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How to create a movement

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer at the Green Building Council of Australia, recently stood down after serving a decade on WorldGBC’s Board of Directors. Here, Romilly talks about some of the challenges and triumphs she has witnessed in the green building movement over the last 10 years.

Successful movements – whether the, women’s liberation, civil rights or gay pride – are all about mobilising people behind a shared purpose.

Each movement follows four predictable stages: a community is created around a common goal; resources are mobilised; solutions are found; and finally, the movement replaces (or at least is accepted by) the establishment.

Our green building movement is no different.

A community is created around a common goal

In 2006, a global group of agitators, disruptors and troublemakers came together in Monterey, Mexico for what was to become a defining moment in the green building council movement’s history.

I arrived in Monterey ‘green’ in every sense – not just brimming with enthusiasm for sustainability, but freshly appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of the Green Building Council of Australia. We had a tiny team, but an ambitious agenda, and I was there to learn.

People had worked together before – the first meeting of the World Green Building Council had been held seven years previously. But Monterey was the first attempt to galvanise a movement and create a community around our common goal.

It was time to bring everyone together on the one road, to step out the journey together first in our heads, before trekking back to our own countries to inspire our industries to take action.

Resources are mobilised

Our next step was to establish very effective task groups to coordinate our movement on the ground in each country. The drivers for sustainable building are different in each nation, depending on political structures, economic climate and socio economic challenges. However, by working together globally we galvanised the movement across policy, tools and the creation of GBCs.

We further strengthened with the development of the Regional Network initiative, an idea developed on a train between London and Stuttgart!

Solutions to vexing problems are found

Sometimes, the most significant milestones in a movement’s history are found in failure, rather than success.

Everyone knew buildings were the ‘low hanging fruit’ but with no international agreement about how to measure and report on carbon emissions from buildings – much less other environmental and socio-economic factors such as indoor environment quality or liveability – how were we to help property investors, governments and the community compare apples with apples, or buildings with buildings?

In 2010, the WorldGBC and UNEP’s Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative embarked on the Common Carbon Metric Project. Launched at COP15 at Copenhagen, the idea was to develop a universal protocol for measuring energy use and reporting greenhouse gas emissions from the operational phase of buildings. We were to establish baselines and enable verifiable reporting. Most importantly, the Common Carbon Metric would unlock the potential of the built environment to reduce emissions.

It didn’t work. We couldn’t get universal agreement on the benchmarks or methods of measurement. We couldn’t find a clear pathway forward.

But as Winston Churchill once said “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,” and we all took lessons away from the disappointment of this project. And as investor expectations continued to shift, GRESB, the global real estate sustainability benchmark, emerged. Last year, GRESB assessed 61,000 assets and USD $2.3 trillion in asset value, and provides that much-needed baseline. Onwards and upwards.

The movement replaces the establishment

The failure of the Common Carbon Metric project was one of a couple, but our successes are just as spectacular. We’ve established effective Regional Networks that are tackling complex conundrums – how to build low-cost housing in Africa, how to transition oil-dependent economies in the Middle East and how to manage density in Asia’s megacities.

We have more than 70 GBCs driving transformation in their markets. We have awards programmes that celebrate excellence, roadshows that share sustainability success stories, and globally-respected reports that make the case for green building as a vehicle for human health. We rally the global industry for World Green Building Week each September, and come together each year for an international congress.

Increasingly, energy-efficient and sustainable building is becoming more and more common for new construction. We are tackling sustainability in existing buildings. ‘Green collar’ skills are growing. Governments are starting to listen. And every year, more green buildings are springing up around the world as symbols of our success.

Romilly Madew is CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia and leads an organisation that has more than 700 member companies. More than 30 per cent of Australia’s office space is now certified under the Green Star rating system for buildings and communities.