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Sustainable Buildings: Bringing Historic Property Up to Par


The concept of sustainability has dramatically shifted from being a niche effort to a central focus in the real estate industry, primarily due to the growing recognition of climate change's tangible impacts and the depletion of natural resources. 

Your role in this transition is pivotal. The buildings we inhabit and manage consume a significant portion of global energy, contributing extensively to carbon emissions and environmental degradation. This realization has led to a collective reevaluation of traditional building practices and an urgent push toward more sustainable solutions. 

Sustainable buildings, which integrate environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility, are not just beneficial—they are becoming essential. This shift is underpinned by increased regulatory pressures, changing consumer preferences, and the undeniable economic benefits of energy efficiency. In this context, implementing sustainable building practices is a response to environmental challenges and a strategic approach to future-proofing real estate assets in a world where sustainability is becoming the norm.

Importance of Sustainable Buildings

The importance of sustainable buildings in today's society cannot be overstated. They are a critical response to the pressing global challenges of climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. By fundamentally rethinking how buildings are designed, constructed, and operated, sustainable buildings aim to reduce the environmental impact traditionally associated with real estate drastically.

One of the primary reasons for sustainable buildings is that they lessen the ecological footprint of real estate. Buildings are one of the largest energy consumers worldwide, responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable buildings directly address this issue with their emphasis on energy efficiency. They help mitigate climate change by lowering carbon emissions and utilizing renewable energy sources, contributing to the global efforts to cap global warming to safe levels.

Furthermore, the importance of sustainable buildings extends to the conservation of natural resources. Building operations consume vast amounts of water, energy, and raw materials, burdening the earth's ecosystems. Sustainable buildings, by contrast, incorporate water-saving fixtures, energy-efficient systems, and sustainable and recyclable materials. This reduces their environmental impact and sets a precedent for responsible resource management in the industry.

The relevance of sustainable buildings is also linked to the growing awareness and demand among consumers and businesses for greener, healthier living and working environments. As people become more conscious of environmental issues and their health implications, a rising demand for buildings supporting a sustainable lifestyle is rising. This shift in consumer preferences pushes the real estate market towards sustainability as a standard practice, influencing developers, investors, and owners to prioritize green building practices.

Moreover, sustainable buildings enhance public health and indoor environmental quality. They are designed with occupant comfort and well-being in mind, utilizing natural light, improving air quality, and reducing exposure to harmful materials. This leads to healthier, more productive living and working environments, which is particularly significant considering how much time people spend indoors.

Economically, the importance of sustainable buildings is evident in their operational cost savings and increased property values. Energy-efficient systems lead to lower utility bills, while sustainable materials often require less maintenance. These factors make sustainable buildings more cost-effective in the long run, appealing to property owners and investors. Additionally, as the market increasingly recognizes the value of sustainability, green buildings retain higher resale values and attract tenants more easily than traditional structures.

Enhancing Sustainability in Older Buildings

When applied to older structures, sustainable building principles can transform them into more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient assets without necessitating extensive construction. This can be achieved in older buildings through relatively straightforward measures like insulating windows and walls, upgrading to LED lighting, and using smart technology to help better manage your building's energy consumption. These steps lower utility costs and reduce carbon footprint. 

Water conservation is another vital aspect of retrofitting older buildings for sustainability. Installing low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, kitchens, and utility areas can dramatically decrease water usage without disrupting the building’s daily operations. Monitoring water usage within your boiler can also reduce water waste due to issues like return line leaks. The return line is often buried underground, making it very difficult to notice. There are likely buildings with leaks that go unnoticed for months, years, or even decades, wasting water and driving up boiler and energy usage. 

Adopting smart boiler controls can make your 100-year-old, centrally heated building sustainable. Heating controls don’t require invasive construction and can be up and running in days. For centrally heated buildings, there’s no excuse for wasting energy and money by not making easy sustainability decisions. 

Benefits of Sustainable Buildings

The advantages of sustainable buildings encompass significant economic, repetitional, legal, and operational benefits alongside their well-documented environmental impacts. 

Economically, the appeal of sustainable buildings is clear. They present substantial long-term cost savings through reduced energy and water consumption. The initial investments in energy-efficient appliances, water-saving systems, and better insulation pay off lower utility bills. Additionally, sustainable buildings can command higher lease rates and increased property values due to the growing demand for green spaces, making them more cost-effective and profitable in the long-term real estate market. On top of that, you save your building for legal penalties around sustainability. 

Beyond the direct financial benefits, sustainable buildings significantly enhance a building's reputation. In an increasingly environmentally conscious market, tenants and investors actively seek green-certified buildings, associating them with quality, responsibility, and forward-thinking. This preference translates into higher occupancy rates, reduced turnover, and stronger tenant loyalty, bolsters the building's market standing and attractiveness. A strong reputation as a leader in sustainability can also open doors to various incentives, grants, and certifications, further enhancing the property's appeal and competitive edge.

As mentioned, sustainable buildings offer distinct advantages in the legal and regulatory landscape. New York has already passed laws like Local Law 97, with more coming soon that penalize buildings that aren’t meeting energy conservation levels. As governments worldwide tighten environmental regulations and building codes, properties that already meet or exceed these standards avoid the costs and complexities associated with compliance. Owners of sustainable buildings sidestep the risks of fines, legal challenges, and mandatory retrofits that can plague less eco-conscious properties. This proactive approach to sustainability safeguards against current regulations and positions buildings to more easily adapt to future legal requirements, ensuring long-term viability and reducing the likelihood of costly legal entanglements.

Operational efficiencies represent yet another benefit of sustainable buildings. These properties encounter fewer heating, cooling, and water management issues by prioritizing systems and practices that minimize energy and water use. This results in less time and money spent on maintenance and repairs, freeing up resources for other uses. 

From a social perspective, the advantages of sustainable buildings are equally significant. Enhanced indoor environmental quality—through better air circulation, natural lighting, and non-toxic materials—leads to healthier, more comfortable spaces for occupants. This can result in reduced sick days, higher productivity, and increased tenant satisfaction, translating into direct benefits for businesses and property managers. Sustainable buildings often incorporate communal areas and green spaces that foster community and well-being, contributing to tenants' overall satisfaction and retention.

Key Features of Building Sustainability

When retrofitting older buildings, several sustainable features can be incorporated to improve energy efficiency, water conservation, and environmental impact:

  • Retrofit lighting systems by transitioning to LED lighting, which reduces overall electricity consumption.
  • Update outdated HVAC systems with newer, energy-efficient models to lower energy use and enhance indoor comfort.
  • Install smart boiler controls to optimize heating efficiency. These controls adapt energy output to actual demand and reduce unnecessary energy consumption.
  • Enhance the building's insulation in walls, roofs, and windows to minimize the need for heating and cooling.
  • Replace existing plumbing fixtures with low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads to significantly reduce water usage.
  • Implement rainwater harvesting systems to collect and reuse rainwater for landscaping and non-potable purposes, thus reducing reliance on municipal water supplies.
  • Utilize recycled, non-toxic, or sustainably sourced materials during renovations and repairs to minimize the building's environmental footprint.
  • Select low-VOC paints and finishes to improve the indoor air quality and ensure a healthier environment for occupants.
  • Integrate smart sensors and meters to provide detailed energy and water usage monitoring, helping identify and implement further efficiency measures.

Challenges and Considerations in Sustainable Building

Despite the clear advantages, the transition to sustainable building has challenges. High initial costs, regulatory hurdles, and widespread misconceptions can impede progress. However, these challenges can be overcome through education, collaboration, and strategic planning. Property owners and managers must navigate these obstacles with a long-term perspective, recognizing the value of investing in sustainability for the planet's and society's future health.

The role of sustainable buildings in the future of real estate is undeniable. They represent a critical step towards a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous world. As property managers and owners, embracing sustainable building practices is a strategic business decision and a moral imperative. Committing to sustainability can lead the industry towards a brighter, more sustainable future. Take the first step today by exploring how our solutions can assist you in creating sustainable buildings. Book a demo and join the movement towards a greener, more sustainable real estate industry.