Sustainability Consultant Melissa Nouel in Sydney discusses why she made a career switch from architecture, the importance of the building life cycle and trends she hopes to see in green building.
Why are you so passionate about working in sustainability?
My interest in sustainability started in 2010 during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which inspired me to pursue my masters in sustainability while also working full time as an architect. I love that Integral Group is creating cutting-edge, innovating solutions to the complex global problems. I truly believe no other field is more fundamental to human, environmental and economic success at this point in history. I wake up every day fueled by the motivation to drive positive change, help others navigate challenges, and make the world a better place.
How does having an architectural background enhance your work?
There have been three major take-outs from my architectural experience: being able to navigate a project from a managerial perspective and understanding how to advise clients from their point of view; applying ESD knowledge around compliance or certification requirements to suggest optimal solutions; and lastly having worked with a fantastic bunch of architectural professionals, with whom I’m keen to keep working, to help them achieve the best outcomes.
Integral Group are a sustainable engineering firm, what element from our latest CSER report are you most proud of?
The initiative of which I feel most proud of is our commitment to the World Green Building Council Advancing Net Zero initiative. Not only are we measuring, disclosing, and proactively reducing our own carbon emissions, we are committed as a company to Net Zero Carbon advocacy in our work. Every report Integral Group delivers includes a pathway to achieve net zero emissions specific to the project. Out of roughly 500 net zero projects that exist around the world, over 100 have been delivered by Integral Group.
What are the key considerations for property owners when considering the sustainability of their buildings?
First, there is the regulatory compliance component as building codes become more stringent and green certifications are required either by state or local authorities. The perception that sustainability implicitly incurs in higher capital investment is fortunately being replaced by the realization that there is growing availability of green technology and materials and the price gap compared to business-as-usual is in decline.
The strongest business case for sustainability, however, is that the highest costs during a building’s life cycle occur in its operational phase. Operational savings outweigh capital investments in the long run, and to achieve lower operational costs the initial budget must include the right measures during planning and design phases. While developers may get away with not considering sustainability measures, owners don’t get that luxury. Ensuring contractors are aligned with their objectives is key to success.
Finally, there is the business case for providing healthy working and living environments to building occupiers, making it more attractive to tenants or the building owner if they plan to occupy the project. Productivity and retention in office spaces have been linked to indoor environmental quality and occupant comfort. In companies where staff make up the largest expense sustainable work environments become financial common sense.
Tell us about your favorite project and the impact that your sustainability work had on it.
I am currently managing a Green Star submission for the Engineering and Technology Precinct at The University of Sydney. Seeing how the retention and refurbishment of existing building structures and facades offsets embedded GHG emissions and other environmental impacts is fascinating. These benefits are captured through a life cycle assessment model which compares the project with a business-as-usual case, where whole demolition and rebuild would have taken place instead.
How important is it to consider the life cycle of a building?
Life cycle analysis is one of the most comprehensive tools we have to assess the impacts of a project. Although it can be undertaken under different lights, such as social impact, health impact, or life cycle cost analysis, the general connotation relates to environmental impacts. It covers all material stages of a project’s life cycle: from prime matter extraction, product manufacturing and distribution, demolition and construction, building operations, to end of life.
As sustainability consultants we use ISO compliant modelling software to help us determine environmental impacts of design decisions in terms of carbon emissions, land and water acidification, resource depletion, etc. It is an incredibly useful tool to help design teams assess and compare different design options in the early stages.
Tell us about your thought piece On Limits.
On Limits is a short reflection differentiating human-made frontiers from natural boundaries which separate distinct ecosystems. When we break ecological limits either by intrusion or by creating unprecedented links, not only other species are impacted but civilization is exposed. Most great pandemics throughout history have been animal-borne diseases resulting from human intervention of untouched ecosystems, animal farming and animal trade.
The relatively poor individual health of urban dwellers, population growth and increasing urban density makes us even more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Pumping biological pollutants into the environment only makes pathogens more resistant and decrease biodiversity, is core to the strength of the ecosystems in which we live.
The impacts of climate change add to the challenge of building resilience, but there are also immediate benefits to tackling COVID-19, such as environmental improvements. Causes and effects of both issues overlap because everything is intertwined, which is the principle of Ecological and Planetary Health. While we plan for the future, we need to treat this unprecedented crisis with the holistic approach it demands.
What trends in sustainability are you hoping to see come out of the current situation?
We need to identify, risk assess, and plan for the different situations we might; be that climate change impacts, environmental health challenges, economic or social disruption, or even terrorist attacks. I hope these decisions are made under a holistic optic, with planetary health and climate change as top considerations. I am hoping to see everyone take advantage of:
- The downturn in the fossil fuel industry and finally switching to renewables, which are already cheaper
- Stimulus packages having big incentives for offsetting carbon emissions and adopting sustainability measures
- The creation of green jobs, including re-skilling programs to tackle the current rising unemployment
- Investors focusing on disaster preparedness, contingency planning and resilience, apart from the already rising interest in environmental, social and governance policies
- Increased public health resilience and immunity as a result of tackling the causes of chronic diseases, truly promoting active lifestyles, and creating healthy food environments by eradicating food deserts
- Increased local food security by investing in urban farming, including community gardening which increases social capital
- Build social resilience and safety, particularly around issues that can be exacerbated during long stay-home-periods such as domestic violence, gambling, addictions, and isolation of the elderly
- A switch to regenerative land and ecosystem management practices, and full stop to land clearing which exposes us to animal-borne diseases (not to mention wet markets)
Civilization is at a crossroads, it either chooses to go in the same direction it came from or it takes a turn towards resilience and regeneration.