Efficiency Leader - Suzanne Toumbourou 16 June 2021

The energy management sector is made up of many passionate professionals. 

In this month’s Efficiency Leader, we are profiling Suzanne Toumbourou as she wraps up almost ten years with the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC). ASBEC is an umbrella organisation for industry and professional associations and NGOs committed to a sustainable built environment in Australia; the Energy Efficiency Council is a longstanding ASBEC member.

Can you explain your role with ASBEC?

When I started with ASBEC almost exactly nine years ago, I came on board in more of a secretariat capacity as Executive Officer. In 2014 I transitioned to a more forward-facing role as Executive Director. My job is to help advance the collective vision of almost thirty industry and professional associations, towards a more sustainable, productive and liveable built environment.

What did you do prior to coming to ASBEC?

Many things! Throughout my 20s, I worked my way through several sectors, including retail, manufacturing, government, management consultancies and eventually landed within the NGO sector.  The role that shaped my current trajectory was with the Australian Conservation Foundation, where I worked closely with CEO Don Henry, forging alliances with other environmental NFPs, interest groups, and business leaders.

I also worked on a short contract with the Australian Building Sustainability Association (ABSA), which gave me insight into the benefits and radical challenges in household sustainability and energy efficiency and how important is in the built environment. And just prior to coming on board with ASBEC I did a short stint as Executive Director of GetUp!, which gave me insight into the impact of a certain form of activism.

It was while I was at Uni that I decided that the best way to make a difference was to engage and collaborate with those you are trying to influence, rather than ‘fight’ them. So I switched to a marketing/business degree and used this education to inform my approach to governance and communication. All of this eventually landed me in this terrifically privileged position at the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

What has been the highlight of your time with ASBEC?

There are two ways to look at this. One definite highlight is the enormous generosity of spirit of the membership toward collaborative outcomes - how supportive they are in achieving sustainable goals and outcomes.

In terms of what ASEBC has achieved as an organisation, I would say that informing the COAG Energy Council’s Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings, as well as changes to the National Construction Code, through a collaborative and collective effort with members of government, education, social, industry and consumer sectors, is both the most recent and most powerful impact we have made. We trust these are going to make a real difference going forward. There is much more I could point to – but these are the highlights.

How do you stay connected with your team when you aren’t in the office?

Although ASBEC has only one paid and one part-time staff, this is the wrong way to look at our organisation as it doesn’t recognise the massive investment our members make with in-kind contribution of their time, whether it is participating in task groups, the board, the council – you name it. Over 200 member representatives deliver, advocate, formulate and fund our work. Although pre-covid we collaborated over zoom, we traditionally have three council meetings a year in person where we’ve managed to find a round table to fit 40 members, all of who have an equal seat at the table. This in-person collaboration has enabled us to build trust and share knowledge.

Because we had cultivated such a tight network – the collaborative spirit has endured although covid has had implications on how well people have been able to bond. We’ve adjusted by making a lot of phone calls – and have been able to get a lot more personal and know a lot more about each other – our human challenges as well as global challenges. However, there is nothing like a nice cup of coffee with a colleague or member. As we are starting to come back, you realise how important they are.

How do you champion energy efficiency in your own home?

With great difficulty! I’m currently living in a Sydney apartment and strata laws provide an immense barrier to making improvements. I’ve been able to make the more superficial changes, like sealing up vents, installing energy efficient appliances and lights, changing shower heads, but things like glazing and insulation and other cost-effective measures are hard to do.  We do what we can – and as a four-person family, we use the same energy as the average two-person household in our area.

What are you currently excited about in the sustainability space?

ASBEC is internationally unique in our mission of uniting a collection of peak bodies around sustainability and energy issues. We have created real momentum in this space that we think can be replicated across other sectors. That momentum has been embraced and absorbed by state and federal government, and there is real potential and progress toward the expansion of NABERS to better assess commercial buildings and home energy ratings, so we can make more conscious choices in what we invest in and rent.

Outside the building sector, I’m very excited about the success coming out of the Coalition for Healthy and Affordable Homes, including higher minimum standards for new homes, standards for rental properties, and existing home energy ratings. It excites me that the consciousness of the built form has great outcomes for energy use and efficiency as well as comfort, economic, health, and emissions that are permeating more deeply across the policy sphere. You can really see the social benefit that can be delivered.

Why do you value ASBEC’s association with the Energy Efficiency Council?

The Energy Efficiency Council is just one of ASBEC’s thirty-odd industry members, but it is remarkable to see how much EEC’s narrative has been embraced across the building sector. Our members might focus on water use, circular economy, resilience – a broad variety of metrics and indices - but it signifies a great amount of harmony that the group as a whole is prioritising net zero and efficiency first. Given building operations represent 25% of Australia’s emissions - not construction – the big gain is in operational emissions, and the big lever is efficiency. It has been a wonderful partnership.

Suzanne Toumbourou wraps up her tenure as executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) at the end of June 2021 before taking the reins as CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR). 

Connect with Suzanne on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published in the June edition of Efficiency Insight.