By Mark R. Smith, Contributing Writer
Addressing the progress of the green movement, given all of its various facets, offshoots and developments, is a tall order that leads to long conversations. But for the sake of analysis Clark Brockman, principal with SERA Architects, in Portland, Oreogn, feels such an effort boils down to a few main points.
“Regarding trends in green building, three stand out,” said Brockman: “Electrification, the settling of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard and district scale infrastructure.”
More on those fine points later, but he’s feeling optimistic about the industry’s direction with proper, timely support, of course. With the caveat of having little time to lose, his thoughts are echoed by Tim Lattimer, chair of the Climate Change & Sustainability Advisory Committee for the Columbia Association, in Columbia, Maryland.
“Policy and economic trends are pointing to Net Zero. We’re facing a global climate crisis and this is the decisive decade to turn things around,” said Lattimer. “Science tells us that we have to keep overall global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade, and we’ve already warmed the Earth 1.1 degrees centigrade.
“Understand that every fraction of a degree matters,” he said. “To get to Net Zero by mid-century, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 45 percent by 2030. The price of renewable energy has dropped dramatically, which is a reason for optimism, as is our ability to solve problems in this country, given the right political will.”
From Wall Street
True, these are heady days in the green market. “It continues to gain momentum,” said Ned Tillman, president of Sustainable Growth, also of Columbia, Maryland, due in part to “companies becoming more sustainable due to the influence of millennials.
“There are still businesspeople who don’t think that going green is important to them, especially if they want to flip a building,” said Tillman, “but if they’re looking long term, the green approach is the way to go because it saves the building owner operational costs.”
“Most buildings” at this point “are LEED certified in some way,” he said. “When I started championing sustainability about 10 years ago, not as many people as I thought would took me seriously,” he said. “But today, the green influence is more widespread in business and civic planning, and we know that Wall Street is taking it seriously; just look at the strength of companies that have gone green on the Dow Joins Sustainability Index.”
But that’s not all. “We’re even seeing major companies backing off from fossil fuel projects. Do these companies have a Net Zero policy? More and more of them seem to. Climate considerations should be part of everything these companies do,” said Tillman.
“Some companies now have a whole sustainability plan,” he said, noting Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are incorporating the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria in their analyses. “All of us can invest in companies with high ESG ratings and some of the big brokers are already doing that just as the biggest wealth transfer ever is happening as baby boomers die off and their kids are investing their inheritances.”
As for the three trends Brockman is seeing en route to a better universe, the first concerns a part of the movement that hasn’t been overly practical in its applications. It concerns charging, but that should be changing.
That’s “the electrification of everything,” he said. “The Biden administration is pushing the Build Back Better bill and that has huge implications for various industries, including the building sector. We’ve already have a number of clients asking us to design all-electric buildings.”
As the bill relates to green development, in most of the country it mostly concerns the heating of buildings and water. “That’s largely done by natural gas or, in the Northeastern U.S., fuel oil. But that’s being phased out,” Brockman said. “This is changing and has huge implications for the built environment.”
There is also “a greening of the grid that is happening organically,” he said. That means that the entire power grid will be getting cleaner. That has to do with not only going green, but the bottom line.
“Wind and Solar have gotten cheaper per KW hour during the past 10 years and prices have dropped to a point where they’re competitive in most of the country,” Brockman said. “Because solar is cheaper than natural gas and coal, that will have huge ramifications for the power industry, creating positive reinforcement for everyone except for concerns in the fossil fuel industry.”
“It’s apparent that the new day is on its way,” he said, “And as more and more industries electrify with new buildings, cars and trucks, the market will demand more wind and solar.”
‘A Bare Minimum’
Another big trend is the “further settling in the market of LEED,” which Brockman said is “no longer a premium in most major markets and urban areas, but a bare minimum. LEED buildings are slightly more costly to build, but without that certification builders would not have been competitive for the past five years.”
There are varying views on that matter, but they could be waning because some observers think that the above scenario has played out. The Living Building Challenge, for instance, requires Net Zero performance (exceeding LEED’s requirements) as a minimum. But as more and more professionals have talked about buildings with Net Zero goals, LEED has created a program with several Net Zero options to maintain its prominence.
However, “there’s a new trend developing that most professionals are not aware of yet. That’s Zero Carbon,” said Brockman.” “We need to get the ‘Net’ out of ‘Net Zero’ and turn our focus to zero carbon making carbon the key success metric for the built environment.”
Why? “Simply because buying dirty power defeats the purpose,” Brockman said,” and more and more users only want to buy clean power. Large corporations like Google are committing to procuring 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2030, and this trend is already accelerating with other big tech companies. That’s key, because if more and more of the big players want clean energy and I mean the big tech companies, like Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook that will alter the Net Zero equation.”
Brockman said he and other leaders in the construction industry are working on this issue as Architecture Engineering Construction Sustainability leaders, an ad hoc group of 200-plus U.S. firms that are turning their focus to dropping the “Net” from Net Zero “and refocusing the built environment to Zero Carbon as the new industry target. This will have a huge impact on green building.”
The third megatrend is district scale infrastructure.
“Research has shown that high-performance buildings are enhanced when they are connected as nodes in a larger network,” said Brockman. “Energy efficiency, water efficiency and carbon emissions reductions all come from connecting buildings on all-electric district scale infrastructure systems. Now and in the future, this will offer a great opportunity for corporate campuses and corporate campus expansions.”
Holding that thought was Ryan Schwabenbauer, director of sustainability for Baltimore-based St. John Properties.
“We weren’t first to join the fray, but when we found value doing the first several LEED certifications, we knew we could find further value for our tenants doing things on scale,” Schwabenbauer said. “That ultimately meant we were going to set green building standards and push toward certifying hundreds of buildings.”
Rather than continually relying on outside consultants, St. John set up an in-house sustainability presence “about ten years ago,” he said. “That allowed us to effectively scale the LEED efforts and made us more nimble. We found efficiencies and were able to expand the sustainability efforts and find value for our existing buildings, as well.”
As for green building certifications, St. John incorporates “every sustainable attribute that makes sense, breeding sustainability within the organization from top to bottom,” Schwabenbauer said. “If you integrate sustainability consistently from start-to-finish, it’s much more effective, we never have to shift gears and we’ve experienced less setbacks on projects when we’ve incorporated it from the beginning.”
To date, St. John has built 87 LEED certified buildings across the county, with more than four dozen in the certification process. “In the industry, it’s common for green buildings to sell for 22 percent more than their non-green counterparts,” he said, noting a study from Cushman & Wakefield. The study also said the green building leasing market has recovered more quickly post-pandemic.
Incorporating green into its trademark office and flex has become a relatively smooth process at St. John. “We always start with a green building site and shell, and then build out with sustainability attributes as needed, with efficient lighting fixtures, plumbing, low VOC paint and sealant, and materials that lend themselves to healthy indoor air quality,” said Schwabenbauer.
“We’re also looking for effective ways to scale renewables across the portfolio that make good business sense. That’s our continuing goal and challenge,” he said. “We are seeking approaches not only for our new buildings, but for all of our 492-building national network. We can’t help to notice solar opportunities as we do existing roof replacements.”
From the power side, Miami-based Origis Energy is a top-tier solar and battery storage firm that develops utility scale solar and battery storage projects across the U.S. Origis focuses on providing green energy solutions to utility companies and large power users, including many “companies with Net Zero energy goals that want to procure solar power as part of their energy portfolio,” said Will Hearn, director of site procurement and economic development.
As solar technology has evolved and become more cost competitive, many large energy users are setting goals to reduce carbon emissions with direct or indirect (via a utility) solar procurements,” said Hearn. “According to the data we see, solar accounts for around 15 percent of renewable energy generation in 2020. According to the Energy Information Administration, this will increase to 50 percent by mid-century.”
Hearn arranges partnerships with economic development organizations to leverage the value of large-scale solar projects in proximity to assets, such as mega sites. This approach at Origis creates the opportunity to attract tenants to sites which have a renewable energy resource in close proximity.
“In the corporate site selection process, based on my informal survey at the Site Selectors Guild Conference, requests for proposals for site selection increasingly require asking for renewable energy solutions,” Hearn said. “These demands are increasingly looked at as a ‘must-have” in the process.”
“There is potential for major expenditures and upgrades for the U.S. grid infrastructure from Build Back Better and new technologies will be deployed, such as battery technology to enhance the grid’s capability, reliability and capacity,” he said. “We expect that [such] investments will amplify and increase adoption of renewable energy during the next decades.”
So the movement is happening, and seemingly gaining moment, as the world is on the clock. As Tillman looks ahead, he feels “somewhat vindicated” to see how the younger generation is embracing green development with a greater passion than previous generations.
“The pieces are place,” he said, “and what we as the public have to do is support the leaders of the green movement. Every time we buy something, we have to think about if we need it, what happens when we finish with it and if it’s the most sustainable product we could have purchased.”
Getting away from dirty energy looms large in this equation. “Many communities were built based on natural gas hookups, which are not environmentally friendly and need to be replaced at some point,” said Tillman. “That means more buildings might need to be replaced.
“Everything is going electric, so we need electric hookups. Sometime in the next 5-10 years, we’ll all be driving electric cars. Many buildings will need to be rewired for the switch,” said Tillman, noting that the Build Back Better Plan “calls for more than a million charging stations across the country.”
What it comes down to (please pardon the cliché) is thinking globally and acting locally. And that, Lattimer said, “is happening. It’s clear that our economy is swiftly moving toward renewable energy despite the disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry to perpetuate the use of fuels that are bad for public health.” The vast majority of oil and gas workers are ready and willing to retrain for the clean energy jobs of the future.
“This is an economic, an environmental a public health and even a national security imperative,” he said. “That’s because reducing our dependence on fossil fuels makes us less vulnerable to the manipulation of that market by external forces.”
“We can all inspire each other to move forward into a greener world,” Tillman said. “The more we discuss it, the more peer pressure develops and more progress will be made.”
SERA Architects, Portland
Tim Smith, 503-445-7372 and
Clark Brockman, principal,
971-227-1514 cell and
Columbia Association, Columbia, Md.
Tim Lattimer, chair of the Climate
Changes & Sustainabilty Advisory
Committee, 443-546-0124 cell and
Sustainable Growth, Columbia
Ned Tillman, president,
Origis Energy, Miami
Will Hearn, director of site procurement
and economic development
305-903-1243/404-229-7017 cell and
St. John Properties, Baltimore
Larry Lichtenauer, PR 410-627-2675
Ryan Schwabenbauer, director of
sustainability, 410-409-5441 cell
Bio: Odenton, Maryland-based Mark R. Smith joined Expansion Solutions after having written about site selection among the vast number of topics he has covered in the business universe. That part of his career began in 1993 when he joined The Daily Record, a Baltimore business and legal publication, where he delved into the worlds of economic development and commercial real estate, among numerous other industries; in 2003, he was named editor-in-chief of The Business Monthly, another Maryland publication that covers the scene in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor counties.
Concurrently, he’s written at length about the film and video industry for a variety of publications, and about his other loves, including music, sports and leisure.