Redefining the business case for creating sustainable buildings

Alex Edds

At a recent event hosted by the CBI/Green Alliance in London, former US vice president Al Gore urged the government and business community to step up and tackle the most important moral issue faced by humanity – the climate crisis.

In his speech he said: “Will our children ask why you didn’t act or ask how you found the moral courage to rise up and change?”

Judging by the applause and the top headlines of the week, Mr Gore’s speech clearly resonated with many business leaders in the room, and has stirred up the debate on the UK’s leadership position regarding climate action.

But I can’t help but wonder if our moral responsibility for future generations is motivation enough to embrace a more sustainable economy?

The key challenge facing our society is the idea of making sacrifices now so that future generations can thrive. The very concept is difficult for people to grasp and it plays against many basic human instincts. In political or business terms this means that long term benefits are often trumped by short term gains.

For the property sector this effectively means we are not developing buildings for the long term. The World Green Building Council (WGBC) report, Business Case for Green Buildings, makes a compelling case for sustainable buildings based on the fact that such buildings have lower operating cost, are less risky, and are likely to be valued higher compared to buildings with no sustainability credentials.

As it turns out, there is a perception that productivity cannot be measured and hence is often not factored into the business case. Arguably, ignorance is no defence

Despite this, the transformation of the property sector has been slow. This is mainly because sustainable design features often cost more upfront, whilst the benefits - in terms of energy cost savings - accrue over a long period of time.

Having attended a few events during World Green Building Week I am pleased to say that I think attitudes are changing. This year’s theme was “Powering Positive Change” and a common thread to the events was the seemingly intangible “human” benefit of sustainable buildings which is increasingly being acknowledged by the property sector - large occupiers and landlords alike.

John Alker, Head of Policy and Communications at UKGBC, rightly pointed out at a JLL/CBI event on occupant health and wellbeing that “a building can be zero carbon, zero water and zero waste, but if it doesn’t work for tenants, it isn’t a sustainable building”.

The event, attended by some of the leading landlords and occupiers including Aberdeen Asset Management, Great Portland Estates, Deutsche Bank, Sky and M&S, all agreed that the ultimate requirement for a commercial building is to support a thriving business and this requires a productive workforce.

Despite this, Dr Nigel Oseland from Workplace Unlimited, questioned “why property investment decisions are still so heavily focussed on rents and density, without considering the impact on people and productivity? Especially when a 5% increase in productivity, (by implementing sustainable design features) will typically cover the total cost of a business’ occupation”.

As it turns out, there is a perception that productivity cannot be measured and hence is often not factored into the business case. Arguably, ignorance is no defence, and property investment decisions should incorporate a more holistic set of value metrics.

An event hosted by Greengage Environmental showcased the benefits of integrating health and wellbeing criteria in the design of infrastructure, public realm and interior spaces. Nicola Osborn, design director from MoreySmith presented three very different case studies of office spaces - refurbishment of the Coca Cola HQ, York House (British Land HQ and the new Argent HQ) all with a client brief to create a space that makes employees feel good, which ultimately would increase their overall wellbeing and productivity.

And what’s interesting is the fact that while all three designs were different, they all featured similar aspects such as abundant natural light, use of natural materials and generous open spaces.

Grosvenor demonstrated how it seeks to incorporate social cohesion, happiness, and the health of residents and space users as key elements in its sustainable neighbourhood developments. The event was followed by a guided tour of the firm’s London estate showcasing garages transformed into shops, restored historical buildings and the new look Mount Street development.

The week of green building events in September highlighted to me that attitudes are changing. The conversation is no longer only about “green” or low energy buildings. We are now having a more sensible discussion about truly sustainable buildings which are environmentally sensitive, healthy and productive, and economically viable. I believe this marks a turning point in our sector, and I expect to see more interesting and exciting buildings coming to market in the years to come.

Alex Edds is JLL’s UK sustainability director