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Sustainability Pros Say Green Building Techniques Are Gaining Steam In LA

With real estate accounting for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, an increasing number of eyes are on the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, not only in terms of operational carbon generated running the building day-to-day but also in terms of embodied carbon, such as the emissions required to manufacture and transport the materials that make the building. 

Sustainability professionals with development companies, general contractors and engineering firms are hoping to dispel certain misunderstandings about reducing the environmental impact of new construction, including that they are necessarily more costly. 

Vertex’s Brad Lancaster, Lendlease Americas’ Sara Neff, Trammell Crow Co.’s Nancy Moses, PAE Engineers’ Jeff Becksfort and Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction’s Jessie Buckmaster.

“Sustainable doesn't have to mean more expensive, and I think that's a huge misconception that we need to break through,” Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Director of Sustainability Jessie Buckmaster said at Bisnow's Los Angeles ESG and Sustainability Conference at the Omni Hotel and Resort June 1.

She gave an example of a project where a client was curious about low-carbon alternatives to some of the materials being used. After some research, Buckmaster found that 90% of the alternatives were within the project's budget. 

“It was just a matter of actually taking the time to figure that out and get the information in the right hands,” Buckmaster said. 

Buckmaster also said some building materials that are considered lower-emission alternatives to concrete, such as mass timber, have knock-on effects that can save money down the line. In a San Francisco project using the material, her company was able to save on drywall because it was able to leave more of the mass timber structure exposed. A mass timber office building in Chinatown, which Hathaway Dinwiddie wasn't involved with, appears to have taken the same approach, leaving much of the wood exposed on the interiors of the building.

Buckmaster and others on the panel said the caveat is that it is much easier to keep costs down if all parties are brought into the process early. 

In the past, someone such as the structural engineer might be left out of the sustainability discussions early on, Lendlease Americas Head of Sustainability Sara Neff said. Now, because of the increasing importance of controlling embodied carbon, structural engineers are among the most important people to include in those talks.

Parking’s role in reducing concrete and embodied carbon in a building is a tricky issue, especially in Los Angeles, panelists said. Underground parking garages in particular increase the carbon required to develop a building because of the amount of concrete they require. Trammell Crow Co. principal Nancy Moses said parking is something that developers would love to reduce due to its costliness, but tenants still want it.  

Pursuing a reduction in carbon emissions isn't something that just one asset class has cornered the market on. Panelists working on facilities for universities, entertainment companies, aviation companies and life sciences firms have found those clients interested in exploring projects that implement lower-emissions techniques and materials. Lendlease works on military housing, and Neff said the Department of Defense “has been a great partner on sustainability.” 

There is urgency to dramatically improve built environment carbon emissions. According to data from the United Nations, global emissions from construction and buildings reached a record high in 2021.