Real estate professionals have a remarkable capacity to qualitatively affect the way we live today and how we will live in the future. Whether working on the physical design and construction, development and ongoing operations, or the legal, policy or financial framework — all facets together fashion the world. We shape cities and neighborhoods, define patterns and uses and establish physical monuments that will last decades, if not centuries. Our industry influences the way we interact and behave, the choices we have now and the opportunities we will have. With such enormous power comes great responsibility.
As purveyors of the built world, we are uniquely situated to revolutionize our physical and social framework. Far more than just a commodity, our work has the power to be regenerative. By consciously aligning our built world with the ecosystem, we can combat climate change and simultaneously optimize for health, productivity and resilience. Together, we can lead the transformation toward a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future.
Building Real Value
Our real estate assets and legacy can create enduring value through a holistic commitment to invest in social, natural and economic capital. An integrated and collaborative approach that fundamentally incorporates the long view will foster BOTH ecological and social wellness AND healthy enterprise. Buildings consume 40 percent of all energy on the planet and represent nearly 50 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption are creating climate change. If buildings are half of the problem, then they are also a substantial opportunity to have a meaningful impact.
What if we could consistently design and build buildings that dramatically reduced utility bills, operating costs and carbon footprints? What if as a natural byproduct our buildings were far more durable, highly resilient, and phenomenally comfortable and healthy to be in? In fact, we already can.
Since the 1970s, we’ve known the concepts and principles that make this feasible, and since the 1980s, we’ve had the systems, technologies and product efficiencies to support implementation. These have gotten rapidly more available and less expensive. Since the 1990s, we’ve had an actual standard to simply, measurably evaluate whether we are hitting the target. With its laser focus on exceptional energy reduction, the Passive House Building Standard is the world’s most energy efficient.
Through radical simplicity and rigorous attention to detail, a Passive House project combines a super-insulated, air-tight envelope with an intelligent ventilation system and passive solar strategies. Collectively, these integrated measures substantially minimize heating and cooling loads by 80-90 percent, reducing overall energy demand by up to 50-60 percent and realizing extreme thermal stability. Should renewable energy be an option, Net-Zero or Net-Positive becomes easily feasible.
Already well established in Europe and embedded in building codes internationally, the Passive House movement and low-energy approach to building is finally taking root in the United States. One key to its success is that this superior quality and performance does not require a comparable increase in upfront costs. What it does require is an integrated design process committed to a holistic approach toward building envelope and systems as well as a return to the craft of building.
Shifting our Framework
To advance this movement at the scale and speed necessary to preserve our planet and achieve our carbon-neutral future will require collaboration and strategic thinking across all sectors of the real estate industry. Whether you consider yourself a steward or a pragmatist, this shift requires a holistic definition of how we build true value – one that considers the full life cycle costs of our buildings.
A policy and financing framework that is aligned with that vision is necessary to encourage long-term thinking and help overcome impediments. To facilitate better decision-making and planning, we need creative financing and incentives that bridge the gap between first cost limitations and life cycle cost implications so we are able to make smart investment choices from the start. Innovative financing programs like Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) can support this for both new construction and renovation and can be a valuable tool once adopted.
Lenders and insurers can also reward these higher quality, more durable buildings, in recognition that these investments are more sound. With lower operational costs and higher resiliency, why wouldn’t a high-performance building be afforded lower interest rates and insurance premiums?
Finally, there is also an opportunity to fuel market education and transformation. Raised awareness and expectations, combined with consistent and accessible tools by which our buildings can be evaluated will encourage us to hold our buildings accountable. What if we could all assess our next apartment, our child’s daycare or new office space, with ready access to building performance information, such as energy use, air quality and comfort data? Sustainability is not just a responsibility — it’s an opportunity: to create thriving, resilient communities built to endure.
Michelle Apigian is an Associate at ICON Architecture and co-chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee of CREW Boston. Her work is focused on the design of sustainable environments that strengthen communities and celebrate the uniqueness of place.