Born and raised in the Middle East, Dr Stefen MacAskill has had a long interest in sustainable development and the ways in which buildings can be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. After undertaking his tertiary education in Australia, and more recently completing his PhD at Griffith University in 2021, Stefen now divides his time between working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Griffith Institute for Tourism, and as a Sustainability Consultant for WSP Engineering Consultants.
Tell us about the path which led you to becoming a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith, and how you first became interested in your area of research?
In high school I had always known that I wanted to work in the sustainable development field, and was equally interested in economics and finance. Whilst these are quite different fields, the concepts are interdependent. As a short answer, my path to my current roles has been through a mix of experiences working in academia and industry. A lot can be learned in both. Industry jobs—especially consultancy—tend to build expertise in a narrow but very practical field; academia is about diving into the unknown and it can present many opportunities for learning about a field more broadly.
The long answer begins with my first ‘real’ job after completing my Bachelor of Business. I was working in a project finance role for a large contractor building the Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver, Canada. At the time it was one of the largest projects in North America and has the second longest cable-stayed bridge span in the northern hemisphere! Vancouver was investing heavily in major infrastructure projects in the lead up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Sustainability was a core feature of the games, and it shaped many discussions around green building, infrastructure and communities, which caught my interest. I later returned to university to complete my Masters of Urban & Environmental Planning, which had several courses focused on green building and sustainable design in communities.
‘I believe it is important to see the world and learn about different cultures and ways of doing things, including living sustainably.’
After graduation I was fortunate to work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as a sustainability consultant on many interesting city-shaping projects including: The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Airport and on the sustainability strategy for Dubai’s bid to host the World Expo 2020. Working in this role it was exciting to see the positive impact sustainable design in buildings could have on operational energy and water savings over their life-span. My time up to this point had always focused on my studies and career, and I had rarely taken time for other pursuits such as travel. I believe it is important to see the world and learn about different cultures and ways of doing things, including living sustainably. I took the opportunity for a gap year, spending the time to travel to each continent and spent about a month in each country I visited. It was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone, before or after starting your career. As I was coming to an end of the gap year, I was—and continue to be—interested to take learnings from my career to develop the business case for improving the operational efficiency of new and existing buildings. I was fortunate to receive a full scholarship from the National Affordable Housing Consortium to develop these ideas as the focus of my PhD thesis at Griffith University. The research developed during my PhD led me on the path to becoming a Postdoctoral Research Fellow.
Your research in recent years has focused on affordable housing and green building (both very relevant right now!). Can you explain a little about how these areas intersect?
‘Affordable’ housing is a term which tends to get thrown around a little bit, particularly in the political realm. My research has tended to focus on low and middle-income households, who spend a disproportionate amount of their net income on utility (energy, water, gas) bills.
‘My research in recent years has focused on how to address the issue of how we can make housing more affordable in the long term whilst also using less resources.’
Housing markets in much of the western world typically follow a ‘build-to-sell’ model where, in most transactions, there is little incentive for the developer to invest in measures which may reduce the utility consumption and environmental impact of a building. This issue is particularly acute in rental housing. In Australia, affordable rental housing subsidies form a meaningful part of state and federal budgets. Subsidies are typically paid to developers and landlords to provide lower cost rental housing to eligible households, however there is often no consideration to utility efficiency.
My recent research has focused on how we can make housing more affordable in the long term whilst also using less resources. Among other aspects, it has explored policy structures to incentivise developers and investors to deliver better, ‘greener’ housing from the design stage, including opportunities for financing via the sustainable finance market. The emerging ‘build-to-rent’ sector, and affordable rental housing investment models which are conducive to large institutional investors are a suitable template for making broader shifts to more green housing available in the market.
Your career has taken you to the United Arab Emirates as a sustainability consultant. Firstly, how did you come across this opportunity, and do you have any advice to graduates who would like to seek out opportunities to work overseas? Secondly, what are some of the environmental differences in building sustainably in the UAE compared with Australia?
I was born and raised—for the most part—in the Middle East region, therefore I had existing family in the UAE. Like many expats, my Canadian parents had intended to go overseas on a short-term assignment but ended up spending many decades overseas. I was aware that Abu Dhabi had recently created and mandated a green building standard for all new buildings and large community developments. I was engaged by a recruiter who shared the opportunity with me.
My advice to graduates interested in pursuing work abroad would be to do your research on the field and country which you hope to relocate to, and don’t be shy to reach out to people with well thought out questions and information about yourself. There are a good majority of professionals which would be happy to help or perhaps refer you to the right people.
In all built-up population centres in the UAE, climate conditions are extreme, especially in the summer months. Extreme climate conditions exist in Australia, but the majority of the population reside in more temperate coastal regions. Building ‘sustainably’ in both countries share many similarities given their emphasis on sustainable materials, energy and water efficiency. The main differences are regarding options for adaptation which are suited to a given climate.
Do you have any advice for the current generation of engineering and urban planning students hoping to tackle the issues of sustainability, affordable housing and green building?
I would recommend that students get familiar with the various green building certification schemes around the world and their core guiding principles. These will provide a solid foundation. Many certification schemes share similarities, however are adapted to suit local conditions. The World Green Building Council provides a good overview of the various schemes internationally. ‘Green Star’ certification is one of the more common rating schemes sought after by clients in Australia.
‘Buildings may be designed sustainably with best intentions, but how we use and consume resources in these spaces has a large effect on their environmental impact over time.’
Can you tell us a bit about some current projects you are working on?
I share my time between a research and industry role during the week, therefore I am working on a few projects.
As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith, my colleagues Professor Susanne Becken, Associate Professor Alexandra Coghlan, Dr. Christopher Warren and I, are working on a research project which examines the energy, water and gas consumption of a global sample of hotels, and the influence of behavioural nudges which are designed to reduce occupant consumption. We are able to measure the impact of various ‘interventions’ over time through real-time data, enabled through a network of smart meters installed at each location. The research forms part of a multi-year grant funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).
Buildings may be designed sustainably with best intentions, but how we use and consume resources in these spaces has a large effect on their environmental impact over time. Influencing occupant behaviour towards resource savings actions, whether subconsciously or consciously, can have an incremental but meaningful positive impact over time towards reducing energy, water and gas consumption of our built environment. Through this research we hope to broaden the understanding of this field.
As a Sustainability Consultant at WSP, I work as part of a team which includes architects, engineers, contractors and other specialist disciplines to deliver green buildings for clients. I work on several projects, however most of my time is spent on ‘The Queens Wharf’ development in the Brisbane CBD. The project is part of a broader precinct redevelopment consisting of several new hotel and residential towers, ‘The Star’ casino, heritage and public community spaces. The project is targeting an ambitious 6 Green Star rating, which is considered ‘World Leadership’ in environmentally sustainable building practices.