Several hundred real estate professionals gathered at a Sustainability Summit sponsored by Bisnow Media in Washington, D.C., on November 9 to hear Washington-area experts discuss the current and future status of sustainable development. Moderator Tim Hughes, an attorney with the law firm Bean Kinney & Korman, kicked off the first panel discussion by commenting on the tremendous influence the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have had in “pushing the marketplace toward sustainability, continuing to be on the cutting edge, not just with their own programs, but influencing the marketplace around them by what they’re doing and the leadership that they’re demonstrating.”

Eleni Reed became the GSA’s chief greening officer in June 2010, following President Obama’s October 2009 executive order on sustainability, which called on the federal government to lead by example in modernizing the nation’s infrastructure and making it more environmentally friendly. Her position, she explained, was created “to focus on how we can achieve and embed sustainability practices across our business lines and regions—to take them to the next level.” The executive order—which continues and expands previous mandates on sustainability—requires federal agencies to establish and meet significant targets for the reduction of direct and indirect emissions, as well as other green goals, including the reduction of energy and water use and waste production.

Reed noted that GSA recently announced that the standard for all new construction of federally owned facilities has been raised from Silver under the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to LEED Gold, and the agency has set equally high—yet varying—standards for commercial space leased by the federal government. Newly constructed leased facilities of 10,000 square feet (930 sq m) or more must be built to a LEED for New Construction Silver standard, and also must achieve an Energy Star label within one year. A new requirement that will go into effect in December, Reed added, will require federal agencies leasing 10,000 square feet of space or more in existing structures to do so in buildings that have achieved an Energy Star label, with a few exceptions.

ULI member Doug Gatlin, vice president for market development with the nonprofit USGBC, spoke about LEED program development, the internationalization of the program, and the continuing evolution of LEED standards. He described the current rollout of LEED 2012 for its first public comment process, which began November 8 and will continue through the end of the year; USGBC expects to release the new standard in mid- to late 2012. Major thrusts of this proposed standard include an increased focus on building performance, improved energy efficiency, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Looking beyond U.S. borders, Gatlin commented on the strong international demand for LEED-certified development, noting that USGBC is actively promoting LEED standards throughout the world. He also noted that the USGBC is beginning to discuss how to move to the next level of certification—beyond LEED Platinum—to “regenerative” buildings that actually give something back to the environment.

The second panel, moderated by ULI member and Gensler managing director Jeff Barber, focused on sustainability in private sector commercial real estate. ULI member Robert Braunohler, regional vice president for Louis Dreyfus Property Group, described his firm’s development of Lafayette Tower in Washington, D.C., the city’s first LEED Platinum–certified building. Looking forward, he forecast that the nature of building skins will change, with new laws being enacted, such as one passed in California that limits the amount of glass in a structure to no more than 40 percent, thereby ending construction of the floor-to-ceiling glass buildings so popular today.

Kimberly Pexton, director of sustainable construction for HITT Contracting, noted that the most difficult aspects of green building involve incorporating technically complicated systems not typically found in office buildings, such as on-site wastewater treatment facilities. Addressing the issue of building modernization, she commented on the challenge of upgrading the world’s existing building stock to greener standards. As an example of how to address the challenge, she noted that there are different ways to approach funding of mechanical systems, including energy performance contracts that guarantee specific reductions in operating cost over time.

Both panels were asked about the cost increment involved in developing to LEED standards, and most panelists appeared to agree with Pexton’s response—that “it depends”—which she said she has been hearing and giving for more than a dozen years. Reed noted that “the earlier you focus on sustainability requirements, the less costly they will be,” and mentioned private sector studies that suggest there are no incremental costs in building to LEED standards. Braunohler commented that the cost premium to develop Lafayette Tower to LEED Platinum standards was not much more than the approximately 5 percent premium of developing a trophy building—probably an additional 2 or 3 percent. “It’s more a technical challenge than a cost issue,” he concluded.