For a couple of decades, many in the real estate industry have been trying to make buildings “green,” replacing conventionally made materials with sustainable ones and installing energy-efficient systems.
Buildings have a heavy environmental footprint, so the upshot of all this tinkering has been structures that are less harmful to the planet.
Now some developers are going further with “deep green” buildings that are actually good for it.
The new approach has been pioneered by nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and mission-driven owner occupants seeking to show buildings can, say, generate all their own power or turn waste from toilets into garden fertilizer. Now commercial real estate is taking up the baton, with projects that uphold ever-higher environmental standards, and sometimes even tackle knotty public problems like local sources of water pollution.
“We’re at a place where science is telling us to take action and the financials are telling us it’s doable,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president for the Greenprint Center for Building Performance at the Urban Land Institute.
Recent events may well bolster such development, with the coronavirus pandemic spurring interest in the sorts of healthy interiors that are found in deep-green buildings and the protests against racial injustice prompting real estate investors to double down on assets that advance the greater good.
“The stars are aligning,” said Robbie Hobbs, the global product group lead for workplace management at JLL, a real estate services company.
One of the latest projects of this type is Watershed, a seven-story office building in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle that was completed this year and is now three-quarters leased. Watershed has a slanted roof that collects rainwater for use in toilets and a wide, welcoming entry staircase offering an alternative to the elevator.
The project’s developers, Stephen C. Grey & Associates and Hess Callahan Partners, credit their architects at Weber Thompson with pushing them to go green with this project and previous ones.
The team first collaborated on a four-story office building in Seattle designed with “passive” heating and cooling, meaning sunlight coming in through glass walls warms up interiors and provides natural illumination and operable windows offer ventilation, eliminating the need for central air-conditioning. Opened in 2008, the building leased quickly and has remained fully occupied.
Its success “convinced us to do more of it,” said Mark Grey, principal of Stephen C. Grey.
The team then raised the stakes with an office project alongside the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. The building has, among other features, a locker room for 250 bikes. Outside, a planted channel called a bioswale was designed to filter polluted storm water that gushes from a downspout on the bridge to a nearby lake where salmon swim.
Watershed, on the other side of the bridge at 900 N 34th St., has several bioswales capturing the runoff from two downspouts as well as from an alley. Signage amid the landscaping explains how the dirty water is cleaned before it is fed into the lake. The bioswales added about $250,000 to the budget for the building, Weber Thompson said.
The building’s sustainability features “have real, functional utility,” said John S. Grassi, chief executive of Spear Street Capital, a San Francisco real estate company that joined the Watershed project as co-developer.
“We just figured the time was right, the site was right, and the market was right,” he added.
One of the earliest deep-green office buildings was the Bullitt Center, which opened in 2013 in Seattle. Single-family homes with solar panels and composting toilets had been around for some time, but this midrise project, which was developed by the environmentally minded Bullitt Foundation, showed a commercial building housing a variety of tenants could be deep green, too.
A quirkily designed structure, the Bullitt Center has an angular overhanging roof equipped with photovoltaic panels that produce enough energy to power the building, with the balance sent to the electric grid. Rainwater is gathered and purified for drinking.
The building is like a living, breathing tree that contributes to the ecosystem, said Paul Schwer, president of the engineering company PAE, which worked on the building and is one of its tenants.
The hope was that the Bullitt Center would spawn countless office buildings like it. That did not happen, in part because such projects are more complicated, with the permitting process alone often taking longer. The projects are also 5% to 25% more expensive to build, according to companies that have worked on them. (The buildings can be less expensive to operate, however, especially when they generate their own power and collect their own water.)
But now that the technology for things like solar power has improved, and the incremental costs of going green have declined, a growing number of companies are tackling such projects, with some going “deep” on one or two aspects of a development.
Silver Oak, a winery in Healdsburg, California, that produces cabernet sauvignon and is known for sustainable farming practices, now generates more water and energy than it uses.
Credit Human, a credit union in San Antonio, is building a development that includes a new headquarters for itself as well as an office building, both with rooftop solar arrays. Tanks salvaged from an old brewery will store rainwater collected for use in the buildings, and wells will capture geothermal energy.
Seattle’s indoor sports arena, a repurposed building erected for the 1962 World’s Fair and recently renamed Climate Pledge Arena, aims to be the first carbon-neutral arena in the world, powered exclusively by renewable energy.
Major real estate companies have been setting targets for reducing energy use and carbon emissions in buildings in their portfolios. Tech companies, too, have their own ambitious goals and are going green with projects on their campuses.
And now with investors looking for ventures that adhere to progressive environmental, social and governance policies — so-called ESG investing — it has become easier for developers to get financial backing for green projects, said Joanna Frank, the president and chief executive of the Center for Active Design, which administers the Fitwel certification program for healthier buildings.
Indeed, certification programs from a smattering of nonprofit organizations have pushed buildings down an ever-greener path.
The widely used LEED certification program, administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, has evolved since it was introduced in the 1990s. If its lowest certification level can be said to yield light-green buildings, the organization’s most rigorous “platinum” level pushes buildings to be a darker green.
The International Living Future Institute’s certification program, the Living Building Challenge, picks up where LEED leaves off. The number of projects it has certified in the United States (118) is a tiny fraction of the country’s LEED-certified projects (more than 36,100), but it is the program most associated with deep-green development.
“We call it regenerative design,” said Jason F. McLennan, the institute’s founder and creator of the Living Building Challenge.
Some cities are encouraging such development “with both carrots and sticks,” said Schantz of the Urban Land Institute. Seattle has a pilot program that gives extra height and floor area to projects that participate in the Living Building Challenge. Washington state is writing “net zero energy” requirements into its building code.
Some developers are carving out an expertise in green buildings. They are finding they can charge a premium when leasing space, in part because the interiors tend to be filled with sunlight and detailed with attractive natural materials like real wood. The buildings may also fetch higher prices when they are sold.
“Typically when you compare one building to the next, it is based on things like square footage and ZIP code,” Hobbes of JLL said. “Now they are further differentiated by the sustainable value of the assets.”
Gerding Edlen, a developer in Portland, Oregon, has joined forces with other companies on the five-story PAE Living Building in its hometown that will essentially operate its own on-site power plant (thanks to rooftop solar) as well as its own wastewater treatment plant (liquid waste from urinals will be converted to agriculture-grade fertilizer). Water that lands on the roof will be filtered so that it is drinkable.
PAE came up with the idea for the project and will be the building’s anchor tenant. The firm and the other companies involved — including ZGF Architects and Walsh Construction — have taken an equity stake in the project. Among them, they have worked on hundreds of LEED-certified buildings.
“There got to be a point of, what’s next?” Schwer of PAE said.