Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Bill DiBenedetto headshot

Trendwatch 2012: LEEDing the Recovery?

Please also join us for a free webinar today at 4:00 EST where we'll be discussing the role of sustainability in economic recovery.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently about green and smart buildings. Expand the skyline, so to speak. A better approach — and one that is gaining increasing attention and study — would be to plan and work for green, sustainable and carbon-neutral cities.

Of course that is more easily said than done in the aftermath of the collapse of the housing and construction markets in what is at best a fragile economy. The basic challenge is always money and access to financing. While there is evidence that green-building saves money over the long-term, the initial investments needed for new building or extensive retrofits remain high.

In the meantime there are many buildings still standing; in the industrial sector many of those buildings are old, and can’t move to sunny climes. This makes replacement or a comprehensive green retrofit difficult, but certainly possible.

If green and sustainable building ideas and innovations from the U.S. Green Building Council, the Urban Land Institute, and DuPont Building Innovations were to catch on and become widespread, that could give the economy the major boost it needs while reducing energy consumption and aiding the environment.
“Despite the recession, inaction by Congress, and the anti-environmental actions of some elected officials, there is ample evidence to support the conclusion that the transition to green buildings and sustainable development is here to stay,” says Edward T. McMahon, the Urban Land Institute’s Senior Resident Fellow, ULI/Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy.

Developers, owners, and investors all realize that investing in available energy- and water-saving technologies can produce low-risk returns, creating more marketable and valuable real estate assets,” he continues. “For the real estate industry, the time has come to capture the value of the ubiquitous waste of energy throughout the country. Buildings account for approximately 40 percent of worldwide energy consumption and produce 21 percent of all carbon emissions.

“At some point in time you have to build it green,” says Tim Feemster, Senior Vice President, Director of Global Logistics and Supply Chain Consultancy for Grubb & Ellis, a major commercial real estate services firm. For example, he says that “Some clients won’t go into a non-T5 building.” Feemster is referring to T5 full spectrum lighting fixtures for warehouses, which can last up to 75 percent longer with 20 percent more light output at a 60 percent energy savings over standard industrial fluorescent lighting.

Right now, “the lighting side is the biggest opportunity for greening in the industrial sector,” he continues. Beyond T5 lighting, LED lighting “is the next step from a cost perspective.”
The idea is to retrofit warehouses and distribution centers to make them more energy-efficient by upgrading heating and air conditioning systems, installing low-flush toilets, fuel-cell forklifts and rooftop solar installations. On the latter point however, Feemster says solar is an option “where there are incentives” … and sunlight. “You need the sun and high cost energy to make solar happen—it’s a cash and cash-flow issue.”
Feemster notes that industrial businesses increasingly are making LEED revisions.

So is LEED back?
Maybe so.

GreenBiz.com’s 2012 State of Green Business report said 2011 was a “bounce back” year for the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building programs. In 2010 the market for green buildings “suffered the belated impacts of the economic downturn, with plans to construct new LEED-certified buildings dropping precipitously over 2009.” Last year however saw a “roaring return” to business as usual, meaning rapid growth, the report continued. The 2011 Green Building Market & Impact Report — written by Rob Watson, CEO of EcoTech International and a founder of the LEED rating system—tracked the current and future state of LEED and the environmental benefits of green buildings.

The report found:

  • Registrations of new projects across all LEED standards grew by 45 percent over 2010, although newly certified LEED buildings grew by just 2.6 percent, a slowdown to LEED’s previous rapid growth.

  • LEED’s 2009 standard matured; the standard drove buildings to be more energy-efficient—averaging 30 percent energy savings over conventional buildings—as well as more “location-efficient.” Constructing LEED-certified buildings near transit, homes, and offices will rein-in in sprawl while saving drivers time and money: In 2011, the report found that locating LEED buildings in this way saved drivers 5.7 billion miles.

  • LEED buildings in 2011 resulted in major reductions in water use — 48 billion gallons of water was saved—as well as reductions to the nation’s carbon footprint. Last year, LEED buildings saved 9 percent of the nation’s total non-residential energy use.

  • For the first time the amount of square feet certified under LEED for Existing Buildings surpassed the footage figure for New Construction. This is important not only because square footage is the key benchmark for the real impacts of LEED, but also because there is vastly more existing building stock, so momentum behind greening current facilities “will be fundamentally important to making the massive energy and emissions reductions” needed.
What else is happening?

In January the Urban Land Institute allied with the Greenprint Foundation to create the ULI Greenprint Center for Building Performance. Under this transfer, ULI will continue the operation of the industry-to-industry initiative in which real estate professionals exchange information and measure individual building and portfolio performance on the basis of energy use and carbon emissions. The ULI Greenprint Center will be incorporated into ULI’s Climate, Land Use and Energy (CLUE) initiative. The center will carry on the Greenprint Foundation’s mission, which is to lead the global real estate community in the use of greenhouse gas reduction strategies that support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goals for global greenhouse gas stabilization by 2030.

ULI has also launched an Infrastructure Initiative led by transportation planning expert Sandra Rosenbloom that’s designed to get the word out to public and government official about the “high-stakes choices in developing, operating, maintaining, and financing transportation networks, water and sewer systems, wireless and broadband communications, and the electrical grid. It will examine the fiscal, social, and environmental costs and benefits of policy tradeoffs at the national, state, and local levels.” The initiative will stand apart from the body of system-specific technical expertise because it “will focus on bigger-picture, cross-cutting analyses that policymakers and citizens need for sound decision making,” said Rosenbloom, a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.

A Pike Research report has found that global revenues from building energy management system, or Smart buildings, are expected to rise nearly 14 percent, year over year, through the end of the decade. Building energy management systems, or BEMS, are computer hardware or software systems that connect to, monitor, and regulate mechanicals like heating, air-conditioning, lighting and mainframes, or other operations that use energy. Pike says that revenues from BEMS could reach about $6 billion by 2020.

DuPont’s Building Innovations business unit is coming up with innovative products that target the future of green and energy-efficient residential and commercial construction. DuPont says it is committed to the growing science behind increasing the performance of building systems, helping reduce operating costs and creating more sustainable structures. “We're finding new ways to create commercial buildings that operate more efficiently, reduce energy consumption and help provide safer, healthier environments for the people who work in them.” For example DuPont’s weatherization system touts the advantages of “sealing the building envelope” while meeting the requirements for multiple Energy Star programs and the National Green Building Standard.

What about carbon-neutral cities?
One good way for urban buildings to become green and energy efficient quickly is if the city in which they stand becomes carbon-neutral by running on renewable energy.
It can be done.

Cincinnati is working on a new power aggregation deal that could mean the city will be powered entirely from renewable sources. City officials say the deal could be finalized and in place by this summer. If this happens, Cincinnati would be the largest city in the U.S. to have its energy supply come from 100 percent renewable sources, and it might be accomplished without any significant cost difference for ratepayers, according to The Energy Collective.

The sustainable city is an idea whose time has come. This became more evident in 2011, according to the 2012 State of Green Business report.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton merged their respective sustainable city initiatives to create the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of large cities around the world committed to implementing climate-related actions at the local level. This combined group formed a partnership with the World Bank to help cities accelerate actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

City sustainability initiatives include:

  • A Seoul plan to retrofit 10,000 buildings by 2030.

  • An Austin, TX zero-waste plan for 2040.

  • London aims to have 100,000 electric vehicles on the streets by 2020.

  • Tokyo is introducing higher energy efficiency standards for large urban developments.

  • São Paulo plans to reduce the use of fossil fuel on public transportation by 10 percent each year, aiming for 100 percent use of renewable fuels by 2017.

In the Winter 2012 issue of Momentum Magazine, Alex Steffen, Co-founder of Worldchanging.com, talks about what it will take to make a city carbon-neutral.
“The main question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly,” he says, because that will mean trip length goes down along with transportation energy use. Then, Steffen continues, cities, especially growing cities, need to “minimize barriers to development so that as long as someone is doing good urbanism, they can get permitted quickly and get building quickly.”
Steffen says that filling cities with carbon-neutral buildings is difficult because “the process of land use planning and infrastructure planning is broken—even if it’s working well in most ways, it’s broken in the slowness with which it grapples with change.” In many cities development is slowed drastically by the NIMBY factor and even in cities that do good planning, “it tends to be marginal and incremental and take decades to come to fruition.” There are a number of cities, such as Vancouver, WA that have fast-track permitting for green buildings, he continues, but more cities need to embrace that concept.
“We have a lot more to lose by changing too slowly than by changing too quickly,” Steffen says. “We know enough about how to legislate good urban design that there's no excuse for not picking up the pace.”

[Image credits: Ted Percival, Inky Bob, via Flickr]

Bill DiBenedetto is freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. He writes on environmental and sustainability topics for TriplePundit and on his blog, wrdforwrd.com. His email is wrdforwrd@earthlink.net

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

Read more stories by Bill DiBenedetto

More stories from Data & Technology