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Sustainability Isn't Just About Constructing Better Buildings

Creating a better built environment does not, and experts argue cannot, rest solely on the shoulders of new buildings built to the highest sustainability standards. 


One of the biggest issues in sustainability is bringing the 5 million existing buildings in the U.S. to higher energy-efficiency standards, according to BREEAM USA CEO Barry Giles, who spoke during a recent Bisnow event.

BREEAM has been working to register existing buildings into its program to collect data and find ways to address issues of climate change, especially with the slow rate of building new energy-efficient buildings. The U.S. builds 50,000 new buildings each year and would take 100 years to replace the 5 million existing buildings.

“If we don’t work on the existing buildings, we’re never going to solve our problems with emissions,” Giles said.

Getting people to understand the importance of retrofitting will be difficult unless there is a shift in how people think about buildings.

“Buildings are still invisible to most people,” Kilroy Realty Senior Vice President, Sustainability Sara Neff said. “People don’t care about buildings and when you don’t care about buildings, you don’t then have market requirements. It just shocks me how little tenants ask about productivity.”

Much of the time tenants do not think much about sustainability beyond the certifications granted to the building, she said.

It's About Creating Healthier Buildings, Too

Shorenstein Sustainability Manager Jaxon Love

As sustainability advances, so too does the push to creating healthier interior environments for tenants’ workers, but many challenges exist on defining what this actually means and how best to measure it to create value.

“We’ve had this lightbulb come on that health is the new sustainability issue,” Shorenstein Sustainability Manager Jaxon Love said. “That’s it. Just a lightbulb. Nothing else, yet. I think we’re trying to understand the data. There is so much data for health right now.”

Shorenstein asks tenants frequently about its sustainability program and what kinds of things they get value out of and benefit from, Love said.

“The No. 1 factor that has resonated every year so far is the perception that a sustainable building is a healthier building to work in and has benefits,” he said.

Cal Solar Design/Build Contractor Sean Neman

Westlake Urban Senior Vice President, Property and Asset Management Jessica Smith said understanding how healthy a building is to a worker comes down to analyzing data from employees and companies or partnering with health insurance companies that provide wellness programs to better understand the impact wellness has on people.

Wellness is taking new forms in various offices around the country. Expedia, for example, leased space to a medical clinic within its headquarters in Seattle, and designed the space to have the look and feel of the rest of the company’s office, according to Smith.

“From an internal wellness perspective, it’s playing on that [notion] that this building is healthy and we want you to be healthy in this building,” Smith said.