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Green office towers cast shadow over Sydney

By John Muscat - posted Thursday, 7 February 2013


Known for her spiky hair, studded-collar and heels, Sydney's Lord Mayor is the epitome of progressive chic. For a green activist, though, Clover Moore attracts some surprising company. Landlords owning 58 per cent of the CBD's office space have rushed to join her Better Buildings Partnership, an alliance "to improve the sustainability performance of existing commercial and public sector buildings". At first glance, the property industry's enthusiasm for 'green building' seems strange. Shouldn't they be insisting on less costly design and materials? Or despite their hard-nosed reputation, are they out to save the planet after all?

As it turns out, the lure of green building has more to do with cash than climate. By virtue of the soft economy and creeping "sustainability" measures, green-rated office towers are a gilt-edged opportunity for investors fleeing stocks and bonds. The wave of change rolling over central Sydney displays a certain logic. Meddling officials get to wrap themselves in virtue while big landlords – local and global investment trusts and fund managers – get a new premium grade rating for their properties. How better to protect asset values in an unsettled world? It's a cosy, CBD-boosting deal, even if it distorts job and investment flows in outlying parts of the city.

The floor-space revolution

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Even before the crash of 2008, banks, insurance companies and other financial services were under pressure to extract higher value out of every inch of floor-space. The global debt meltdown only accelerated the process. Aggressive cost-cutting saw Australian banks reduce their cost-to-income ratios from around 60 per cent in the late 1980s to around 45 per cent today. This priority is turning Sydney CBD's office core inside-out, a trend reinforced by pay-offs from the green-rating of building stock.

One recent headline summed it up neatly: "Martin Place exodus". The article describes how major banks like Westpac, ANZ and Commonwealth are all vacating large office blocks in stately Martin Place, "the heart of Sydney's financial centre". Linking George Street, the CBD's commercial "spine", to the city's government office sector along Macquarie Street, near state Parliament House, Martin Place has hosted the cream of Australia's banking and insurance houses since the nineteenth century. The Reserve Bank is based there as well.

Sydney's traditional office core enclosed Martin Place within Clarence, King and Macquarie Streets and the waterfront at Circular Quay. In line with conventional CBD morphology, this lies just north of the longstanding, but expanding, retail core bounded by York, Park, Elizabeth and King Streets, where large department stores are concentrated around the conjunction of George and Market Streets, the CBD's peak land value intersection (PLVI).

Driven to economise on floor-space, larger financial and professional services firms are leaving the traditional office core for outer blocks, which until recently were, in the parlance of CBD theory, "zones in transition", low-grade areas on the periphery of the office and retail cores with potential for higher value functions. Some "see the axis of the Sydney central business district changing." Typically, landlords are now expected "to work with Sydney tenants to address their concerns around relocating or redesigning … and help minimise costs and increase efficiencies in their work environment." Lest this be dismissed as penny-pinching, a new "workplace philosophy" has been invented to sell the floor-space revolution, and, predictably, that old chestnut "sustainability" has been pressed into service.

Spreading from banks to insurance companies to professional services and other large white-collar workplaces, "activity-based working" (ABW) has been treated to rapturous media coverage. "Gen Y shuts door on open-plan century", is how one headline put it. In progressive outlets, ABW is depicted more as a reaction than an initiative, a revolution forced on employers – and indirectly on property developers – by green, socially aware, tech-savvy Gen Y office workers. As the narrative goes, they reject confinement in the "assigned desks" of open-plan workstations or offices.

At one prominent bank, staff are "free to roam and work where and how the mood takes them." Usually, we are told, "they start the day at an 'anchor point' where their locker is and which they share with about 100 other workers … they might stay around that area for the day, with a choice of work situations ranging from quiet spaces to conversation areas, or they may set up somewhere else depending on who they need to see." Equipped with laptops, i-pads, mobile phones and wi-fi, they "can move from space to space and hardware isn't an inhibitor." Some organisations "have been … expanding a whole range of tools from [their] internal social-media platform to crowd-sourcing …" Spaces come in all varieties, including meeting rooms, "hush" rooms, discussion pods, team tables, cafes, "floor hubs", "touch-and-go area[s] for short stays", even "funky kitchens".

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And topping off the semblance of a white-collar wonderland, ABW adapted buildings often have glass lifts and "a central atrium allowing views to other floors", so "you really do feel part of a bigger whole, you can see everybody."

Touted in near-utopian language, ABW unites the high-end circle of developers, architects, interior designers, building managers, real estate agents and progressive media. Most of all, we are assured, it's about values, lifestyles and the coming generation, invariably presented as model progressives. According to a Colliers International report, Generation Y "prefer to work for an organisation with a commitment to social causes than one without … [i]n relation to the built environment, being green as an office occupier will become more of a 'must have' than a 'nice to have' in order to attract and retain staff." Amongst other things, this means "creating less hierarchical workplaces, which facilitate collaboration, personal accountability and flexibility."

Such are the times, that if a business announced ABW-type reforms to improve its bottom line, raise productivity or increase returns to investors, it would be damned as a "slave to neo-liberal dogma". But if the very same measures were dressed-up in the garb of "sustainability", it would be showered with awards and accolades.

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This article was first published on The New City.



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About the Author

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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