ROI of Sustainability: Still an Issue

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Jean Savitsky
Energy and Sustainability Services

Most of our energy and sustainability project work focuses on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ – owners of existing buildings tend recognize the benefits of green buildings and are looking to our firm to deliver the best result at the lowest possible cost.  So it was interesting to be part of a discussion last week on the cost-benefit equation of sustainability in new buildings, at the AIA National Conference in Washington DC.

The American Institute of Architects, naturally, is mainly concerned with the design and materials specs for new buildings, where the incremental cost of energy efficient systems is tiny compared to the life cycle energy cost savings. The majority of Jones Lang LaSalle’s energy project work involves retrofitting existing buildings, where the return on investment may be less obvious but the simple payback still fall into the three-to-five-year range in most cases. Increasingly, our cost-benefit discussions around sustainability projects revolve around issues beyond simple payback, such as tenant attraction and employee productivity. For these clients, the financial benefit of energy and sustainability in new buildings is a foregone conclusion. But for the AIA audience, the finer points of green design still leave a lot of room for discussion.

The basic message of my presentation was simple: If you don’t design to LEED, you are designing to obsolescence.  I don’t remember where I read that, but the idea stuck with me, and it resonated with the AIA audience too. Green design is the future, whatever the cost—but it doesn’t have to cost extra. Every serious study of the question over the past 10 years has concluded that, when green features are considered as an afterthought, they tend to add to the cost of construction, but when sustainability is embedded in integrated project delivery (IPD) or similar design-build processes, green buildings cost no more than traditional buildings.

Audience members were also very interested in my comments on the increased evidence that green design makes buildings worth more – quantified in various studies by increased rental rates, increased sale prices, and increased occupancy rates.  Architects want to make a strong case for the value of sustainability with their clients, and the evidence shows that case getting stronger all the time.

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