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Howard Parry-Husbands: Quick, cheap builds failing communities

Howard Parry-Husbands

A fundamental tension in the property development sector is that between short-term profit versus long-term value.

When short-termism wins, the results are plain to see, laments Howard Parry-Husbands, chief executive of research agency Pollinate.

“You only need to look at some of the developments in places like parts of Bondi Junction or Docklands (Melbourne) to see what happens when a high rise goes up but there is scant regard for ensuring retail thrives or genuine community is nurtured.

“Empty shopfronts for years and walls of glass and concrete that skirt apartment blocks rented out by absentee investor-owners to transient populations do not create the conditions for a thriving place.”

This reduces the appeal and long-term value (yield) of the properties, Parry-Husbands says.

It’s an issue Pollinate has explored in partnership with developer clients, such as Lendlease, GPT Group and Toga. Better quality builds can attract a higher price and buyers who want to live there, creating a better sense of community and the conditions that will help retail and associated community elements of a development to thrive, he says.

A craving for authenticity

Parry-Husbands sees economic short-termism as having similar negative outcomes in other market sectors, as consumers are told they can have more for less.

“Economic short-terms is driving exactly the same outcomes, whether it is obesity or whether it is environmental degradation or … community dysfunction. We are not stopping to think: What do people actually want?”

One of the tools Pollinate draws upon when working with its diverse clients on developments and innovations is a twice-yearly survey of Australian attitudes toward the environment and its influences on consumer behaviour, brand loyalty and corporate reputation.

The survey has been running since 2007 and is the basis for Pollinate’s regular “Pulse” report.

On Parry-Husbands’ read, there is a decrease in overall happiness and wellbeing in Australia, and a collapse in trust.

This includes a mistrust of marketing. Consumers know that “single serve” is ridiculous on a soft-drink that has zero nutritional value and that a so-called nutritional snack with “no-added sugar” can be packed with natural sugars.

“The era of increased choice and being able to get more for less has made us fatter. I think we are the only generation in history whose children are less likely to live longer than their parents, plus we have an environmental catastrophe because pollution is an economic externality.”

Although people haven’t abandoned consumerism, shoppers are searching out organic alternatives, sustainable products and supporting alternative retail options such as farmers’ markets.

Farmers’ markets are a great example of consumer irrationality and a desperate search for authenticity and “something real”.

“Someone is willing to pay more for exactly the same apple as they can buy in Coles because they’re standing in a school yard on a Sunday morning talking to a lady who apparently is a farmer and who has driven all this way.”

In the March 2017 report, Pollinate noted that some 44 per cent of the survey respondents felt Australia wasn’t doing enough to protect the environment. This presents an opportunity for brands to take leadership in this space, it said.

Progressive developers taking a longer-term view

This is something that progressive developers can tap into.

“We are seeing a change and I think that developers are starting to recognise that if they build stuff that is considered and adaptable and clearly more sustainable, then people will choose to live there and give it enduring value,” Parry-Husbands says.

“The consumer wants something that is built with a sense of community in mind – one that creates a sense of belonging and a sense of place – not just another box.”

This requires making a greater effort to integrate property planning, design and development processes with genuine community consultation.

This isn’t the easy option, Parry-Husbands concedes.

For the past 12 years, Pollinate has been taking what it calls a “co-creation” approach. This can be described as design thinking applied to market research, marketing and community consultation.

It involves getting close to communities, sometimes before a development proposal has even been written. The process explores questions such as why a particular building is being proposed, what it will be made from, whether it should have open spaces, shade, a park or a children’s playground.

“We sit down with hand-picked members of the local community and talk about the values that the community has. We talk about what they want to see in the future and what their concerns are now. We talk to them about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Then we talk to them about what the potential could be.”

This results in very different outcomes.

“First, you have a community that is highly engaged and wants to work with the developer, town planner or whoever it might be.”

The premise that communities are opposed to development is not true. What they are opposed to is the way developers and governments currently engage with them, Parry-Husbands says.

New materials signal change

New building materials may be part of the solution, offering developers sustainable products that are also beautiful and competitively priced.

“The more progressive developers are definitely starting to embrace using more wood and technologically driven sustainable solutions such as engineered timber,” Parry-Husbands notes.

He regards the Library at the Dock in Melbourne and International House, part of Sydney’s Barangaroo project, as fantastic examples in this regard.

International House is Australia’s first engineered timber office and is built from cross laminated timber (CLT) and glue laminated timber (Glulam).

In addition to a substantially lower carbon footprint than an equivalent building made from concrete and steel, the building stands apart for the beauty, warmth and feel of its wooden beams and light-filled spaces.

The Library at the Dock has been described as Australia’s most sustainable community building and was constructed primarily from CLT and recycled hardwood.

“The simple reality is that consumers want more wood in the built environment and more natural elements.”

Building out of wood and technologically advanced solutions that are more sustainable delivers a greater sense of well-being and a happier community, he says.

Importantly, CLT also is starting to gain traction as a competitively priced option. According to one leading user of CLT, Sydney’s Strongbuild, the product competes with precast concrete on cost and construction time.

This might just be the tipping point in terms of consumer demand.

When it comes to sustainability, telling people to do the right thing isn’t enough, Parry-Husbands says.

“We have to make products that are obviously better and easier to use. If it’s just better and easy, then you are laughing.”

This tallies with Pollinate’s March “Pulse” report, which notes that when it comes to changing consumer behaviour and sustainability, people will shift their behaviour when it is perceived as easy to do and capable of making a genuine difference.

Howard Parry-Husbands will MC The Fifth Estate’s Visit Tomorrowland event on 19 September in Sydney.

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