On stealth players and getting their radical housing into the limelight

Sometimes the most exciting discoveries come from the most unlikely places. Which is probably why they are exciting.

It can take quite a lot of digging because some of the people doing the best things often don’t want to trumpet their ambitions and outperformance until the proof is in. So the more radical the idea, the more these people hide their light under a bushel.

And the more joyful it is to flush them out.

Darren Pearson of Diversified Property Group is, on the surface, doing conventional upmarket developments at the high end of the market up to $1.4 million in places such as Kellyville in Sydney’s north-west. Next week Pearson will speak at the NSW Urban Development Institute of Australia congress. So not the regular place you think to look for outstanding green developers.

We finally caught up with Pearson after tracking down his sales consultant Abul Khan for a story on the 145 houses that his company Diversified Property Group is on the verge of completing at Kellyville. Though large, these houses manage to consume a third of the energy of regular houses, have solar tiles (not panels) on the roof, solar battery storage and very high levels of insulation. Forty of them could pretty well go off the grid if the authorities let them.

The houses are a success financially.

We wanted to ask Pearson what his motivation was. Khan told us hair-raising stories of finding new materials, getting them tested “until they broke”, finding the best available solar storage systems he could (which ended up being Warren Buffet’s BYD) and pestering CSR for the best they could offer from their sustainable housing range of products.

Pearson says he likes to be a “stealth player”. It’s not about what he has done, he says, but what the people coming up with the products have done that’s more important. People such as CSR chief executive Rob Sindell, Stephen Powell who runs CSR House and without whom “that project would not have occurred”, Derek Martins from Monier on the batteries work, and Khan himself who has developed a huge body of knowledge around sustainability so that the clients will actually buy into the product.

Pearson wants these names mentioned because he would love other developers to follow suit and understands it would b awkward to approach him direct. Best to put the experts names out there, he says.

Pearson didn’t start as an environmentalist, he says.

He comes from a family that’s been doing conventional but high quality houses in the area for 40 years.

So what motivated Pearson’s epiphany?

The biggest credit, he says, goes to two people. One was Pearson’s small daughter who wanted to know why her daddy was cutting down all the beautiful trees for his developments. The second was a professor at Harvard, where he is part of a global business group, who asked him what he was doing to change the world.

“We’re not going broke in the middle of the GFC,” he replied to the professor.

“‘She said, ‘that’s not good enough'”

His daughter’s impact was more direct.

“My daughter said ‘I’m not talking to you until you fix this’,” he said.

She then came home from school one day plans for his development that the class had covered in crayons and pens with drawings of orchards and windmills and other sustainable pleasant things.

It puts you in mind of Bill McDonough who we heard at the huge Green Build conference in San Francisco in 2012. He said to forget trying to certify approved materials and chemicals. Turn it around, he said, and make everything safe enough for a child to touch and play with.

Pearson’s daughter is now 12 and should be proud of her father.

Why? Not because he’s changed the world just yet but because he’s doing his part to change it and from one of the most recalcitrant places to start: the Australian housing industry, and worse, project homes.

We’ve written heaps on this in recent times but our article on the National Energy Efficiency Building Project is a good place to start.

Pearson started from the desire to make lighting free for buyers, and working out how much renewable energy could deliver that. Then came the goal of mimimising energy consumption of the house.

In the end the estate even has an orchard and ready to work kitchen gardens for each house.

So in a market that supposedly doesn’t know/doesn’t care about sustainability, Pearson’s now sold the lot.

But he’s not comfortable abut the prices. It’s not cheap, he said (up to $1.4 million). And the houses are big – very big: up to 480 square metres.

Still they manage to outperform. (Pearson’s next offering will be much more modest, with a price range of between $499,000 to $650,000.)

Next Pearson would love to tap an economist or financier to find out what impact the energy savings might have on the mortgage. Typical homes spend about $5000 a year on energy, he says.

Educating the buyer is another challenge. Some leave their windows open all day because they like fresh air (we get that) That’s not how to minimise energy consumption but he’s not about to tell his buyers what to do. An operating manual is in the wings.

Pearson has his sights set on some systemic changes too. He thinks some of the bigger developers might do much more radically green housing if there were some concessions made on the planning front. The might even create some covenants to make the contractors build greener houses.
He might yet make some headway there too. Especially at the UDIA congress where he will speaking alongside another likeminded maverick – this time on the infrastructure front – Terry Leckie of Flow Systems (we’ve profiled in these pages and who took part in our Sustainable Precincts ebook and salon).

Finally Pearson has put out a call. If there are any would-be developers in the market struggling to find finance for a highly sustainable offering, then get in touch. “Our finance arm might be able to help. As an investor.”

The Nightingale

Another radical housing person about to rock Melbourne this time is Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architects. With a bunch of likeminded peers McLeod is onto the second iteration of The Commons in Melbourne’s Brunswick.

The Nightingale, like its forebear, will be directed to high social outcomes and have no parking, no airconditioning and shared facilities such as laundries.

Most radical is that the objective is to mimise profit – that’s right, minimise, not maximise. The financiers are none too impressed. They’ll be less concerned about the consortia’s intention to give away plans for the building free.

Read our story, here