As a green building consultant one of the biggest fundamental flaws I hear in the green building discussion is that green building costs more and is less profitable. Our goal is to help you design projects that are profitable AND green. Yes, you can be profitable and green at the same time, they are not mutually exclusive.
With that said, one question still mystifies developers- what exactly is sustainable planning and development? What does sustainable development mean? Why are we worried about issues like climate change, environment pollution and energy shortage? Why is everybody talking about sustainable development? Is sustainable development advice just the latest buzzword being thrown around? Is it simply fashionable to claim being eco-savvy and plant trees and switch to CFL bulbs to show proof?
Al Gore says, “There is a growing feeling that we are reaching the limits of the Earth’s ability to sustain our civilization.” That is the popular view and the answer to all these questions is an obvious ‘no.’ The earth’s climate is being negatively affected and speeding economic development is undoubtedly leaving little for our future generations. The threat to our environment is real, clear and nearly here. How can we minimize the damage? Leave a healthier earth for our future generations? The answer lies in sustainable planning and development.
How do we define it? The US Department of Energy defines sustainable development as – “Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that also benefit the local environment and quality of life.”
Christine Ervin, Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy defines sustainable development as, “Sustainable development allows economic progress and environmental quality to be compatible goals. Communities are finding that sustainable development strategies save taxpayer money, improve the profits of local businesses, and make the community more livable.”
When Thomas Jefferson in 1789 made the following statement, he may not have been talking about sustainable development, as the term is used today, but there was a definite vision of what the future could look like if mankind refused to be prudent with nature’s gifts, “Then I say the earth belongs to each… generation during its due course, fully and in its own right, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
Robert Gilaman, President of Context Institute defines sustainability as “Sustainability refers to the ability of a society, ecosystem, or any such ongoing system to continue functioning into the indefinite future without being forced into decline through exhaustion… of key resources.”
The answer must begin at the ‘micro level’, with us, who use the spoils of nature to progressively urbanize. The solution to the problem must start with the way we ‘build’, ‘create’ and ‘remodel’ our towns, cities and homes. Green development initiatives are the first level solutions for sustainable development.
Solutions for sustainable development are required and they need to be all-pervading, long term policies participated in by governments, societies and people. But before we begin talking about the benefits of sustainable development, let us look further at, “How do we define sustainable development?”
Definitions are many but the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development is “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” On a lighter, anonymous note, sustainable development is “Growth without cheating our children.”
The sustainable development definition may differ across geographies, cultures and countries. At the end of the day, however, it is a process that requires global participation at the individual level. Individual contribution is important because it forms the basis of the ‘Three pillars of sustainable development’ – Economic, Environmental and Social.
The ‘social’ pillar of people interacts with the other two – environmental and economic and in that sense drives the concept of sustainable development.
Since we use the environment for social and economic purposes it’s us who need to decide if the current trade off between ‘environment’ and ‘economic’ is beneficial to us in the long run. We can continue using wood for building our houses and destroy all our forests or decide on healthier alternatives that help the economy grow and keep our planet safe and secure for our future generations to be able to build their houses. In this sense ‘people’ form the pivotal point in the whole picture. Therefore, by definition, you and I, the individual home – owner, builder or real estate developer are part of the basic principles of sustainable development – people, planet, profits.
So what steps can you as a builder or homeowner take for ensuring sustainable real estate development? You can do a lot. Changing a bulb to CFL may not be the complete solution but it is a definite first step towards it. As a homeowner you can search for topics on sustainable development online and examine the different choices you can make for a greener home. Informative sustainable development articles abound on the web and there is a lot you can learn about making ecologically healthier choices for that new house you plan to build or for that re-modeling job you have in mind on your vacation home.
However, a bigger responsibility lies on the shoulders of the real-estate developers’ community because if we build it ‘green’ from scratch we make a stronger impact. Contrary to popular belief, the role of private sector developers, in sustainable real estate development, is key and much more profitable. Building ‘green’ makes sense and is profitable. Plus, sustainable real estate development has the thumbs up from the government – “In the not too distant future, all development will be green. Developers, builders and buyers will discover that green not only enhances their pocketbooks, but also their health and the quality of their lives. The developers who grasp this first will have an edge in a massive, emerging market…” – William S. Becker, Director, Center of Excellence For Sustainable Development, US Department of Energy.
The benefits of sustainable development for a real estate developer or a builder are manifold and make financial sense. Take the case of Wal-Mart whose environmental initiatives are reaping benefits like considerably reduced energy consumption and lower water bills. Charles Zimmerman, Wal-Mart’s vice president of prototype and new-format development says they have managed to do this by using, “refrigerators that generate 50% less heat and no mercury, low-heat lighting sources, bathrooms with low-flow fixtures and waterless urinals that cut water bills in half.” Other Wal-Mart initiatives like ‘Daylighting’ have paid for themselves in less than 2 years.
If builders and developers incorporate similar systems at the design stage of a project, sustainable residential development can become a reality. Construction and architectural design that helps a homeowner reduce their monthly household expenditure would be, in itself, a strong enough reason for a green builder’s products to be in demand.
The benefits of and the enhanced profitability through sustainable real estate development are catching up and in a blink of the annual eye it may become the standard. Says Brenna Walraven, the chairman – elect of the National Building Owners and Managers Association and national property management director at San Antonio-based USAA Reality Co. “Within five years sustainable construction will become the norm, in part because of falling product costs. Retail and the rest of commercial real estate needs to continue to push harder for green… it keeps expenses down, it’s good business, and, more importantly, it is the right thing to do.”
Sustainable real estate development has traditionally been marred by the perception of increased costs for the developer. However, if sustainable building development measures are incorporated at the design stage, these costs can be completely removed, if not considerably reduced. For instance, using combined heat and power generation can reduce the total capital costs of community-based systems such as heating. Other costs incurred on measures like low/dual flush WCs and energy-efficient appliances are comparable, or similar in many cases, to their more popular standard versions.
Buildings use 35% of the nation’s energy each year. There are more than 76 million residential and 5 million commercial buildings in the US today and this total number is expected to go up by another 38 million by 2010. Can you imagine the stress on energy resources and the subsequent rise in the costs of buying power for households in this time? Using sustainable residential development measures like Daylighting and solar water- heating would not only reduce this stress on energy resources but also allow a developer to offer a customer more cost-efficient residential option in the long-term.
Another way developers and builders can benefit from sustainable development is by using more economical, sustainable and ecological alternatives for construction and building materials. Using recycled content building materials can reduce construction costs thereby increasing profits. There are direct financial advantages here and the costs, as explained above can be minimized.
Innovation always pays dividends and builders and developers who use sustainable development alternatives can be the ones reaping the profit. There has never been a better time to adopt sustainable development measures and still be able to make profits, than today. What we sow now, we will reap tomorrow and thus the case for sustainable development for real estate developers and builders.