After a decade championing green building, executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council Suzanne Toumbourou is off to browner pastures. We sit down for a chat.
Toumbourou was appointed chief executive officer of the Australian Council of Recycling in May and will apply her significant talents to a $15 billion industry that employs some 50,000 Australians. While she’s stepping away from the built environment, the intersections between the two industries are obvious as circular thinking advances.
Climate change remains the “biggest challenge of our time”, Toumbourou says. “The built environment has a huge role to play in meeting this challenge. We can improve the performance and comfort of buildings, save money and reduce emissions. Property Council leaders already know this.”
The effects of policies are often indirect, diffuse and can sometimes take decades to unfold. But Toumbourou’s work has made real-world impact.
Take the 2019 “step change” in the National Construction Code’s energy efficiency provisions for commercial buildings – the first increase in over a decade. This followed years of hard work by ASBEC’s members to build the case for a “zero carbon ready” building code. The landmark Built to Perform report, published in 2018, found stronger energy efficiency provisions could save $27 billion in energy costs as well as 78 million tonnes of emissions by 2050 – a finding which then informed the COAG Energy Council’s Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings.
“Often policy work is high level, and it can be hard to draw a direct line to people,” Toumbourou admits. But 51 per cent of the buildings standing in 2050 will have been constructed after the provisions came into force, making it a huge win for ASBEC.
“This work will make a big difference to how Australians live for decades to come. We’re talking about a 35 per cent improvement in energy performance. By working together, we achieved standards that will make our buildings better – they’ll be warmer in winter, cooler in summer, cheaper to run and produce less emissions.”
This result could only be achieved by the property industry and government working together, Toumbourou emphasises.
The Australian Building Codes Board will be consulting on increased energy efficiency requirements for residential buildings in the 2022 version of the National Construction Code in July.
Collaboration drives change
Toumbourou joined ASBEC in 2012, eight years after it was established by a group of like-minded industry groups that included the Property Council. The idea was to provide a forum – a “realm of ideas” Toumbourou calls it – where people could find common ground, debate and dissect contentious issues and advocate their own sustainability policies and innovations.
“When it comes to the built environment, I think government and industry understand each other really well – perhaps better than most other sectors – and ASBEC has been critical in creating this collaborative environment.”
Like most change-makers, Toumbourou works behind the scenes with patience, persistence and a deep commitment to collaborative dialogue – characteristics she says are common among ASBEC members.
“We may be right, and the science might behind us, but it is always important to listen to as many perspectives as possible to achieve real progress. We can’t always bring everyone along with us, but at least we go in with our eyes wide open.”
Toumbourou will miss the people in the property industry who have been “staggeringly skilled and passionate”.
“You can’t get this work done if it’s just a job – it takes the next level of passion and commitment, and thankfully there are plenty of those in the Property Council membership alone. I don’t know how I’ll replicate ASBEC’s network of enthusiastic, intelligent and generous people, but I’m going to try.”
Toumbourou leaves ASBEC in a strong position with a clear plan for the future. She has handed the reins to Alison Scotland, Standards Australia’s former senior stakeholder engagement manager, while an executive search is underway.
Hurdles on the horizon
So, what is the biggest hurdle on the horizon?
“We need a clear, binding commitment to net zero at the national level. And it needs to have a strong focus on buildings, given they contribute a quarter of our operational emissions.”
Another challenge that looms large is upskilling the industry to meet the net zero challenge. Building efficiency for jobs and growth, a paper published in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis by ASBEC, the Property Council, the Energy Efficiency Council and the Green Building Council of Australia, found energy efficiency upgrades of Australia’s building stock could create nearly 92,000 job years of employment.
“We have the technology to deliver net zero buildings and many Property Council members are already doing this. But we need to do this at a broad scale, and that will take capacity building and focus from government, especially around procurement practices,” Toumbourou notes.
“Australia’s property leaders know a net zero future is coming and they are preparing – but the long tail in the market needs to be supported. Many carrots and sticks will be required along the way, and this can only be managed by industry and government in partnership. We need a united effort across the industry so no one is left behind.”