICAC training centre in Narre Warren, Victoria.
The tradesperson training centre is Victoria’s first all-electric net zero energy education and research facility thanks to a unique combination of geothermal energy wells and the use of 779 solar panels.
Shane Le Combre, PICAC chief executive, described NDY’s expertise in engineering and sustainable buildings as “invaluable” to the success of the project.
“PICAC Narre Warren is a model facility, demonstrating to the industry how energy-smart technologies can be integrated into building design,” he said.
McKenna said while better energy creation and efficiency were important, one of the main frontiers for boosting sustainability in the building industry currently was tackling embodied carbon and supply chain emissions.
With an eye to addressing this, a number of major projects under the guidance of NDY are large-scale timber constructions, including the International Quarter building in London, the new academic building Perth’s Murdoch University and the City of Greater Geelong’s new civic precinct.
“The carbon impact of energy is becoming a well trodden path and the focus has been on that space for a while, but the actual supply chain of buildings is still a bit underdeveloped. So that’s a really big focus for us,” McKenna said.
“Not that timber is the solution on its own but the focus is definitely on decarbonising the construction of facilities as well as the maintenance.”
McKenna said while his company can’t prescribe specific products to be used in projects, they can advise for strategies to reduce impact such as the modularisation of major components.
“We’re consultants so we specify performance, we don’t specify products,” he said.
“But having said that when you’re talking about low-carbon buildings you inevitably have to talk about the suppliers because there aren’t a lot of people offering low carbon building products.”
Maintaining low carbon commitment through the building process
McKenna said another hurdle was maintaining the performance of a design right the way through the construction process.
“There’s a lot of different ways to get the same outcome and things like embodied carbon are not necessarily at the forefront of contractors minds,” he said.
Therefore, companies need to show a commitment to their goal right the way through the construction process and get ensure that goal and the processes associated with it are maintained.
“Even just the way that buildings are constructed, the staging, the equipment used, the efficiencies on site, that all forms part of the embodied carbon of the building, so everyone has to be committed for sure,” he said.