When Coert Zachariasse made the switch from accountancy to real estate, it was because he wanted to be in an industry that was “bang in the center” of business. “The job was about looking in the rearview mirror, talking to clients about what happened last year,” he says of accounting. “All I wanted to do was to talk about what was next.”
Twenty-eight years old and with a partnership offer on the table, Zachariasse’s career was progressing nicely. But spreadsheets were not proving reason enough to get out of bed in the morning. “One day I looked at all the auditors’ statements filed on my computer and thought, ‘Is this the meaning of life?’”
A desire to work at the center of business could merely have been a youthful ambition, but since arriving at Netherlands-based Delta Development, his goal has proved prophetic: 20 years on, Zachariasse has turned the traditional development firm he joined in 1996 into one of the most influential sustainable property businesses in Europe.
Zachariasse has seized on one of the most innovative trends and positioned his business—founded by his father in 1988—at its radical edge. “The traditional sustainability approach is about buildings being less bad—reducing energy consumption and being more efficient,” he explains. But Zachariasse embraces a circular-economy approach that creates closed cycles for materials, energy, waste, and water, with everything having the potential to be composted or recycled back into industry. “This way, a building has a positive impact on the environment,” he says.
It is what Zachariasse perceives as the next step for sustainability, a philosophy at the heart of the Park 20|20 office-led development eight kilometers (5 mi) south of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Zachariasse hopes it will be the first real estate project to create a positive impact for the environment, generate more energy than it consumes (on site rather than through offsets), and employ main building materials that can be endlessly recycled.
The plan—on which construction is expected to be complete in 2017—is being built on the basis of Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design standards. The brainchild of American designer William McDonough, the primary architect/urban designer of Park 20|20, and German chemist Michael Braungart, C2C is a framework that views materials that cannot be composted as “technical nutrients” rather than waste. In short, McDonough and Braungart want to turn the manufacture of “stuff” into a positive force for the planet.
Now a nonprofit center, the San Francisco and Amsterdam–based Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute applies C2C hallmarks to products, assessing how healthy and environmentally friendly they are. Diverse companies, from the U.S. Postal Service to the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, have adopted the methodology. But until Park 20|20, a real estate developer had never sought to embrace it.
The C2C-inspired master plan is based on a few key principles. The development will be designed for disassembly: the buildings will be constructed as “material banks” that allow every component to be reused in another production process or returned as a raw material. Many of the construction materials will be nontoxic to humans and nature. The goal is for the scheme to thrive using renewable energy by turning waste into gas, heat, and clean fuels.
Zachariasse may have turned his back on accounting, but he still prefers that the numbers add up. While Park 20|20 represents a philosophical step forward for green real estate, Delta is working on developing alternative models for valuation and construction to ensure that environmentally friendly buildings remain economically viable. “Sustainability is a profitable business case,” he says. “Not making returns out of it doesn’t make sense; burning your money isn’t what it’s about.”
The roots of Park 20|20 go back almost a decade, when Delta purchased an aircraft factory complex near Schiphol Airport for redevelopment into the 230,000-square-meter (2.5 million sq ft) Fokker Logistics Park. “We realized there was a value in the materials we already had on site, so we reused most of them,” he says. It was the beginning of the company’s interest in material banking. Three years later, Park 20|20 was conceived.
The project, which had starting capital of €12.5 million (US$16.9 million), ignited when Zachariasse approached the Amsterdam city government and offered to swap a piece of the Fokker property for a site near the Hoofddorp rail station. “Lack of connectivity meant the office element of Fokker was not going well,” he recalls, “so I offered to turn the site into a full logistics park, removing 140,000 square meters [1.5 million sq ft] of offices from the region, and lowering excess supply. In exchange, I offered to build a better office scheme in a better location.”
The city was convinced. It lowered the land cost upfront, with payment due when lease agreements came into place rather than when construction began. It also allowed Delta to use part of the land as security against financing. In exchange, Delta gave the city a share of the project profits beyond a set return hurdle.
The innovation paid off. Park 20|20’s first phase, an 8,600-square-meter (93,000 sq ft) office and product showroom for Bosch Siemens Home Appliance Group, was sold in 2011 with a 23 percent return. Zachariasse says the scheme is achieving premium rents, too: in an area where the average market rent is €135 per square meter (US$17 per sq ft), Delta is signing pre-leases at €210 per square meter (US$26 per sq ft).
Zachariasse attributes this financial success to the quality of the building, which has living walls constructed with plants and soil, and a building-integrated photovoltaic roof—the most advanced solar technology, serving as a generator of electricity as well as part of the fabric of the building. These environmental features helped allow the building to be sold quickly to a pension fund at “an excellent price,” Zachariasse says. Moreover, Delta used innovative processes in order to cut construction costs while raising the quality of materials used.
The process innovation, now being repeated in the construction of an 8,000-square-meter (86,000 sq ft) building at Park 20|20 for offshore engineering company Bluewater, involves an entirely new approach to design and construction.
Park 20|20 is designed to offer the option of disassembly or reconfiguration if market demand changes. Windows can also be replaced as technology evolves to offer more energy-efficient products. “You see obsolete buildings that no longer serve a function,” says Zachariasse. “It would be great if there was an economic model that allowed the value to be recovered or [if] the land could be used for something else.” Buildings at Park 20|20 also have the flexibility to adapt to the needs of new tenants. At Bluewater’s headquarters, for example, ceramic tiles are being installed on the facade in a way that allows them to be removed and sent back to the factory if needs change.
“Traditional valuation models based on discounted cash flow analysis only recognize value in terms of the cash flow the tenant generates. But value can be seen in another way,” Zachariasse notes. Flexibility is value, he says.
“Usually after a tenant leaves a building, it’s just repainted before returning to market. But perhaps it would be more viable as a hotel,” he says. Park 20|20 is designed so that connections between floors can easily be changed and staircases repositioned, avoiding energy-intensive demolition processes to alter the building’s purpose. “That flexibility puts value in the core and shell because it’s possible to change the building’s function.”
Components of the buildings, from steel beams to light fittings, are conceived as “technical nutrients” rather than waste products for landfill and can be removed and redirected into new production processes on site or elsewhere, making the value of the product “infinite,” says Zachariasse. “A steel beam in a building is perfectly usable after 15 years,” he says.
Delta has devised financial leases with material suppliers that allow those suppliers to retain ownership of materials used in construction. Detailed plans are kept on file showing the exact materials used and where they were placed. The developer pays rent for use of building materials, with the supplier having the potential to recover the value of the material when the lease expires and take the components back if the building is disassembled. “This makes our upfront construction costs lower because we only invest in the use of the material. And it makes sense for suppliers because materials are valued on the expectation of rising commodity prices.”
Park 20|20 is being sewn together using a unique method that has saved about 20 percent in construction costs through “pure process efficiency,” says Zachariasse. Rather than allowing the architect to create the vision and assembling a one-off team to implement that vision, Delta has curated a team that works on the building engineering first, allowing the developer to understand the materials involved. “We began with the box of Legos, decided what we wanted, and then gave it to the architect to make something beautiful out of it.”
Delta asked suppliers which C2C-certified materials they had available. “There was discouragingly little, so we asked 72 suppliers to give us products they thought came close to what we needed,” says Zachariasse. “We ended up with 320 materials, and we involved MBDC [McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry] in the testing process.”
Eventually, Park 20|20 was able to attract 41 suppliers that have either obtained C2C certification or have been confirmed as a supplier of an acceptable alternative where no certified product exists. “In a traditional process, developers design the building and tender it out. Down the whole chain, everyone is hitting the bottom of your quality needs and at the lowest price, which isn’t creative or efficient,” says Zachariasse. “Since everyone in the supply chain gets contracted after the design has been done, you don’t benefit from their know-how in those early stages.”
He argues that while it is costly to undertake that testing and manage a more efficient supply chain, doing so is key to developing a financially viable green building. And in the case of Park 20|20, that team only needs to be curated once. “Technology doesn’t limit what can be achieved; it’s conventional economic models and processes that do that,” Zachariasse says.
Delta has established a project with Park 20|20 lender ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, to develop new models that reflect the circular potential of buildings. “Financial leases for materials are straightforward when it comes to loose materials,” says Zachariasse. “But for those that are part of the structure, it’s tricky. Today, legal definitions of ownership consider those materials as belonging to the developer. In the event of bankruptcy, there’s no recourse for the supplier if rent for those materials ceases. So we’re working on how to redefine contracts.”
Improving worker productivity is equally crucial at Park 20|20. Zachariasse is working with Arizona State University’s Global Sustainability Solutions Center to demonstrate linkages between the quality of buildings and their impact on occupants, measuring factors such as carbon dioxide levels, toxicity, sound, and light.
Zachariasse says early indications are encouraging, with a one-year internal review of the Bosch Siemens building showing increases in productivity of around 5 percent. “If my buildings reduce sick leave by 1 percent, then that’s a big saving for tenants. We want to drive rental value through satisfaction.” To this end, livings walls were incorporated around atriums, lobbies, and other common areas at the Bosch Siemens building. Elsewhere in the development, acoustic walls will include walls planted with moss to separate work areas. “As well as being visually pleasing, it will sequester carbon and produce oxygen,” explains Zachariasse.
With so much thought devoted to making the buildings green inside and out, it is little wonder that Delta staff working at a nearby office project tell Zachariasse that the chief executive of one company based there requested that his office be positioned with a view across to Park 20|20.
Like Zachariasse, he must be someone who likes looking at the future.
Lucy Anna Scott is a London-based freelance writer and coeditor of Lost in London magazine.