Why sustainability needs a long-term lens
Aotearoa New Zealand buildings and their construction contribute around 20% of New Zealand’s emissions, so there’s no arguing the need for systemic change, but what does that mean for project managers and developers? And how about tenants?
Alex Cutler, Chief Sustainability Officer at RDT Pacific is passionate about the potential for the transformation of New Zealand’s built environment to a more sustainable model and says it is about partnerships, people and using the right questions to coax out the answers that lead to better decisions.
There is this kind of beautiful chronology as to how you help people make better decisions for the long term. Sustainability is a long-term lens.
In this interview, Alex explains in more detail, the importance of understanding the longer-term impacts of the decisions we make and how that leads to better outcomes.
Where does sustainability advice fit within the bigger picture?
We want people to think about sustainability at a more strategic level. Traditionally, RDT Pacific has been known for project management and cost management, which can be development focussed, but when we collectively work on the complete picture it helps people to better understand the opportunity.
Like the portfolio context or the organisational context of how you make big capital decisions, we ask the right kinds of questions to get clients to think about the kinds of consequences they might not necessarily have considered in a linear fashion.
Quite often people jump to a development solution. They decide on a building and then go through the process of procurement and at the end of it, it doesn’t necessarily meet their needs.
This is where capital intelligence and sustainability advice lend themselves to the more strategic end of the spectrum – helping to identify the context for the development decision, how we enrich that context and help to glean more intelligence from the business and what the needs are so that the outcome fits expectations.
Before a property is purchased, how important is it to talk through options first?
We have to reconcile the fact that people respond to opportunity, buy a piece of land and then go, what do I do with it? What should I put on it?
We also have clients who have a longer-term, strategic perspective about what their organisations are doing, where they are going, and what they are going to need in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. Our role is to figure out the core concepts of that vision and how we can assist to deliver it.
So, it’s a partnership relationship and one where we often work alongside our clients over a long period of time.
Without this close relationship, it’s harder to get that kind of vision.
We can help ask the right questions, interrogate the intelligence and co-create the right answers before clients start their journey of development.
How do you help develop a long-term plan for sustainability?
Sustainability in its broadest sense is more strands of information and intelligence that we need to add into the mix, so we are considering longer-term outcomes. It’s partly about helping our clients to better understand what the market trends are, what’s going on geopolitically and environmentally, how that’s going to impact the property sector, and how we do developments.
For example, we might be behind how they are building in Europe – but we have experience in recognising those market signals and how we integrate those practices and processes in New Zealand – so we are anticipating change as opposed to following it.
We really want to help our clients to lead the change or recognise the change that needs to happen in the market rather than trail behind.
We like to think of ourselves as trying to help our clients see what best practice is or see where the edge is. It won’t necessarily be the bleeding edge, but it might be right behind the cutting edge. It is helping them to think differently about their portfolio of property and better anticipate what the world is going to require of them in terms of who their customers might be.
Universities are a good example. We can ask what the anticipated demographic of future students might be, and what their expectations are.
What demands are on industrial clients? Do they have higher expectations in such a highly globalised environment?
We want people to think more strategically because our developments can be quite transactional, and the reality is that what makes them successful is how people use that development going forward. And how flexible and durable and suited to the market it is. The changing market.
There’s a little bit of interpreting the weak signals and amplifying them. If we clarify how those signals interact with portfolio and organisational strategies and help clients line their developments up, the key internal stakeholders understand the value of sustainability, and why, for example, you are doing a Green Star rating at the end of it.
It is relevant to the board members who are looking for international certification, where certified buildings are important for GRESB and global investors. You might have a development team struggling at the coal face and not understanding the business case, so we can help them understand the broader business case relevant to the whole business and communicate it up the food chain so that board members feel reassured the business is fit for the future. It is helping them to anticipate what’s going on.
It’s also how you help each of those groups connect to each other and to speak each other’s language – there’s a strong degree of facilitation and stakeholder engagement in what we do.
How does co-design work in this context?
If you are co-designing something you have equal responsibility, you are doing it together. I would like us to get to the point where we are co-designing strategy with our clients and that they do see us as being fully invested in their work.
How do project managers make a difference?
A project manager can be the glue that holds the whole thing together – they are one of the most important secret ingredients that help to pull off the whole thing. You have got designers, engineers and contractors –the project manager pulls them all together – almost like the golden thread. Some can be reluctant to use a project manager but all the nuancing, the sequencing, the important questions to ask and the clarification can be critical to a development’s success. I think when we consider sustainability too, it’s like the green thread that runs through – we are in an aspirational space too and that’s where we’d like it to move to.
What does sustainability mean in relation to your work?
There are a number of components. Often people put sustainability into this environmental bucket – water, waste and energy – whereas actually, sustainability is more comprehensive than that – social wellbeing, economic prosperity as well as environmental consideration. The reality is sustainability is a long-term lens that you apply to all your decision-making.
So how do you anticipate future changes and how should that impact the critical elements of your decision-making now? That happens much more easily for our clients as long-term owners, but short-term developers can still apply that long-term lens to all decision-making. It’s a crucial element that the whole of the property sector will be forced to think about much more in the near future.
The Government is looking at how much carbon is embedded in the whole process of developing a building. Being able to quantify that and think about the carbon in all the different stages – you need to be making different design decisions.
Tenants also need to ask themselves why they want to be in a green building. For example, what are the wellbeing benefits that, although less easy to measure, contribute to tangible outcomes – better health, productive focus and overall culture? They in turn will have board members saying, “we need to be in a sustainable building and we need you to prove that it is more sustainable”.
There is also a broader lens, in that you have greater visibility about some of the issues say for example in the supply chain. People bandy around the words modern slavery but what does it mean to the property sector, how do we know who is making the products and materials that are going into buildings, and what kind of lives do they lead, what kind of working conditions are they exposed to?
New Zealanders are very trusting. The reality is that there are subpar supplier conditions in many parts of the world. There are poor practices that do have an impact on what we do, and we have an opportunity to influence them. Having a better understanding up and down the value chain – the longer-term impacts of the decisions that we make – is really important. This is increasingly expected of us, by fresh generations coming through the industry. That to me is the crucial thing. What are the longer-term impacts of the decisions we make and if we made different decisions that were equally based on social wellbeing or environmental justice, rather than solely financial short-term profit, how would the outcome be different? How do our decisions lead to great outcomes for society and the planet?
We need to broaden and lengthen those time horizons so that we are thinking more completely and have more intelligence to be thinking about outcomes that are better for everyone.