Panelists speaking at the New York University Conference on Sustainable Real Estate in February said that a corner had been decisively turned on concerns regarding the integration of sustainability into the practices of the real estate industry, with few signs of returning to the wasteful ways of the past.
John Bryant, vice president, advocacy, codes and standards at BOMA International, said, “What does the Trump administration mean for commercial real estate? I have no idea.” The impact of potential policy changes at the federal level cannot be dismissed; but, according to essentially all participants, sustainability is too well advanced to regress from common practice. Indeed, increased integration into industry practices is likely.
The idea that sustainability is a result of an external stick, and not a pursuit of carrots, remains an all-too-common misunderstanding, said panelists. Bryant noted of sustainability planning: “Not only was it the right thing to do, there was a business case for it.” Philip Payne, CEO of Ginkgo Residential, a property management company in Charlotte, North Carolina, said earlier concerns that environmentally sound practices would inevitably prove more expensive have been disproven. “I used to tap dance around the word responsible. I don’t anymore,” said Payne.
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Patrick L. Phillips, ULI Global CEO, summed up the current moment:
“Leadership in sustainability was not really a response to government regulation. It was really a market-driven, profit-driven response in many cases to the changing environment, and nothing’s going to change that. The forces that have driven the institutionalization of sustainability and its wide adoption are not going away; in fact, I think they’re going to be greatly reinforced.
“ULI’s previous Center for Sustainability is being relaunched as the center for Sustainability and Economic Performance. Its concerns are building performance, energy optimization, and urban resilience. All are areas in which improved environmental performance also produces fewer costs. Participants in the first of these initiatives, the Greenprint Center, agreed both to provide building performance information to ULI’s data management platform on energy waste and water to hopefully spur additional innovation in performance improvement. They’ve also agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and are making steady progress toward this goal.”
A variety of participants testified to solutions that aid the environment and save money for all involved. Payne noted low-flow showerheads and the use of water submeters reducing water consumption by 30 percent in his company’s buildings (“what they used to do with the water, I don’t know”). David Komet, CEO of Alternivest, spoke to his company’s increased work with compressed earth blocks in construction. The raw material is obviously abundant and easy to produce and the final product also eases energy consumption, with clay content reducing home humidity and cooling bills. It is a technology that isn’t simply about reduction, either: its expansion has meant increased employment.
Panelists said that the industry has largely moved beyond the stage of doubts about the efficiency of at-times more expensive initial investments; the economic and environmental performance of countless items that might have seen as “greenwashing” has been repeatedly borne out.
Arianna Sacks Rosenberg, senior project manager at the Hudson Companies, spoke of her work on a variety of projects, most recently the world’s largest passive house, a Cornell Technology campus residential building on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Passive house technology is both a great favor to the environment and unquestionably economically efficient over time. Cogeneration plants, solar panels, super-insulated envelopes (that also provide for the simplest possible ingress of fresh air and emission of exhaust), and low-energy fixtures are all tools with dual benefits. This was not the product of regulatory demands; it was a free choice. “A lot of what happens isn’t because government was pressing our hand to do it.”
EnergyStar, a standard created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, is widely adopted because it’s useful, Bryant said.
There are obvious questions about the role of the U.S. government in pioneering initiatives, to be sure. Kathleen B. Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Department of Energy, gave a wide-ranging address about the contributing sources of sustainability.
The majority of developments she identified are significantly advanced. Renewables now provide 15 percent of U.S. energy production, up from 8 percent in 2011. Over 40 coal-fired plants are currently slated for retirement. Today’s refrigerators consume a fraction of the energy they once did, and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs use a shocking 85 percent less energy than their predecessors. “Households are dedicating less of their spending to energy than at any other time.”
Some regulatory standards that she mentioned might well be in doubt in the future, from standards on the importation of devices, Energy Savings Performance Contracting, and a range of other practices that could be amended by an unsympathetic administration.
Her address pointed to another substantial driver of sustainability that is very unlikely to change: other layers of government, particularly cities that both consume and are capable of saving large amounts of energy. The Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge, which was designed to provide the equivalent of energy professional exchange programs, with staff traded briefly between diverse clients such as Hilton Hotels and Whole Foods, is next arranging a swap of officials between the cities of Boston and Atlanta.
Cities remain excellent laboratories for sustainable practices. Komet noted that San Antonio is a world leader in water recycling. Its population has doubled since 1980 and yet it uses the same amount of water. It is similarly active in solar and wind deployment.
Daniel Zarrilli, senior director, climate policy and programs, and chief resilience officer at the New York City mayor’s office, said that city’s interest in resilience planning is unabated, saying, “We’ve never in New York City really waited for the global accords or even the D.C. leadership to emerge before we take action here.” The city’s OneNYC plan involves a wide range of initiatives, aiming to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and zero waste by 2030.
Numerous participants spoke to the ease of new sustainable construction. Zarrilli noted another substantial challenge: that of the environmental inefficiency of older buildings and the importance of retrofits. He extolled the value of New York’s Retrofit Accelerator program launched in 2015, a means both to create work and reduce expenditures and carbon outputs.
Many choices and many future crossroads will loom, but the predominant portrait this gathering provided was of inevitable progress, with profit and environmental stewardship too well aware of their mutual benefit to loosen their embrace.