In the 2019 Sustainability Awards, Natasha Mulcahy of Sekisui House’s West Village project in Brisbane won a Women in Sustainability Award for her significant contribution to the built environment industry in Australia over the past five years.

Through her role as Sustainability Manager for the $1 billion West Village urban renewal project by Sekisui House, she has been instrumental in precinct sustainability planning and has driven ambitious initiatives, resulting in a 6 Star Green Star Communities rating for the development – the highest recognition for a master-planned precinct in Australia. Sekisui House arrived in Australia in 2009 and is known for constructing and developing intelligent, high quality homes and communities, drawing on their Japanese heritage. 

Can you tell us what took you into the field of sustainability?

My career in urban development evolved from one in economic development. I was working for Brisbane City Council’s inward investment team and loved the site selection and city planning elements of the job. The turning point was probably assisting with the expansion of the iconic XXXX Brewery in Milton. I realised that this was something I wanted to pursue and began post-grad studies in property. 

A focus on sustainability was a natural fit for me. I always had a strong interest in this area – completing a research masters in ethical consumerism before I had any interest in urban development.

When the opportunity presented itself to work for Sekisui House on their West Village project, I just couldn’t turn it down.  It is such an iconic project for Brisbane, and an enormous opportunity for me.  It is an honour to help shape any neighbourhood, but this one is particularly special. Anyone who comes here really understands the significance of the site and the opportunity that it presents.

Tell us about the site: what was there before and why is it such a special place for Brisbane?

West Village is a 2.6-ha master-planned, mixed use development around 1km from the Brisbane CBD.  It’s on the site of the historic Peters Ice Cream Factory, built in 1928, which includes the ice cream factory itself and the ice cream cone and dry goods storage building. They are really the centrepiece of West Village, the development wraps around them and they create a very distinctive sense of place. They are built in the “restrained inter-war free classical style” and are heritage listed for their importance in providing employment for waves of migrants for over 70 years.

At the site, Sekisui House has already delivered three residential towers, a new urban park and laneways, heritage office tenancies, and construction on our retail centre commenced in January 2020.  This will deliver a 4,000m2 Woolworths, large greengrocer, gym, childcare, medical precinct, specialty stores and restaurants.

One of the great things about this site is that it’s such an easy walk to the CBD. It also fronts onto Boundary Street which provides great access to public transport and promotes walkability to the cultural facilities of South Bank like the Gallery of Modern Art. 

With that choice location, and what must be its high land value, you still managed to keep half as green vegetation?

Fifty per cent of the site is parkland, garden-filled laneways, podium-level green space and rooftop gardens. It was a key focus for us to make sure the site was heavily landscaped to create lush, green spaces that reflected the sub-tropical environment and promoted the outdoor Brisbane lifestyle. We have already delivered one of the parks, called The Common, and we have a second park starting construction in 2020 to be called the Mollison Green.

So if one of the parks is called The Common, it’s open to the public?

It’s accessible to the public 24 hours a day. We’ve hosted many popular community events in the space already. For example, we have an open-air children’s art studio and have had about 40,000 children through since it opened.

What are some of the other sustainable features?

Sekisui House’s focus is very much on the public realm as part of our Six Star Green Star Communities rating.  We have extensive landscaping to mitigate urban heat islands, have designed for active transport with 1600 bicycle parking spaces, have LED lighting throughout public spaces, and an on-site food waste recycling system where food waste from the retailers will be converted into compost for the site.  We also have rainwater collection and we are working on the installation of a grey water treatment plant which will eventually drought-proof our public realms and gardens. For our commercial public car park, we’ll have 10 car-share vehicles and eight electric vehicle charging stations. That is one of the largest car-share fleets in the country. The three residential buildings all have a NatHERS [Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme] score between 6.7 and 7.7, which we achieved through naturally ventilated hallways, ceiling fans in all sitting and bedroom spaces, deep balconies, tinted glass, LED lighting, rainwater harvesting and large solar systems on the rooftops.

From a social sustainability perspective, we have an artist-in-residence program and in 2020 we will welcome Metro Arts to West Village in a bespoke 150 seat theatre, gallery and artist development centre.

Is this project already being taken as a model around Australia, where elsewhere high-energy McMansions seem to be the norm – perhaps not because people want them but they aren’t shown the alternatives like this?

We are seeing a shift toward smarter designed, better insulated and more energy efficient housing, however this is happening in both infill and greenfield development projects.  In greenfield we are seeing higher densities, with accompanying amenity and increased walkability.  In urban-infill, the focus is on increasing connection to the street and nature.  No one development model can provide the solution to Australia’s growing population and changing demographics; it is important that we continue to focus on improvement across all housing typologies and precincts.

However, one thing I feel strongly about is moving to a system where we have mandatory disclosure of energy ratings across the country.  The ACT is the only region with mandatory disclosure of an energy rating upon the sale or lease of a property. If mandatory disclosure was made national, it would empower the buyer or renter to choose more sustainably designed homes and create healthy competition between developers and builders to improve building performance.

How much does this thinking pervade Sekisui House, the company behind West Village?

Sekisui House truly values sustainability and has an impressive pedigree – they have built more than 47,000 net-zero energy homes in Japan.

The sustainability ethos is deeply embedded in the company’s culture. I recall the time when a senior executive from Japan visited West Village shortly after we received our Six Star Green Star certification – the highest rating for master planned precincts in Australia.  He wasn’t just interested in the headline, I had to go through the credits line by line and explain why we had not targeted every credit, and he suggested ways we could improve! It’s certainly inspiring having people who are passionate about sustainability within the company and who are pushing you to reach higher.

Sekisui House also has a number of fundamental philosophies that the company adheres to. One is Satoyama, the co-existence of humans and the environment, the idea of ribbons of green where humans and nature can mutually connect through careful planning. The other is Gohon-no-ki (or Five Trees) a landscaping concept focused on conserving and promoting biodiversity of local ecosystems.

Was the Women in Sustainability award a surprise to you?

Very much so. It was a surprise to be a finalist and then to win the award was such a huge honour considering the high calibre of finalists. West Village has been incredibly challenging to work on, so to be recognised by industry peers for our work is really special. Celebrating the successes of women in our industry I hope will lead to greater diversity, not just of gender but of experience, age, and culture amongst decision makers.

For me personally, whilst working on this project I’ve had two children, and am trying to achieve everything I can for West Village whilst working part-time raising my young family – I always feel like I could do more if I just had more hours in the day!  This award helps to diminish those concerns and has given me the confidence to pursue big projects, ask for more resources to support our initiatives and get a seat at the table. The accompanying exposure is also opening doors and new opportunities for future sustainability projects for Sekisui House at West Village.

I guess that having newly born children, the whole idea of sustainability becomes something that helps you feel as a mother and woman that you are doing your bit for their future?

Absolutely. I think it’s a driving force for many people working in the built environment industry. You want to build the kind of place that can be enjoyed by future generations, and one that is resilient in the face of climate change.  I’m proud that our team has this focus at West Village.

Image: Supplied