Darren Bilsborough

Engineering services firm Meinhardt Group has continued its aggressive growth strategy to reassert itself as a top player in the Australian market. Among recent activity it’s hired sustainability and integrated design advocate Darren Bilsborough to head the ANZ building services team.

For Adelaide based Bilsborough, the move is a return to his roots in building services after a career that’s traversed infrastructure, green buildings, academia and architecture since his early career at Lincolne Scott (acquired by WSP).

He told The Fifth Estate that he hopes the new role will give him a corporate platform to spread his innovative ideas that will not only help Meinhardt secure a larger slice of the pie but will “help grow the pie for everyone in the industry”.

Central to Bilsborough’s vision for a more evolved design and construction industry is to transcend “the obsessive culture of time and cost as opposed to value” and in doing so deliver better outcomes for people and the environment.

A built environment industry dominated by tight budgets and timelines is one that leaves no room to innovate or deliver outcomes that are any different to what has been delivered in the past, he says.

“Integrated design” is an antidote to many of these problems, helping to reframe the questions asked early in the design phase to get the best chance of delivering desired outcomes in the end.

It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot: it takes a first principles, cross disciplinary look at the building task at hand. Design of a court room, for example, might involve talking to psychologists and mental health professionals to help inform what people interacting with the justice system (and working in) really need from a building.

This helps designers move away from the pre-existing ideas or assumptions about how a courthouse might look and function.

“We are conditioned to stay within our bounds,” Bilsborough says.

Integrated design turns the traditional siloed approach to designing and constructing a building “on its head”. And the result? A courthouse that values health, safety, collaboration and cooperation, say, as well as more traditional outcomes such as security.

Bilsborough feels strongly enough about the possibilities to have put in a bid for a Cooperative Research Centres to fix these failures in process.

“The delivery of the built environment was essentially broken, and we were not given an evidence base to do it better.”

The bid was not successful but this didn’t stop Bilsborough pursuing other avenues to develop the ideas, starting with architects.

“I started to wonder if architects had the right solution.”

He took a role as director of urban innovation at Woods Bagot and then led the Hames Sharley practice for a few years.

This position reinforced his thinking that if you tackle building projects through the prism of time and cost, the quality and value of what all consultants can provide is limited.

“No one is being paid what they should be paid to explore the value propositions properly.

“Because of those fees the quality of documentation and consultation dropped.”

Disappointed with what has become of the industry, he says that he wants to create a new value proposition focused on “design for what is needed”.

He says Meinhardt is so far supportive of these ambitions, which he sees as an opportunity to help the company provide more value to clients and subsequently grow.

The company is on a grow path that kicked off with the recruitment of a new CEO, Sean Treweek, in 2019 and was followed with the acquisition of structural services

experts Bonacci Group.

The plan is to return to a Tier 1 status in Australia after focusing on the Asian and Middle Eastern markets for the last decade or so.

Sustainability advocate from the early days

Bilsborough was part of the budding green building movement in the 90s and was one of the first to get LEED accreditation in 2002. He’s also been a director of the Green Building Council of Australia (2010-2013).

He says Adelaide’s ability to embrace change and innovation is often underappreciated.

“It’s often forgotten in Adelaide that every single new office building was proposed to be green in the mid-naughties ­– that was the only place at that time.”

He puts this down to the close-knit industry where “everyone knows everyone”.

“The process we went through here on educating on green buildings, it swamped the market in a way that completely shifted it overnight.”

But one of the critical points of its success, Bilsborough explains, was the narrative around saving money for tenants.

“The whole reason why it was so popular was because the whole industry wanted to make a buck – the narrative focused on how green buildings help tenants.”

He’s a strong believer in framing the green building movement in these terms as
“the development industry is always going to be motivated by commercial returns.”

“If you can create an argument based on commercial returns as well as being better for the planet: it’s a win win.”

Reform in design and construction a bigger agenda

Bilsborough’s not the only one with an appetite for wide-sweeping reform in the built environment. He says his thinking also align with what’s happening in NSW to reform the construction industry led by NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler.

“They are recognising the delivery of the outcomes within the built environment is not where it needs to be and there needs to be more focus on value.”

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