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Urban Land Institute Reports on Green Real Estate Progress - 2007

Green real estate is largely commercial, with consumer housing following distantly

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Green Building Development Strategies

April 27, 2007 — In the land use industry, whether to design and develop green buildings is no longer a question. Rather, the relevant question is how—how to build structures that use less energy, release fewer carbon gas emissions, and which make a positive contribution to the surrounding environment. That was the underlying message at the Urban Land Institute’s "Developing Green" conference.

Green, Sustainable and Regenerative Practices

Conference participants pointed to a paradigm shift within the development community toward green and sustainable practices aimed at achieving economic, social and environmental benefits. Topics as diverse as trading energy consumption certificates, or "green tags," to decorating with flowers made from plastic bags all drove home the point: Green is here—get on board or get left behind.

Several factors, participants noted, are driving the green trend, including

  1. growing concern over global climate change;
  2. rising energy prices;
  3. growing public demand for products and services that promote health and wellness; and
  4. mounting proof that green building does not cost significantly more to build, and in fact generates energy savings that quickly offset upfront costs.

John Knott, president and chief executive officer of The Noisette Company, LLC in North Charleston, S.C., emphasized that for development to be truly environmentally conscious, a holistic approach must be applied that encompasses not just energy conservation goals, but a range of goals including land preservation, workforce housing close to jobs; transportation choices.

Sustainable Community Design and Development

This holistic approach is how his company is transforming 3,000 acres in the heart of North Charleston—including neglected parkland, blighted neighborhoods and a closed Navy Yard—into a thriving mixed-income, mixed-use community. "As developers, we are in the business of building human habitats," he said, noting that sustainable communities are those that serve a variety of needs: functional, economic, social, aesthetic and spiritual. "If we are not building habitats that are doing this, what we are building is disruptive to the environment."

Surpassibility Goes Beyond Sustainability

Sim Van der Ryn, president of the Ecological Design Institute in Sausalito, Calif., carried that message one step further, stressing the need to strive for surpassibility, rather than just sustainability. Surpassibility, he said, is a form of ecological design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes. While green building tends to focus primarily on the energy consumption of an individual building, ecological design extends that focus to the building’s affect on the environment.

According to Van der Ryn, there are a few signs indicating that society is reaching a tipping point at which it could be ready for surpassibility:

  1. a growing awareness that the layout of the built environment and infrastructure need to be interconnected with natural systems;
  2. an undisputed link between carbon gas emissions and climate change; and
  3. a growing realization that a heavy dependence on fossil fuels cannot last beyond two more generations.

Regenerative Design

Surpassibility, Van der Ryn said, means thinking in terms of regenerative design, "not just building in a way that will do no harm, but which will revive. . . (resulting in) a radical change for the better. Human aspiration is the ultimate sustaining source."

Green in the Commercial Sector

While the green movement is gaining ground in both the commercial and residential industry, it seems to have a stronger foothold in the commercial sector, due in large part to strong investor interest and growing tenant demand. Several conference participants noted that in the commercial industry, investors are increasingly looking to invest in properties they believe are environmentally sensitive.

A recent survey co-sponsored by ULI found considerable interest by U.S. real estate executives in sustainable and responsible property investing, indicating a willingness within the investment and development industry to adopt a “triple bottom line” business approach that measures success in terms of economic, social and environmental value.

Energy Star Ratings, EPA and LEED

Mychele Lord, executive managing director of client services at Transwestern in Dallas, described her company’s support for environmentally conscious commercial buildings that are rated favorably by the Energy Star program, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. Transwestern, which manages and leases more than 130 million square feet of commercial space, has “gone green” because
  1. “it was the right thing to do;
  2. increasing regulatory requirements related to the inclusion of green features in buildings;
  3. soaring energy costs; and
  4. growing tenant demand.
The Energy Star program, which measures building performance in terms of energy consumption, helps owners benchmark use and develop a plan for conservation, she explained. Alternatively, the LEED program is a system that rates new and existing buildings on the basis of materials and building techniques used during development or redevelopment; it does not measure after-the-fact building performance. Both programs are useful in helping building owners distinguish their properties as environmentally sensitive, she said.

Building Owners and Managers Association, Trends Watcher

With as much as 40 percent of the carbon gas emissions released in the United States coming from commercial buildings, it is in the best interest of property owners to “be part of the solution” and support increased conservation, noted Brenna Walraven, executive managing director of national property management at the USAA Real Estate Company in Irvine, Calif., and chairman-elect of the Building Owners and Managers Association International.

According to Walraven, the high percentage of building operating costs attributable to energy use (approximately one-fifth) make a clear business case for "green" operations that include greater energy efficiency, less water use, less waste generated and improved air filtration.

Trend: Green Building Operations

A shift toward green building operations, she said, should be presented as an “organizational goal” that emphasizes financial, environmental and employee/tenant benefits. "When people start believing (in environmentally conscious initiatives) things will change," Walraven said.

An overall lack of consumer demand for green housing has—as yet—kept the movement from gaining the same amount of traction in the residential sector as it currently has in the commercial sector, conference participants said.

The residential sector currently constitutes only two percent of the green building industry.

Green Home Buyer Preferences

Shyam Kannan, director of research and development at RCLCO in Bethesda, Md., cited a home buyer preference survey by that company showing that only 10 percent of the respondents based their purchasing decision on energy savings; 3 percent based their decision on the use of green materials in the construction.

Connections Between Health and Wellness and Green Homes

However, this relatively scant consumer interest will likely rise as more home buyers make the connection between health and wellness and green homes, Kannan and others said. For instance, Kannan cited a separate RCLCO survey in which 91 percent of prospective buyers said they would pay extra for amenities related to health and fitness, and 41 percent said they would do so even if they could not recoup their costs.

He described three groups of buyers most likely to buy green homes:

  • the “forest greens,” who have little purchasing power but would buy for altruistic reasons;
  • the “greenback greens,” who are interested, but price sensitive, and who base decisions to buy green versus non-green on cost factors;
  • and “healthy greens,” who are highly educated, more affluent "cultural creatives" who equate energy conservation with healthy living.

The “healthy greens,” Kannan said, will drive the residential market for green building.

Green and Affordability

Other panelists touched on the growing use of green techniques in affordable housing. Bart Harvey, chairman of Enterprise Community Partners in Columbia, Md., discussed the company’s Green Communities initiative, through which Enterprise and the Natural Resources Defense Council have committed to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly rental and for-sale affordable homes. More than 7,000 homes in 159 developments in 23 states are already underway, he said. According to Harvey, the costs to build the housing using green building materials is no more than 3 percent higher than using standard materials, demonstrating that green housing can be built affordably. “We are building a bridge between the environmental community and the development community,” he said.

Panelists also discussed green and sustainable development in terms of connecting land use and transportation planning. Richard Lee, senior transportation engineer/planner at Fehr and Peers in Walnut Creek, Calif., defined a sustainable plan as one that is measured by

  1. density of households;
  2. diversity of land uses;
  3. design of grids to permit easy connections;
  4. proximity to variety of destinations; and
  5. proximity to transit.
He described a mechanism for calculating the number of vehicle trips reduced by increasing density, citing an example in which vehicular traffic was cut 8 percent by raising density from 3 units per acre to five units per acre in conjunction with mixing uses.

Reid Ewing, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education in College Park, Md., noted that demographic changes – primarily the aging baby boomer population—will fuel a movement toward more compact development that is conducive to walking.

Baby Boomers and Urban Planning

"As they get older, baby boomers will not be institutionalized. They will want to walk to visit their friends, go places, and get exercise," Ewing said. "We will see more development of communities where people can walk to everything. Guaranteed."

Author and radio-show host Danny Seo, a self-described "ecostylist," offered attendees tips on promoting a green lifestyle without being "militant"—including creative ways to use recycled clothing for draperies, and use solar powered lamps for outdoor lighting. Seo’s advice for advocating green:

  1. What is ecological must also be economical;
  2. Green must be gorgeous; and
  3. Green must be fun and functional.
  4. Green must be thrifty!
"To build trust with your audience, you can’t just sell it, you have to do it," Seo said. "Green must be mission-driven, not profit-driven. It must be part of your DNA."

The Urban Land Institute

About the Urban Land Institute—The Urban Land Institute ( is a nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and building sustainable and thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has more than 36,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| urban planning | real estate | conference |


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