A carbon tax was not on the radar when Stephen Byron and his brother Tom Snow began developing plans for the Brindabella business park at Canberra airport.

''We wanted to build Australia's first five green star rated large-scale commercial building, and we didn't want to get an award for trying to do it. We want to do it, and to do it, we had to challenge orthodoxies,'' Mr Byron says.

The project had its fair share of detractors and naysayers, and Mr Byron recalls being told many green design features on their sustainability tick list were impossible to deliver, or would be too costly.

''We were constantly being told, 'We can't do that' by our sub-contractors, and we would simply say, 'You have to do it'.

''And as a result, the project drove a lot of innovation and became an example of what could be done.''

The business precinct has become an Australian benchmark in sustainable design and energy self-sufficiency. It has Australia's largest on-site gas tri-generation plant, and Canberra's first commercial-scale water recycling system. It was also the first commercial development to use recycled concrete and steel.

Cutting energy and water use were driving factors in the design, and a decade later the development has repaid that investment. The energy savings ''are immense'', Mr Byron says.

''We produce 75 per cent less carbon dioxide than a standard office building and 55 per cent less than an average five-star rated building. I'm proud of what we've achieved.''

Windows are tinted and double-glazed, and the the air-conditioning uses a hydronic loop (water carries more energy than air) called a chiller beam system to cool and heat air. Buildings are also designed to reduce dependence on artificial lighting by providing maximum access to natural light.

Mr Byron describes the tri-generation plant as operating on ''a Goldilocks system'' with big, medium and small generation that can be combined according to energy demand.

''It's about right-sizing, and matching the load required.''

All new buildings in the business park have had solar panels installed, which generate electricity to power domestic hot water in each building.

Mr Byron says he'd like to see a more collaborative approach to commercial-scale planning in Canberra with buildings groups to allow them to the share off-grid power generation from a central system. Rosslyn Beeby