Tony Arnel, global director sustainability, Norman Disney & Young, is a judge on this year’s Sustainability Awards.

He is a life fellow of the Green Building Council of Australia, a founding director and was chair between 2007–2012. During this time, he was also chair of the World Green Building Council (2008–2011).

Architecture and Design spoke to Arnel about changes to sustainability since the GBCA, creating places of value, and why we need investment and incentives when it comes to sustainability.

You are a founding director of the Green Building Council of Australia. How has sustainability changed since you started the GBC?

The evolution of the green building movement has been extraordinary. When we established the GBCA in 2002, there was no common language for sustainability. There were no agreed-upon benchmarks or training programs to share knowledge and skills. The Green Star rating system changed all that.

Today, a 4 Star Green Star rating in some markets – notably commercial offices – is considered standard practice and can be delivered with little, if any, cost premium. It’s very gratifying to note that 30 per cent of Australia’s office space is Green Star certified, and to reflect that my colleagues around the boardroom table all those years ago made this happen.

However, we still have a long way to go. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s new report, ‘Low Carbon, High Performance,’ notes that energy efficiency in the last decade has improved by just 2 percent in the commercial sector and by 5 percent in the residential sector. It’s true that this improvement has occurred despite massive development – but we need to move faster if we are to address climate change, while building liveable, affordable places for people.

What does sustainability mean to you?

My beliefs align with the definition of sustainability outlined in the 1987 Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But I think we have evolved since the Brundtland Report, and we are beginning to understand that true sustainable development isn’t just about “doing less bad” – it’s about creating buildings and places that add value and contribute to a better future for the generations ahead of us.

Where would you like to see sustainability head in the next five years?

I think Australia signing the Paris Agreement in April has set us on a new trajectory. After many years in the wilderness, climate change is now back on the political agenda, and our governmental leaders are thinking seriously about what it will take to live sustainably. I think we’ll see these efforts ramp up significantly in the next five years.

To do this, we need to elevate minimum standards in the National Construction Code so that we aren’t ‘locked in’ to inefficient buildings. I am currently chairing ASBEC’s Building Energy Performance Standards task group, and we have just released an issues paper that identifies potential improvements to the Code and pathways to get there. The last upgrade to the Code was in 2010, and we are committed to pursuing an upgrade of these minimum standards at the scheduled 2019 Code update.

We also need significant investment in our mid-tier buildings. There are currently up to 80,000 B, C and D Grade buildings around Australia that are in desperate need of an upgrade. NDY has worked on many exceptional upgrade projects, such as the Australia Post retrofit, which we elevated from 2.5 stars to 5 stars through the installation of one of the largest commercial rooftop solar arrays in the state. The 1048 solar panels on the roof of the building – about 100 times the size of an average residential installation – have reduced the base building’s electrical load by 25 per cent at peak times. We have the technology and the skills to reduce the carbon footprint of our mid-tier buildings – but we need investment and incentives to do it.

How easy or hard do you think it is to incorporate truly sustainable design into a project?

If by “truly sustainable design” you mean “carbon neutral” or “carbon positive,” then we do have examples of that in Australia already. The Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland is an inspiring example. The building is naturally ventilated for most of the year, and features one of the state’s largest solar arrays. The building meets its own power needs every day in all seasons and exports power to the grid four days a week. So, again, we have the skills and technology to deliver truly sustainable buildings now.

You are a judge on the Sustainability Awards. Why is entering awards important?

Awards obviously provide a platform to recognise leadership in sustainability – and this is important. Perhaps more important, though, is that awards promote and share industry-leading projects and approaches. It is through awards that new benchmarks are set, and the industry is encouraged to continue to strive for excellence.

What will you be looking for with the Sustainability Awards?

I’ll be looking for innovative approaches and technological advances that address the triple-bottom line of environment, economic and social sustainability. Achieving a balance between all three delivers true sustainability.