saxton_1_200The real estate industry scarcely needs reminding that its commercial building stock is a drain on energy resources. Estimates vary, but it is commonly held that the property sector consumes upwards of 40 percent of the world’s energy output and accounts for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. With existing building stock comprising 97 percent of commercial property, ULI members are not alone in recognizing that the challenge of retrofitting and refurbishing buildings is not to be underestimated.

However, significant strides have been made. If the famous Empire State Building can successfully undergo a retrofit, then surely so can any other building. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of that $550 million retrofit program, led by Tony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, has been the transparency with which it has been carried out: data and information have been widely shared so that others can learn from the project’s successes, as well as its failures.

This spirit of cooperation, sharing, and transparency is behind a ULI initiative that went into beta development last year: the ULI Energy Efficiency Exchange. Initially funded by ULI life trustee Sir Stuart Lipton, who donated the $100,000 prize that accompanied his selection as winner of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, the exchange creates a pan-European web portal for energy efficiency. Lipton’s vision was to get past what he calls the “greenwash and geek-speak” of many existing initiatives and use ULI’s global network to share current best practice.

Unlike projects in place that are either local initiatives or focused on a particular sector, the exchange is the first pan-European hub for energy efficiency, as well as the first that takes a multidisciplinary perspective. Feature rich, it provides a destination for industry leaders to get access to and share best practices and gain practical insight and information. The key distinguishing factor is its focus on developing a clear business case for investing in energy efficiency projects, particularly for existing buildings.

Through the support of a range of partners, including Arup, Chelsfield, Hines, Philips, ECE, Union Investment, Lutron, Gensler, and Capital Shopping Centres, the exchange is going global and taking on the name LessEN to drive awareness and interaction.

The key features of LessEN are a detailed and ever-growing Knowledge Library made up of case studies, policy updates, and business cases from across the ULI footprint of 95 countries; the Market Place, a partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative to provide a vetted energy efficiency supply chain; and an interactive blogging forum for real estate professionals to exchange information and ideas.

While LessEN is essentially a web portal built around the ULI network, the ambitions for LessEN extend beyond ULI. Because of these global ambitions, ULI has taken the unusual step of giving the initiative its own brand name. “LessEN represents a transformational opportunity for ULI,” says ULI CEO Patrick L. Phillips. “In every respect, what we are doing here is a classic ULI initiative: providing neutral, detailed information and resources about a critical subject matter to the real estate industry.”

Bill Kistler, president of ULI Europe, Middle East, and Africa, explains the initiative’s brand identity. “The name ‘LessEN’ emphasizes our focus on lessening the confusion that surrounds the issue of energy efficiency, lessening energy consumption, and lessening energy costs,” he says. “We are helping to make energy reduction a top priority for building landlords, investors, architects, engineers, and tenants.”

Indeed, LessEN has its sights set on both occupiers and on advocating energy efficiency behavior change. “We see LessEN as a force to mobilize action,” says Alexandra Notay, vice president, strategic programs, for ULI Europe and director of the LessEN project. “We want people to see how even small changes can have a huge impact in getting the buildings that they work in to operate more efficiently. That means providing tenants with the tools and resources so that they can engage their colleagues, clients, and landlords to see the whole range of benefits, from lower energy costs through to a happier, healthier workforce.”

To this end, ULI has taken a bold step in the marketing of LessEN. Seizing on the availability of the Display Energy Certificate (DEC) register database of large U.K. public buildings, the data have been converted into a smartphone application that uses interactive technology to reveal the energy efficiency DEC rating of 28,000 U.K. workplaces. This number is growing daily as ULI reaches out to people working in the private sector to encourage them to share their ratings. Facilities managers, in particular, are a key audience, and the hope is that they can be galvanized into action to address energy efficiency at their buildings.

“What we love about the smartphone app is that it makes a problem that you can’t see—namely energy efficiency—immediately visible. Red arrows show which buildings are performing badly; green [arrows], those that are performing well,” says Sara Turnbull, senior consultant at Arup Associates, who has been involved in both the Exchange and now LessEN.

At the ULI Fall Meeting, being held October 12–15 in Washington, D.C., the London-based team will not only have a full set of data and experiences to share about LessEN, but also will be able to outline plans for national versions of the smartphone app for the United States, Germany, and other core markets.

“The ultimate goal of LessEN is to help achieve a more energy-efficient portfolio,” says Notay. “When we started this project, 76 percent of ULI Europe members turned to Google for energy efficiency advice and faced the inevitable confusion about objectivity and accuracy of that information. We want them, as well as anyone who wants to learn how to make a building run better or who has influence over its design, to come to LessEN for free, impartial, and peer-reviewed solutions. We have the partnerships in place, and as the LessEN community grows, so, too, will the knowledge base and resources to tackle energy efficiency.”

“Energy is the single most important aspect of property at the moment,” says Lipton. “It’s the challenge we all face; it’s the responsibility we all have.”