What does it take to do things differently in the building and construction world? The industry, we’ve learnt, is well known for its risk aversion.
As we heard from Christian Criado-Perez from the University of New South Wales at one of our events, it’s rare for builders, developers, engineers and even architects to use evidence based decision making in their jobs. What’s been done before, preferably down the road or by someone they know, suffices for precedent and is pretty much all the evidence they need.
So how do we get people to take the first step into doing things differently, better?
As our planet burns and glaciers melt, warming up the ocean, our planetary refrigeration system, we are on an urgent deadline to beat the odds.
Building and construction is a major contributor to our problem.
There’s still rampant use of diminishing natural resources, the use of the same carbon intensive materials we’ve used for ever and little regard for trying something as “radical” as even timber.
Yet we keep doing the same things the same way. Not only is this bad for the planet but it’s often bad for our health and bad for the bottom line… well, someone’s bottom line (especially for the poor sucker who gets stuck with the dud apartment.)
For the rest, it’s often a ho-hum result with rare flashes of excellence. And this when our creative people – in technology, architecture, engineering, university laboratories, and even private research and innovative corporates, are brimming with solutions and are hungry to implement them.
Yet so much of the building and construction sector, with steel-capped resoluteness, refuses to change. Except perhaps at the insignificant margins.
So when someone bucks the trend and quietly does his bit to prove, by example, that things can be done differently, we want to know how he did it. And why. And what the obstacles were.
Such is the story of Marc Kenney who runs Brisbane based building company Mettle, which works for big clients on significant projects with its 60-strong team (that also works in Sydney).
Construction, Kenney agrees, is notoriously lacking in innovation, “second behind agriculture”.
His guess is it’s because it’s an industry that’s highly geared, has high turnover and low margins.
“We operate on very skinny margins,” he says, “so people like to stick to what they know. If they step outside of that they have to manage more risk.”
Kenney says there is plenty of innovation in construction but it’s all around reducing risk to keep cost bases stable, not much about doing things better for this planet we all inhabit.
When you’re working for clients big or small, the opportunities to push the agenda and achieve better environmental outcomes are rare.
So, when he started a project to build his own company’s headquarters in Alfred Street in Fortitude Valley, Kenney could see he had a chance to do things differently.
The design concept is to refurbish and repurpose a lovely old heritage building of about 500 square metres, plus add a new six-storey building next door of about 1000 sq m that will house an extension to the commercial part of the building, two apartments and a rooftop terrace. The two buildings will be “knitted” together and the roof of the new section will have a roof garden, with beehives, sauna, spa and wifi, and to be used by office staff and residents alike.
Windows to the heritage building will be operable and there will be a green ceiling in the office section – so taking away the ceiling to expose the roof void and fill it with plants.
The project, already underway, will clearly have biophilic and environmentally friendly elements.
But it will also include something much braver: the first use globally of Wagners geopolymer concrete in an insitu multi-storey building. The product, which claims to be 80 per cent less carbon intensive than regular concrete, has been used in runways, wharves and in pre-cast panels, but not in this way, Kenney says.
It’s a pioneering building but Kenney says it didn’t exactly start out that way. He didn’t intentionally set out to do a biophilic inspired eco friendly building.
For instance, the idea for the openable windows came from a conversation with his building systems engineers BSE and learning one day, sitting in their office, that the windows were operable and the air con used only sparingly.
Fresh air is better than conditioned air, thought Kenney. There was one idea. Next came the notion of a rooftop garden, with plants and beehives.
“The biophilia came through as we were developing the design – connecting people to nature; the top roof deck with bees and a spa and space to be outdoors,” Kenney says.
It wasn’t necessarily driven by the architects: Hassell, which did the original documentation, nor Colin Trapp and Associates that did the remaining design work, nor Sentio Studio, which managed the interiors.
More important was his RAS. This, he explains, is the reticular activating system “the part of the brain that if someone says, ‘how about all the red cars on the road’, you see a lot of red cars on the road.
“So when I saw the opportunities for biophilia, my RAS was looking for that sort of thing.”
So far, so good. And logical if you’re in our way of thinking.
But it was the next bit of innovation that was the tricky bit, and required, clearly, a very conscious decision: the use of the geopolymer concrete now known as Earth Friendly Concrete or EFC.
One of the reasons he chose the concrete was personal. Kenney happens to know Jason Zafiriadis, general manager of the business, and felt he could contribute his bit to challenging old ways.
So how did this work? And what can we learn about this process?
“It was hard for my guys on the ground to accept; to shoulder the load that innovation requires you to shoulder,” Kenney says.
“It’s been an education for us. It’s like any product – if you don’t test it commercially then you don’t know what you need to know.”
For instance, there was the need to understand that while ordinary concrete sets from the inside out, the EFC sets the other way around. There was also the need for some “early” high strength concrete on which to rest the tower crane base. That’s a demand that, for Wagners, hadn’t come up before in prior applications.
But it was the human challenges that were more interesting.
With any change, Kenney says, you will find pushback. “Also fear of failing… not just my guys; they had to work it out and step outside their comfort zone.”
By now the team is onto its third slab and getting the hang of it. Another four floors to go.
Kenney is not a builder that is often associated with innovation. His background covers around 10 years running the Queensland operation for Sydney based Built. And his company, which he owns with his partner David Mann, turns over about $70 million with clients such as the Marriott Hotel, with refurbishment work, Retail First with shopping centres, and projects for Charter Hall, Good Start Early Learning, ISPT and GPT.
So what were his motivations and what can he share with others to inspire similar moves?
For Kenney, environmental issues have gradually become more important to him.
“The benefit to the planet is important (five or so years ago, not so much to be honest) but more and more I hear about and read about our obligations for people to reduce our footprint and that’s definitely apparent at the moment.
“The other part about it is doing something different. You don’t get the opportunity to call the shots very often. This was our project and we could make those calls.”
Yet another motivation was a sense of opportunity to be first to use a material, because “someone had to be the first”.
And the biggest lesson to share with other would be innovators?
“To make a decision and stick to it.”