Beyond achieving the alphabet soup of environmental and health certifications, building owners and managers have to build sustainability into their day-to-day checklists and activities say experts in the sustainability field.
Panelists at BOMEX Virtual 2020, BOMA Canada’s online conference held during the last week of October, outlined the mounting pressure to address health, climate risks and carbon emissions.
“These certification tools, be they environmental or healthy buildings, have served the commercial real estate community well, particularly for environmental sustainability, with tools such as LEED and BOMA Best at the asset level and GRESB (Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark) at the firm level.” said Avis Devine, associate professor real estate at the Schulich School of Business, York University.
“Many firms know that to maximize their returns on these certifications we have to move past just achieving the certification and use other tools in our tool belt to get all the benefit. Tools like tenant engagement and monitoring programs.”
Setting benchmarks, finding the right standards
Regan Smith, director, sustainability, real estate, for Manulife Investment Management, says 81 per cent of her firm’s global building portfolio has some form of green certification. But beyond that the firm sets up internal benchmarks. For instance Manulife aims to reduce its carbon emission by 10 per cent over the five years ending in 2022 and reduce its water use by 7.5 per cent over the same period of time.
She adds the firm conducts twice-yearly internal reviews on how the company is doing against its sustainability guidelines and standards.
Certifications themselves are a rapidly moving field, advancing well beyond a focus mostly on efficiency.
“They’re multiplying like rabbits . . . they’re all over the place,” says consultant Eric Chisholm, principal with Purpose Building Inc.
“I think one of the questions that’s going to come up soon is which certifications are hitting our expectations, which certifications are accomplishing the goals that we’re trying for and which are hitting the global expectations,” said Chisholm.
Pandemic puts focus on healthy buildings
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the focus on healthy buildings.
“What it really does, is it communicates to tenants and occupants that the property manager or the landlord is compliant with evidence-based, cost-effective strategies to reduce viral transmission risks,” he explained.
That program sets the scene for landlords to have a discussion about tenants returning to indoor spaces, says Welch.
COVID-19 might be the topic of the day, but carbon hasn’t gone away as a compelling issue for building owners. Getting emotional buy-in for something that’s invisible can be a challenge.
“We feel really good about having bike parking at our buildings,” says Chisholm. “You walk into the building and say ‘that is the active lifestyle that I want to participate in when it’s sunny outside. I’m really excited about that.’
“How excited are we when we swap out a gas fired boiler for a heat pump? My guess is nobody even notices.”
Getting the sustainability message across
Sustainability advisors have to get their message through to tenants and investors and make sure they understand the ultimate goal, he says.
Devine suggested the easiest way to communicate those goals to stakeholders is through financial implications.
“Right now we have a difficult time really understanding what carbon costs but if we end up in a world with a carbon tax, the demonstrability of that becomes really easy, really fast. If we can get ahead of that curve and understand that before it is put upon us, the groups that get ahead of it will benefit.”
Future thinking can also be a tool for decision making, says Chisholm.
“If you could assume we are going to live in a low-carbon world . . . what decisions become a lot easier to make? Should we choose the low-carbon choice because buying the other one means we’ll just have to change it later?”