Stories from the drawing board:
Joe Karten, Built

Joe Karten began with national construction company Built as a Project Engineer – Sustainability in 2012 after several years working for the Green Building Council of Australia as a technical expert. His dedication to sustainability innovation has seen him rise to the role of National Sustainability Manager at Built, where he leads the company’s effort to continually raise the bar in terms of delivering better buildings.

Karten has been committed to improving the built environment since his days at university in the USA, where he completed a Bachelor of Science, Construction Management.

“I participated in a LEED course and the idea of using construction as a force for good really connected with me,” Karten says.

“The fact that buildings are such a large contribution to energy usage, water usage, waste generation and have such a profound impact on their occupants, I was inspired to find a movement set out to maximise the benefits buildings could provide.

“I then received a fellowship to study green buildings internationally which took me to 45 cities in 11 countries over a nine-month independent study tour.”

Karten started work with the Green Building Council of Australia in 2007 as Technical Coordinator – Certification and has continued to hold a range of roles with the GBCA and other organisations including the Responsible Construction Leadership Group.

He is a LEED, WELL and Green Star Accredited Professional, and has been recognised as a leader in the industry.

In his time with Built, the company has used or investigated the majority of ratings systems designed to benchmark and improve building performance and environmental impact. Recent projects have achieved certification under Green Star; LEED; WELL; NABERS Energy, Water and IE; and, started the process of One Planet Living. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) and Petal Certification has also been investigated for particular tenders.

Karten says the LBC is the toughest due to the “degree it departs from business as usual”.

The requirement to avoid Red List products and materials makes selection of materials “fierce”. The Red List includes compounds such as PVC, chloroprene, VOCs and formaldehyde for example, which we work hard to minimise but that can be hard to entirely eliminate.

Where most tools aim to achieve the most impact by focusing on key areas such as structural materials and major fit-out items, and that might capture 99 percent of project impacts, the LBC forces the team to “put energy into the one percent”.

It takes time to vet materials, and it also can be costly, Karten says. However, a team does develop a useful body of knowledge through taking the approach which can be applied to future design and construct projects.

Built does not just focus on the operational emissions of buildings it constructs, but also uses systems such as eTool to model the lifecycle impact of projects. Materials such as concrete, steel, façade glazing and other elements can have a major embodied carbon footprint. Karten explains that the more detailed parts of the fitout are also examined, right down to lockers, carpets and lighting.

Overall, using a sustainability rating tool delivers positive outcomes not only for the building but also for the occupants.

“It drives a thorough specification and vetting process of materials used from an occupant health and well-being through to an environmental impact perspective,” Karten says.

It also challenges the project team.

“It requires new processes to be implemented and a revised consciousness about how we build,” Karten says.

“Not all project teams take to it enthusiastically, but I’ve seen a significant shift over my eight years at Built in just how much the younger generation is getting behind green building practices as the right thing to do.”

While it adds a “level of complexity and administrative burden” because there is a lot of chasing information and educating of suppliers and subcontractors involved, Karten says “it also allows our engineers to get creative in how they solve the problem of a sustainability pathway.”

“Can we offer the rating the client seeks for less cost? Can we offer a better rating? Built has managed to uplift 55% of all ESD ratings we’ve been asked to deliver for clients through careful and strategic thinking about how all aspects of the project add to its overall sustainability and alignment with Green Star, LEED and WELL initiatives.”

The executive level of Built are highly committed to a responsible approach.

“Leadership and culture is very strong at Built. It influences all decision making,” Karten says.

“As we’ve built a reputation for exceeding client expectations around sustainability, it has become a source of pride within the culture. People really do enjoy what they do at Built and achieving great sustainability results on projects gives the project team a unique source of pride in feeling like part of the solution to what is really a big and scary problem.

“Having strong leadership and culture to back initiatives like sustainability really just gets the whole team pulling in the same direction, which makes the change to business as usual much easier to achieve.”

While many clients explicitly want a sustainable building, some may need to be convinced to raise their level of ambition.

Karten says he likes to ask the hesitant ones, “at the end of this process, do you want to hold a stranded asset?”

Where clients already want a better result, he says they typically set their broad sustainability targets before Built is involved.

“We then get to review the initiatives they’ve put in place to get there and work out whether there are more cost-effective ways to deliver on their targets,” he explains.

“The beauty of rating systems is that they’re points-based. If we can find a similar – or greater – number of points that can be picked up for a smaller cost, it’s our competitive advantage.”

Karten says people need to be “considering the long term” when thinking about a project. Today’s buildings need to be ready for a climate-changed future. They need to be resilient, and project teams need to be “building for a carbon-constrained future” and considering the health and wellbeing needs of occupants.

Overall, thinking sustainably is a “good way of solving problems and can deliver more value, without adding to the budget.”

For anyone initiating a project, Karten believes “getting a construction partner on board who thoroughly understands sustainability ratings is an avenue to achieving great sustainable outcomes without spending more money.”

And the best solution may not even be a whole new building.

“If we take this back to first principles, in a nod to the name of this publication, we know that the most sustainable action is to take advantage of what already exists before building new.

“Retrofitting an old building to perform brilliantly from an energy, water and indoor environment perspective will provide ongoing operational sustainability benefits whilst taking full advantage and extending the life of expended embodied carbon.”

While it is very important to have the client onboard, project teams can still take the lead even when the client isn’t on the same page.

“At some stage we all need to simply take it upon ourselves to see we’re ramping up our efforts because it’s the right thing to do and it’s what’s needed,” Karten says.

“(For example), Built uses 100% GreenPower in our sites and offices whether or not the client has sustainability aspirations. It’s a great way to promote the growth of renewable electricity supplies and enable our company to show we walk the walk.”

The sustainability focus has resulted in some projects Karten is extremely proud of, including 20 Martin Place in Sydney, which was the first base building where Built uplifted a Green Star commitment from 5 Star to 6 Star.

“We retained a 20-storey steel structure and completed our first eTool life cycle assessment on a Green Star project. We’ve now completed over a dozen of these.

“U-City in Adelaide is an amazing project that mixes multiple uses in a tower including disability accommodation and achieved an uplifted 6 Star Green Star As Built rating.

4 Paramatta Square is another green milestone and being “in the public eye” makes it a high profile one. Some of the sustainability requirements were driven by local council planning requirements, including a commitment to achieve 5 Star Green Star and 5 Star NABERS for Energy.

But Built upped the ante and aimed higher, achieving a 6 Star Green Star As Built rating, because as Karten says, “we love finding ways to unlock all the sustainability potential in projects.”

“It’s smart business practice, and it gets clients excited about Green Star.”

We’re now delivering on our in-house skills with 6 Star Green Star Interiors and WELL Platinum ratings targeted on our own head office being built in Sydney within Substation 164, itself a sustainable adaptive re-use of a pair of hundred year old buildings that our development company is re-lifing.


Given his experience, we asked Karten what advice he would give to engineers working for organisations that do not regard climate change or sustainability as a core consideration?

“Decide whether that is a deal breaker for you and make a call,” he says.

“However, in this period of economic and financial uncertainty, it’s hard to recommend that people quit their jobs if their organisations aren’t 100% politically aligned. Rather, look for the opportunities to make change from within, through your actions, through how you engage with your teams and clients.

“Show your organisations how considering climate change and sustainability will open them up to working on the best projects. At this stage, it’s not really a differentiator, but more of a hygiene factor. If a company isn’t addressing climate change in some way, they’re simply making themselves irrelevant.”

Karten credits his ability to pursue a fulfilling career of purpose to his partner Holly who assumed full-time carer responsibility of their two young children.

And it’s his children and the next generation who really inspire Karten. Recalling a variation on his favourite quote by Native American Chief Seattle, “‘We don’t inherit the earth from our mothers and fathers, we borrow it from our sons and daughters’.

“They inspire me to overcome the status quo and work towards a future that is fairer, healthier and more resilient.”


Written by Willow Aliento

Willow is a STEAM wordsmith, researcher and networker working on ideas, research and strategy through to polished words and production across all media/channels both digital and traditional.
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