Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

Real estate and sustainability – the moral imperative

The Professor

Why the industry must be an active force in driving change

“Sustainable investment is about the responsibility and potential the real estate industry holds to reach climate and environmental sustainability targets. In a rapidly urbanising world, the real estate industry has a critical role and increasing responsibility to act as a catalyst to reach climate and environmental sustainability targets. Investors, occupiers, cities as well as governments can and have to play a key role to achieve a reduction of greenhouse gases in the context of the construction and operation of real estate.”1

The World Bank estimates that the real estate sector must
reduce CO2 emissions by 36% before the year 2030 in order
to prevent global warming from going beyond a 2°C increase. This is the target set by the Paris climate conference in 2015
that 195 countries have signed on to. If the world fails to keep global warming below this threshold, disastrous results are predicted including increasing natural disasters, rising sea levels, the spread of diseases, scarcity of food and fresh water, and displaced refugee migration that makes today’s migration seem minor by comparison. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. Indeed the headlines on 6 May declare that 1m species are threatened with extinction according to a new report by the United Nations. And humans will suffer the results.2 Increasing frequency of extreme-weather events like storms and floods will have a major impact on economies and investment as well as real estate property values and returns.

The World Economic Forum states in their report ‘Environmental Sustainability Principles for the Real Estate Industry’, that the real estate sector consumes annually over 40% of global energy p.a., that buildings originate 20% of global greenhouse gas emission, and use 40% of raw materials globally (World Economic Forum, 2016).

Governments and cities around the world are rushing to establish new policies in an attempt to mitigate the long-term harmful effects of climate change. Because buildings are such a major contributor to global energy consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions, the real estate industry will be a prime target for new legislation and regulation. It is in the industry’s interest to attempt to preempt forced changes by adopting new building techniques and practices that promote conservation and sustainability. While the industry has been moving in this direction for a long time with the institution of many green building initiatives such as LEED (US), Energy Star (US), BREEAM (UK), CASBEE (Japan), DGNB (Germany), and the SB Alliance (uniting different standards), new building construction as well as the retrofitting of existing buildings still has a very long way to go.

As it is nearly impossible to draft a universal definition of
a sustainable building due to the inherent complexity of
the concept and different approaches among the world’s nations, certification systems offer a practical solution for assessing buildings’ sustainability. The value of certifications for practitioners is still in some areas questionable, partly due to the high cost and time of getting the certifications. Nevertheless, the market place is increasingly demanding certifications as proof that buildings meet certain sustainability standards. Furthermore, many government organisations and publicly traded corporations are writing sustainability standards into their new leases with requirements that the buildings meet specified standards or certifications.

Green buildings pay

For industry practitioners at all points of business, weaving climate and sustainability considerations into key decisions is a responsibility. But what many do not yet realise is the fact that guiding market decisions toward sustainable, climate-friendly outcomes will actually generate financial and economic payoffs for the real estate industry and for investors, especially in the medium and long term.

Sustainable property investments have developed from
a niche concern to a mainstream product for new real estate developments and investment products over the past decade. Green buildings represent a significant share of global development projects – a share that is expected to continue increasing.

The World Economic Forum (2016, p. 13) sites a number
of academic studies on the benefits of incorporating green building practices. The studies show sales price premia as much as 18% higher, occupancy rate benefits ranging from 2% to 18% higher, and operating cost reductions as high as 30%.

Employer demand for greener buildings is increasing. The motivations are not only associated with lower building operating costs, especially for energy consumption, but also for healthier employees who get more work done and have fewer absentees.

According to a 2018 report published by STOK, the estimated cost premium for building high performance buildings is
$20 per square foot. By designing for the occupant, they estimate that owner-occupants and tenants can gain $3,395 per employee in annual profit, or $18.56 per square foot. This translates to $115 per square foot over 10 years – an enormous cost/benefit ratio in favour of high performance buildings.

Most people work in buildings that were not designed for their well-being. High performance buildings (HPBs) are designed specifically to enhance the occupant experience. Essential features include “indoor air quality and ventilation, thermal comfort thermal comfort, natural and artificial lighting attuned to circadian rhythms, noise and acoustics, active design, views and biophilia.” (STOK, 2018, p. 5.)

Tenants also are indicating a strong preference for green features. In addition to the above list, tenants desire walking access to services and restaurants, public transportation, fitness facilities, and showers on-site. The table below shows office tenants stated willingness to pay for green features.






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About Richard Peiser and Thomas Wiegelmann

Richard Peiser holds the Michael D. Spear Professorship in Real Estate Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Dr. Thomas Wiegelmann FRICS, is managing director of BLUE Asset Management, Honorary Adjunct Professor at Bond University, and a member of the Harvard Alumni Real Estate Board.

Articles by Richard Peiser and Thomas Wiegelmann

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