If the future is biomimicry, Brookfield’s James Murray-Parkes has already arrived
Tina Perinotto | 20 March 2018
It’s people like Brookfield Scientific Solutions’ James Murray-Parkes who change the world. Brilliant mind, tough past, enough chutzpah to do what no one’s done before. He has the tools he needs at his disposal: a global platform, the most influential economic sector of all – property – and a really supportive boss.
When James Murray-Parkes invites you to come to his office and meet his team you know it will be important.
First Murray-Parkes leads Brookfield Scientific Solutions, owned by notoriously media shy Brookfield Asset Management, so the invitation is unusual to say the least.
Next, you’ve recently discovered, Murray-Parkes is the brains behind a string of innovations in building design and technology that for most mortals is head-spinningly new or downright incomprehensible.
For instance: the two 40-storey towers in Crows Nest-St Leonards in Sydney’s lower north shore that will be off grid. Completely. Powered by human waste.
There is also the story of using the profile of owl wings to radically reduce wind shear from building facades. This means you need far less of planet-devouring concrete to create ballast and stop them swaying so much in the wind.
There are sceptics. Naturally. People want to see the evidence: how will the technology work? What are the details?
We convey some of the burning curiosity. Murray-Parkes is not quite blasé, but almost.
The US has several off-grid mid-size buildings, he says, and if you want to build in New York you have to think that way anyway, because power and sewerage infrastructure is overloaded.
“There are several ways of going off grid. The one in Crows Nest is amazing, but so is the one we’re doing with Cbus at 77 Market Street [in Sydney].”
At Market Street, the building will look normal but will have radically fewer materials, steel in particular.
I first meet Murray-Parkes just before Christmas at the intriguingly named Off the Grid Festival in Melbourne, which was supported by Brookfield. We’re introduced by Sydney Architecture Studio’s Ken McBryde, who is designing the Crows Nest project.
Murray-Parkes’ office on Melbourne’s Southbank is large. A giant blackboard covers an entire wall, and is itself covered in arcane mathematical formulae. I’m asked not to photograph this.
The team worked on 48 projects last year and 88 the year before. This is black box territory. Murray-Parkes is happy to talk about innovations but the details of the technology belongs to his employer, he stresses. I can tell he’s conflicted. There’s the need to share forward momentum on sustainability and the need for proprietary knowledge to be kept under lock and key for commercial reasons.
I tell him we respect other people’s IP but that our job at The Fifth Estate is to spread know-how and any insight that can fast-track sustainability.
We have a deal: I will check and double check details, respect anything “off the record” (of course) and anything personal, and he will tell his story.
Over meetings at the office – what he calls the “maths lab” – at his private studio across from Federation Square where he does most of the invention, and in subsequent phone calls, we build some trust. The reward is a fascinating view of the world from the perspective of a very bright man who has the tools to create radical innovation in our built world.
The conversations range from building physics inspired by biomimicry, to mathematics, and the best university in Australia for physics and engineering. We don’t quite get to the meaning of life, but close. The universe, he says, is made up of circuits – connections. It’s nature, how living things work and interact with this planet that fascinates and inspires him, and which, he says, hold the key to solving the environmental challenges that confront us.
It’s the observations of insects and how they move, of spiders weaving webs to stretch their precious filaments to create great strength and how this has inspired the roof of the Rod Laver Arena, for instance.
There is observing the flexible skeletal frames of orangutans, or a blade of grass to see how its slender shape and elliptical way of moving means it can survive the strongest wind, then asking how this can be applied to a physical structure.
It was at home in the hills of Olinda in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges that Murray-Parkes was surprised by an owl that landed by him with not a stir of air. He searched the internet and found scientists had carried out experiments with a tray of goose down and observed that while other birds easily disturbed the down, owls did not.
Giant tulips create a microclimate
In Monmouth, New Jersey, Murray-Parkes has come up with a design for a sustainable outdoor heating solution that looks like a crop of giant tulips. The concept is extraordinary. In a place where it can be bitterly cold he’s invented a way for people to shop outdoors.
Imagine a very tall structure with an open spherical shape at the top lined with solar collectors that melt ice and snow and funnel water down a chain into a reservoir below where it’s heated by elements powered by the sun and then circulated back up pipes that form the shape of the “tulip”. The result: a microclimate.
He calls all these ideas or inventions “solving problems”.
The design of the future is written in the past
In some ways, building design is moving to a “post-architectural world”, he says.
You’ll still need architects, but “the new design – the design of the future – is written in the past, in nature, and resides in understanding that thoroughly”.
“In other words: biomimicry.”
It means designing buildings that need fewer materials.
“If I can pull lots of materials out of a building that don’t have to be there, you can get big environmental savings.”
He points to Australia 108, Australia’s tallest building that the Brookfield-owned Multiplex is currently constructing, and which we can see from his office window.
The building has a lot of innovation, he says, but importantly it’s going to use a lot less concrete than it would normally, because of reduced windshear.
“The biggest thing we worked on was wind,” he says. “We can work out seismic issues pretty easily. There’s lots of data in New Zealand and California, but the wind is something we don’t know a lot about with structural engineering, so we put in big safety factors.”
The Three Oaks
Murray-Parkes is big on happiness.
One of his favourite places for inspiration is around three big oak trees he knows in Fitzroy Gardens, right near his townhouse.
It’s now a favourite meeting place for the team, and naturally it’s dubbed The Three Oaks.
“The grass banks up the trees like a natural recliner and you can sit there and just notice things: ‘Look at how that bird is cleaning itself; look at the shape of its wing.’ It just inspires something.
“Or you’ll be laying there and a bug that you haven’t seen before starts crawling up your arm and you pick it up to put it somewhere safe and you’ll say, ‘That’s an interesting bug. I wonder how that lives,’ and you might start following it around in the grass with your eyes.”
That’s the kind of observation you need to do biomimicry, he says.
“Understanding the elliptical energy pathways theorem, that’s how we design buildings here now. It’s like an inverted pendulum; it moves in a series of ellipses like a piece of grass in the wind. This way it uses less energy and less material.
“These are the things you have to understand if you want to save the planet.”
Real scientists care about sustainability
If you are a scientist and don’t care about saving materials and being sustainable, then as far as Murray-Parkes is concerned, you’re not a real scientist.
“If you are real scientist you are an environmentalist, it’s just logic.”
It’s also crucial to remember buildings and places are also about people and creating a happy community where people work. That way they’re more likely to look after the part of the planet they can have an impact on.
“If we have a happy community we’re more likely to want to protect what we’ve got.
“If you get people in a positive frame of mind and don’t upset them they will all probably start to do good things and unearth what’s causing the problems – things that no one even thought about.
“If people are grumpy and pessimistic they’re more than likely not going to solve the problem.
“We don’t respect the planet because we don’t respect ourselves. The planet is a by-product of how we respect each other.
“Vision is an amazing thing. When you’re angry, you don’t see the thing that’s disturbed you; it’s like covering your eye.
“But when you’re happy you see a lot.
“I’ve never designed anything when I haven’t been happy.”
It’s clear Murray-Parkes practices what he preaches.
During our first interview I’m invited to sit in on the daily 4pm team meeting to share progress and open collaboration.
It’s a Friday and Murray-Parkes chips in with gentle questions about the team’s personal life, what they’re doing on the weekend, and a reminder to send some positive texts to other team members who have just put in some gruelling hours at Wangaratta, in country Victoria, on demonstration low-cost housing for clients in the US.
The building, he tells me later, will prove you can build things very fast with not much by way of materials.
“It’s a leaner design with less mass. It will look and feel like a big solid steel building but very light – just like a race car – but super strong, because it’s gotta keep you alive.”
Murray-Parkes started his group about five years ago after Warwick Johnson from Brookfield Multiplex happened to hear a lecture he was giving on forensic engineering.
He was in Sydney with Laing O’Rourke at the time, working for Andrew Harris who heads the company’s technical unit.
“I stayed in that job as long as I could because Andrew Harris is a legend to me. A lot of people helped me but he really plucked me out of what I was doing and said, ‘Come and do this. This is what you are wired to do.’”
Some of his background, he says, includes much poorer career choices – military design, the automotive industry and car racing among them – but in fact the eclectic exposure helps him solve problems.
In the military he designed, among other things, a connection system for a large gun turret.
“It’s an awful thing to be working on, but good things came from it. I learnt about dynamic loads, for instance.”
Other members of his team have worked for the military. One invented a laser guidance system for NASA’s space shuttle and also weapons.
“He doesn’t want to do that any more. He’s an environmentalist.
“We’ve done things in our past because that’s the only place we could get a job.
“Brookfield has enabled us to do what we want. We get paid more to do stuff that we want to do as opposed to what we thought we had to do just to have a job.”
If it’s not the military that scoops up the most talented, it’s academia.
“The best people are hidden away in universities and they’re suffering.”
Murray-Parkes is himself a mathematician and a professor of engineering, and worked his share in research and teaching at universities.
“If you come out of uni in Australia in particular and your major is applied mathematics or applied physics or you’re a particle physicist or string theorist or whatever, you’re going to be an academic. There are not many other places to go.”
So, we ask, how many places like his team are there globally?
“I don’t know. Not many.”
He says the centres of excellence in Australia are in Melbourne.
“I think the best physics department in Australia is at Melbourne [University]. I’m not from here, I’m from Western Australia and as patriotic as I am about my home state you’ve got to speak the truth, right? And the best physics department is Melbourne’s Ray Volkas. I reckon he’s one of the best teachers and most of my staff came from Ray. I get my physicists from Melbourne and my engineers from Monash – they rank number one by a long shot.”
Murray-Parkes provides glimpses of his more personal background but prefers most to stay private. He is currently writing a book in which he will tell his own story.
Some of the tough issues he’s faced were because of his high-performing mind, in the almost typical way that very high intelligence can be a gift that comes with its challenges.
Murray-Parkes is fulsome in his praise for his employer for enabling his work and the creation of the team.
Few people, he says, know “what it takes to get a group of people like us together”.
So where does the inspiration come from within the company to support such level of innovation and sustainability?
Murray-Parkes is clear. It comes from the top, from the reclusive chief executive of Brookfield Asset Management Bruce Flatt, who, despite running a company that has US$270 billion (AU$350b) of assets globally, lives a modest life to rival that of Warren Buffett.
Here’s how Forbes described Flatt:
Modest home? He lives in a two-storey brick townhouse barely set back from the sidewalk. Humble office? A drab grey cubicle, positioned against a window looking onto a courtyard of an office complex that Brookfield owns. Contrarian outlook? The only piece of art visible from Flatt’s desk is a framed cartoon depicting a herd of white sheep moving toward a cliff as a single black sheep heads in the opposite direction.
He is strongly loyal to the company because of the sustainability leadership and because they own “a big part of the planet”.
“Are we doing a good job? No big company is perfect. I reckon we can do heaps better and we’re doing a better job every year.”