The LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction ensures that its activities are aligned with the leading-edge of sustainable development across architectural, scientific, cultural and policy concerns. The important role of setting strategic direction is the responsibility of the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation.
The Board is a diverse group of eleven people with a broad mix of skills and knowledge who share a common passion for creating a more sustainable built environment. Maria Atkinson AM became the Chairperson of the Board in 2021 following the retirement of Roland Köhler, former Deputy CEO of the LafargeHolcim Group. We talked to Maria about her background, her experience, and her vision for the Foundation.
LafargeHolcim Foundation: As Co-Founder of the Green Building Council of Australia, an interest in sustainable construction is clearly not a new thing for you – how did you come to be involved with the LafargeHolcim Foundation?
Maria Atkinson: I was approached after speaking at the International Green Building Conference (IGBC) held in Singapore in 2012 by Edward Schwarz of the LafargeHolcim Foundation. He introduced me to Rolf Soiron, who chaired the Board at the time. It was fascinating to hear the backstory and I immediately shared their enthusiasm – particularly given the global reach and influence that the Foundation was creating.
Back then, my built environment background included working on several projects at the first “Green Games” – the Sydney 2000 Olympics – where we aimed to move beyond “greenwash” to create sustainable infrastructure such as the athlete’s village (which was at the time the world’s largest solar-powered suburb). I was also global head of sustainability for Lendlease, an international property development and construction company.
LHF: Since you’ve joined the Board of the Foundation in 2013, how has sustainable construction evolved?
MA: The sustainability agenda has certainly become more pressing and also has benefited from professional investment in the objectives and measures of success. There’s also a strong push to move beyond shining beacons of sustainability to see quantitative change at scale, because it’s only when we multiply positive gains that it will be possible to achieve positive impact such as reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals or reducing the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
The skills required to understand and evaluate the interdependence of economy, society and the environment are quite sophisticated and yet they also rely on an ancient understanding of keeping within the balance of systems. Changing anything isn’t a single event – a series of iterative loops that are necessary across people and activities. This can happen anywhere along the value chain from investment, planning, design, production, construction, building use, re-use and adaptation, and also decommissioning. Thinking of government policy, for example, these loops of change will touch upon compliance, efficiency, partnerships, standards, and markets – to name but a few.
LHF: What have been some of the most memorable aspects of the Foundation’s activities in which you’ve been involved?
MA: I was a member of the Global Awards jury in 2012 and 2015, which were both wonderful opportunities to evaluate a range of brilliant projects from around the world and discuss them with amazing people. But something I’ll continue to treasure was the opportunity to visit the Global Silver Awards winning project – a community library and a place of social recuperation in Sri Lanka.
The architectural design was stunning and creates light-filled and airy community spaces. In addition to concrete, the architects had inventively used local recycled materials including steel sections from factories and timber railway sleepers, as well as rammed earth. But what stays with me is the focus on social outcomes. In a country beleaguered by 40 years of civil war, enabling capacities and human capital was central to this heart-centred approach to architecture. Basic construction skills are learnt by former soldiers, in a process designed to not only create a beautiful and healthy community asset – but, more importantly, to educate a labour force so they could replicate passive design principles and apply their skills to further projects such as building homes for their families.
LHF: What are the greatest opportunities for sustainable construction in the future?
MA: The Covid-19 pandemic is impacting the way we interact and demonstrates that change is not always negative – that remaining in status quo has the greater negative consequences. The world needs to change at a rapid pace, and this is enabling many ideas that had previously not found room “on the table” to be considered.
New systems of working and living are being invented, and we have adapted to them. The adoption of contactless delivery and virtual exchange has accelerated, not to mention the super-charged access to learning and sharing. Efficiencies, externalities, measurement, reporting, data and science have been sharply brought into focus.
LHF: You’re also the first person to chair the Board who has direct experience in the green building movement. Does this background give you a different perspective?
I trained as a laboratory technician and then went on to obtain a degree in environmental science. I learnt how to test theories and then apply the learning to implement changes that improved the status quo. The Sydney Olympics 20 years ago allowed me to move from the natural environment to the built environment, and to generate momentum for changes needed to create greener buildings. Five years ago, I worked on city planning strategies to make the places in which we work and live more sustainable, liveable, and productive. I’m currently helping transformational technology and invention companies get to scale, and I hope to influence where “big money” is focused – to have the maximum positive impact.
My background across corporate, not-for-profit and government has honed my understanding of what’s not working and also lets me understand what could and should work. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to help the Foundation champion the changes needed to unlock the ideas to help us avoid the devastating impacts of climate change, contribute to social capital, improve the liveability of housing and work environments, and to close the materials loop so take-make-throw becomes a circular economy.
LHF: What do you look forward to most of all as Chairperson of the Board?
MA: I look forward to moderating the LafargeHolcim Forum 2022 in São Paulo to explore the crucial topic of Re-manufacturing Construction in achieving net zero emissions and circular construction. The Venice Biennale of Architecture 2021 on “How will we live together?” will be nourishing food for thought on innovation and trends – and the Awards Next Generation Lab in 2022 will showcase what young professionals are inventing and actuating. I am sincerely hoping that these activities will be able to take place, at least as hybrid events.
LHF: Can you explain what “AM” means following your name?
MA: Yes, it indicates that I was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, shortened to AM, in 2012 as part of the honours system for outstanding achievement and service. I was quite surprised and truly humbled to be notified! Maria Atkinson AM was recognised for service to the construction and real estate sector, particularly as a leader and contributor to environmentally sustainable building development in Australia.