Whenever Frank Navarro of Navarro Lowrey Inc., a commercial real estate firm based in West Palm Beach, Florida, discusses his experiences in green building with fellow developers, two questions inevitably arise: “How much does it cost?” and “Are you getting higher rents?” These two issues—cost and return—are critical for real estate investment and development decision making, yet in the realm of green building, the available data are often mixed or unhelpful.

The variable nature of sustainable design can make measuring cost premiums difficult. Relatively simple green building techniques—using low-VOC paint or recycling construction material, for example—can be deployed at little to no extra cost, whereas more advanced technologies, such as photovoltaic arrays or on-site water treatment plants, can substantially add to a project’s expense. Also, cost savings can vary greatly, returns on energy-efficient systems can be overstated, and quantifying benefits such as improved employee productivity and a higher-quality workplace is difficult. So, what can a developer do to ensure that his or her investment in sustainable design is successful?

Understand Your Market

Developers should know what their prospective clients or tenants care about. If they care about employee productivity, then designers should concentrate on elements that address this, such as higher indoor air quality, user-controlled lighting and ventilation, and access to direct sunlight. If the client is interested in reduced operating costs, then the focus should be on energy-efficient and water-saving systems. If a tenant cares most about being branded green, then the focus should be on the most cost-effective means of becoming LEED certified. For example, providing alternative transportation facilities and using local or regional materials are widely considered easily obtainable points for LEED certification. Understanding the reasons why a client wants to go green can help the development team focus the design and create a more cost-effective sustainable building.

Build a Brand

Navarro Lowrey markets its green building strategies under the sustainable brand EcoPlex, which is also the name of its first LEED Gold–rated project, a 100,000-square-foot office (9,300-sq-m) building in West Palm Beach, Florida. EcoPlex projects are designed to achieve, at minimum, LEED Gold certification and offer users healthier workplaces, increased productivity, and significant cost savings. “We tried to identify those things that really made the most sense to our clients, and I think the evolution of that led to us creating that EcoPlex brand,” says Navarro. His firm focuses on specific technologies that fit its brand: under-floor air distribution systems that allow for individual control; demountable partition systems to create workplace flexibility; and a commissioning process that verifies energy savings for each tenant, taking the guesswork out of the operational savings equation.

A Team Effort

Green buildings are more cost-effective if a development team applies sustainable design holistically, rather than piecemeal. “We had our first sustainable project stop because we did not know enough about [green building] and we were under the impression that it was a regular building that you plugged a few things into,” says Navarro. The key to good green building is to start very early, include everyone, and work together across disciplines to create an integrated design, he says. Once a design team has gone through the process and develops a pool of knowledge, green building becomes easier. “As the result of our [first EcoPlex project], years later we look back, our A/E/C [architect/engineer/contractor] folks—all the people that were on our team—created probably 15 LEED APs [accredited professionals] and they have many, many other LEED projects now.”