From dreams to delivery: Ken Morrison reflects on 'Team Green'

15 Dec 2022

Ken Morrison’s role as powerful advocate for sustainable property is well known. But his pivotal role in the Green Building Council of Australia’s history is a less familiar story. As he steps down from the GBCA’s board of directors after eight years, we asked Ken to reflect on two decades championing “Team Green”.

As a leading policy thinker, Ken has influenced everything from political conversations to the shape of our cities. Ken joined the GBCA’s board of directors in 2014 when he took on the role of Chief Executive at the Property Council of Australia – a role he relinquishes at the end of this year.

But Ken’s work with the GBCA stretches back to 2002, when he was seconded by the Property Council as a “launch advisor” for the fledgling green building association.

It was an exciting era. The Sydney Olympics had “put sustainability on the industry’s agenda” and there was a “growing sense of something new emerging,” Ken says. The Property Council had established the first sustainability committee in New South Wales, “taking tentative steps to do what the GBCA now leads so well”. The chair of that committee was Maria Atkinson AM, who was to become the GBCA’s first CEO. Another committee member, Ché Wall, was a founding director of the GBCA and inaugural chair of the World Green Building Council.

“We were looking at the idea of sustainability guides and conferences, sharing knowledge and connecting with international bodies. From that milieu of looking for opportunities, a growing view emerged that we needed to take what we were doing to the next level.”

Following Maria Atkinson’s appointment as CEO, the Property Council’s team offered their top policy advisor on a part-time basis. Half of Ken’s time was spent drumming up support for the GBCA, the other half spent in his “day job” as NSW policy manager.

In those early days, the GBCA was nothing more than a couple of laptops. “It was a scrambly old time,” Ken reflects. “We would hop around Sydney, meeting in cafés and whipping up proposals on our laptops. When two people are trying to create an organisation, you get to do a lot of fun things.”

Green Games to game-changing

Sydney’s 'Green Games' had set new benchmarks for excellence in sustainable design. But there was no industry-accepted metrics or methodology to measure sustainable building, and few assessment tools or benchmarks for best practice. There was no organised approach to knowledge-sharing or collaboration. Nor was there any way for the industry to promote or profit from green building leadership. 

It was against this backdrop that Ken began talking to politicians and policy makers. Ken’s connections helped the GBCA gain crucial government support, including the endorsement of former premiers Bob Carr and Steve Bracks AC. Carr, for instance, publicly lauded the GBCA’s plan to produce a “simple, national green building rating scheme” as “the sort of activity that Australia excels at: industry and government working together to achieve better environmental outcomes”.

By October 2002, the GBCA had secured enough industry backing to host a launch event. The Australian Financial Review hailed it as a “who's who of the property industry”. Among those in attendance was Brendan Crotty, then managing director of Australand (now Frasers Property Australia), Ken Maher AO, long-time chair of Hassell and recently retired president of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, former Property Council chief executive Peter Verwer AO and Grocon's CEO Daniel Grollo.

“The industry could have sat back and played follower. But instead, the industry decided to lean in. Setting up a body – the Green Building Council of Australia – gave the industry the best chance of success. And I think the validation of that strategy is in the GBCA’s position today, and where the property industry sits globally,” Ken says.

“We know world’s best practice is happening here in Australia. We see that in the GRESB outcomes and our 13 wins in 13 years as the world’s most sustainable region. Australia has the second largest green building council in the world. We are punching well above our weight and setting an international agenda.”

Ambition to action

The items on the GBCA’s agenda are more ambitious with each passing year. The focus on energy efficiency, always important, must be even sharper in a decarbonised world, Ken notes. “We know the transition costs to upgrade the grid will be very expensive – our energy efficiency efforts in the built environment can ease the transition.

“Getting the residential sector into the game is also important work,” he adds. Australia’s largest volume builders and residential developers are on board, but the fragmented market makes mainstreaming sustainability a tough task. Green Star Homes – a “consistent rating tool so we have a measure for the market” – is a crucial lever and “we are on the cusp of strong progress”.

Embodied carbon is the “next tough nut to crack,” Ken adds. “Real estate uses lots of steel and concrete and glass and has a lot of carbon sitting within existing assets. The challenge is to leverage the embodied carbon in those assets to lower the emissions intensity of new builds.”

While these challenges loom large, Ken is confident that Australia’s “commitment to consistency and collaboration” will continue to deliver dividends.

“Green Star is a measuring stick for performance – but also a measuring stick for ambition.” That ambition has changed over time, but the rating system’s quality, trustworthiness and transparency has been transformative.

Momentum is building, backed by “global multi-disciplinary drivers for change,” he adds.

“We are now in an environment where there are commitments from government, investors seeking change, new information requirements mandated to companies in Australia and overseas, and a real appetite from the consumer, particularly from younger people.

“Real estate companies are long-term focused by nature. They need to be taking sustainability seriously, and the good news is most are doing that.”

Australia’s “Team Green” – that powerful coalition of property voices led by the GBCA, Property Council and ASBEC – will continue to up the ante. “Team Green doesn’t exist in any other country that I know of – and that means we are better together.”

While Ken’s next move is yet to be determined, he looks forward to playing a new role shaping the future of the nation and will remain a firm advocate of ‘Team Green’ wherever his career takes him. “Sustainability won’t go away or ‘run its course’. Sustainability will only gain momentum.”