Measuring the social value of Australia’s buildings

AMRF First Building, Sydney, Australia (Hassell)

21 Feb 2024

The Green Building Council of Australia, in partnership with international design practice Hassell, today launched a discussion paper, in the first step to finding a common industry framework to measure social value in the nation’s built environment.  

The paper presents the latest in industry understanding of this critical, but less explored, area – to help stakeholders better understand the myriad of current measurement systems, and act as a launchpad to creating a universal framework. 

Green Building Council of Australia CEO, Davina Rooney says “cities shape the way we live, work, and play.”  

“A well-designed city can enhance our quality of life and improve our health and happiness. And nothing shapes cities more than our precincts, buildings, and infrastructure.” 

“We know how to make the financial case stack up and are also now valuing the climate-related impacts of our buildings. But the social benefit from the built environment is less well measured,” Ms Rooney said. 

Extensive work has been undertaken on the development, delivery, and measurement of social value within Australia and internationally. However, while property companies are currently experimenting with social value on projects across the country, there is no consistent way to measure the outcomes.  

“Property companies are using a mishmash of methodologies, which is admirable, but also expensive,” says Ms Rooney.  

“It’s contributing to a tangle of misaligned, exclusive tools used by just a few organisations. If we continue on this path, we risk leaving people and communities behind.” 

A universal framework would create a shared language to communicate the value of great design, replicate lessons learnt, and hold the industry accountable to the long-term impacts of its developments. 

The discussion paper provides a launchpad to finding a universal way of measuring outcomes such as equity, social cohesion, cultural value, improved health, education, strengthened supply chains, increased employment, reduced carbon emissions and positive impacts on nature, through the delivery of assets. 

The data from previous work to measure social value in Australia has highlighted the significant returns available. Below are three examples which are included in the discussion paper. 

  • One of the first attempts to measure the social value in Australia’s property industry was by Stockland in 2013. The developer asked EY to put a dollar figure on the social connections, programs, activities and sense of safety and security in its retirement living estates. It was found that every dollar invested delivered $1.66 in social value and that state governments saved $162 million a year from avoided health and care costs. 
  • “Making Impact” is a longitudinal study commissioned by IPUT Real Estate Dublin - and developed in collaboration with Hassell and international placemaking and design experts PRD and Gehl - to track and assess the social impact of investment at their Wilton Park estate in Dublin. The inaugural report, the first in a series to be published over the next five years, presents the measurement framework and the initial findings from the first year of social impact measurement. 
  • Published in 2022, Sustainability Victoria’s assessment of the Victorian Healthy Homes Program found upgrading the energy efficiency and thermal comfort of homes improved residents’ health and quality of life, as well as the costs and carbon savings. The research was emphatic: for every $1 saved in energy, more than $10 is saved in health care costs. 

Creating a universal measurement framework will also allow the property industry to better advocate for the introduction of policies that create social value, in line with multiple government policy goals. 

“There are huge benefits to be gained in getting it right,” says Hassell’s Managing Director, Liz Westgarth. “By taking a holistic approach, we can strengthen our communities, and enhance the lives of the people who inhabit those communities - as well as the natural environment they sit within. 

“Developing a shared understanding of social value is essential for our industry to ensure we’re accountable for the long-term impacts of our work, can communicate the value of great design and apply what we learn to design better buildings, places, and cities.” 

In developing the paper, GBCA and Hassell undertook a review of 36 Australian and international research reports and consulted with 26 people from 23 organisations. Participants were selected based on their experience in creating and advocating for social value nationally and internationally, and from within and outside the built environment. 

GBCA welcomes industry feedback on the discussion paper