When Romilly Madew wrote a paper about green buildings making good business sense, it changed the whole industry. Today, as the CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia, she continues to drive innovation.
Romilly Madew (BAgrEcon ’91) began a revolution more than 10 years ago when she was asked by industry body, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), to help answer its most frequently asked question – why should we build green?
“At the time there had been no analysis of buildings in Australia and so there was no business case to go to CEOs and boards in the industry to explain the benefits of designing and constructing a green building,” she says.
Produced after 12 months reviewing international and local case studies and consulting with key industry players, Madew’s resulting report, The Dollars and Sense of Green Building, was Australia’s first business case for sustainable construction.
It’s hard to overstate the report’s influence on Australia’s property and construction industry. Not only did it prove that investments in sustainability could pay off in real dollar terms, but it also identified actions that building in Australia.
“It was about saying to industry ‘this is why it is so important for the economy and for you, the property owner’ because the benefits go beyond energy efficiency,” Madew says. “It’s about improving the value of the asset, attracting tenants and increasing competitiveness.”
Given the success of the report, it was no surprise when Madew took over the reins as Chief Executive of GBCA in 2006.
Under her leadership, the GBCA has worked with property and construction companies to transform Australia’s built environment into one that is healthier and more productive.
More than 1000 buildings across the country have been certified for their environmental performance using the GBCA’s Green Star rating system, with nearly 150 projects achieving a coveted six Green Star rating, indicating ‘world leadership’.
“The property and construction industry in Australia is now leading the world in how it drives change with sustainability in the built environment - that is a fact. All the indices globally prove that,” Madew says.
“Even though we’re a small industry when compared with other markets such as the United States or China, we all want to push the boundaries of innovation, even when it could be considered risky.
“How exciting is that? Who gets to do that every day of their life?”
While the sustainable agenda guides the work of property and construction businesses today, Madew says it wasn’t always this way. Despite taking on the leadership role with enthusiasm and big aspirations, she says the change she wanted to see was slow in coming.
“In the early days I would constantly hear ‘why would we do it?’, ‘it’s too hard’, ‘we don’t believe in sustainability’ and, especially following the global financial crisis [in 2008], ‘we’re not going to spend money if we don’t have to’. I had never encountered so much negativity in my life.”
Others might have found the frustration of the situation overwhelming, but Madew’s early-career experiences and education had armed her with the perseverance to push on and succeed.
Madew confesses she wasn’t always sure where her career was headed, but she always felt a connection to the land. It’s the reason she eagerly anticipated holidays spent on her school friends’ family farms, and it’s the reason she decided to study for a Bachelor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Sydney.
“There was no rhyme or reason as to why I wanted to do the course, apart from the fact that I knew that I loved the bush and I loved being outside - I wanted to be on the land,” she says.
Madew says studying Agricultural Economics sparked her initial interest in sustainability and environmental change - primarily through practical fieldwork in central NSW and a final year project examining the grassroots movement, Landcare Australia.
“Even though I had family and friends in the country, I was still very much a ‘city girl’, so those experiences were fantastic,” she says.
“I can now get up in front of a room of 200 male engineers and say ‘I have driven a tractor out the back of Nyngan with tyres three times the size of me. Have you?’”
Participation in the University’s rowing club complemented her studies and armed Madew with a confidence and competitive drive that helped her succeed in the corporate world. “
Throughout my career people have asked me how I have achieved what I have in a male-dominated world, and I keep coming back to the experiences of those early days - going into a male-dominated degree and taking up rowing - which helped me later in life,” she says.
This confidence and tenacity would prove vital to Madew’s rapid career success after graduating. But a senior job at the Property Council of Australia reignited her interest in sustainability.
“It absolutely fascinated me how the corporate world of property and construction could shift and be interested in transformational change,” she says.
“I could see the parallels - farmers were traditionally very conservative but needed to change the way they thought of their processes, and I realised the property and construction industry was facing the same issues.”
This passion has been the key to Madew’s success in leading the GBCA. It has also earned her a global reputation as a leader in the sustainability sector, as reflected in her numerous honours, including a Telstra Business Women’s Award, an International Leadership Award from the US Green Building Council and an invitation to join pre-eminent advocacy group, Chief Executive Women. Most recently she was named Pittwater Citizen of the Year.
The way Madew spends her spare time reveals just how unstoppable and downright organised she is: she is the President of the Bilgola Beach Surf Life Saving Club, a keen surfboat rower and ocean swimmer, and recently climbed to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband, three children and 18 extended family members. “
We don’t know of any other family who has done what we did,” she says. “And we all made it to the top.”
Romilly Madew nominates two very different buildings to show the many ways that a building can earn its stars from the Green Building Council of Australia.
“This incredible building shows that even the most iconic, historic and challenging buildings can be energy efficient and sustainable,” Madew says. “If you can green the Opera House, you can green anything.” Some of its green features:
“The largest commercial office development in Sydney’s central business district, Commonwealth Bank Place is arguably Australia’s most sustainable office,” Madew says. “Its efficiencies are equivalent to taking 680 cars off the road and saving 13 Olympic swimming pools of water every year.” Some of its green features:
Written by Jennifer Peterson-Ward
Photography by Victoria Baldwin (BA ’14)