Sustainable leaders rethink the ‘chase for points’

How green do buildings truly become during a property certification process?
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Rating systems for the design, construction and maintenance of green buildings, which ultimately lead to the realms of certification, now readily empower and differentiate buildings from others with less sustainable ambitions.

However, the race to move from one level to another, whether through LEED or BOMA BESt, has some industry leaders wondering if subscribers of such programs are truly being green.

In what Bala Gnanam, director of sustainability and building technologies at BOMA Toronto, calls the “chase for points,” some building owners and managers often forgo deficiencies in areas deemed more difficult or expensive in favour of easier assessments, bicycle racks, for instance.

“What’s happening is you could score poorly in one area and then pick up points in another area,” he says. “You could score a failing grade for energy, but you’ll end up at another level with tenant engagement initiatives, like a greatly bound operations manual or hosting tenant barbeques.”

As such programs assess cumulative details, where success is determined based on total points of criteria, such as energy, water, the built environment or emissions, gaps are bound to occur.

Yet, if reaching the next level means adding a couple bicycle racks, Gnanam suggests this approach may dilute the rationale for greening a building.

“Call yourself energy efficient; it definitely works well within the marketing schemes, but when you take a closer look, are you truly being green?” Gnanam asks. “You can put a certification on the wall, but you need to focus on continuous improvement.”

Plotting beyond the points

Philippe Bernier, director of sustainability at Triovest Realty Advisors, says, ultimately, building rating systems have done a lot of good for providing a common language and framework for many stakeholders to work together to achieve better results.

“The challenge is when you’re taking a complex thing like a building and uniting all the different components into a single rating,” he says. “It’s unduly simplifying what is actually a complex situation and doesn’t add a lot of value in some regards.”

Although there are many valuable aspects to rating systems, Bernier points out that they still don’t address the underlying problem of “needing points.”

For a more holistic approach, Bernier highlights a few recommendations, such as the annual GRESB survey. Considered the gold standard for building owners and managers, GRESB is the organizational level equivalent of what LEED and BOMA BESt are to buildings.

To mitigate the risk of points chasing, every question in the GRESB survey is plotted in one of two categories, where points are earned in either the management and policy dimension, which is focused on processes and policies, or in the implementation and measurement dimension, which is focused more on results. Respondents need to score well in both dimensions to be recognized as a Green Star.

“What GRESB has done is really important because it lets you understand where your efforts are contributing to getting the right things in place versus whether you are actually achieving something,” stresses Bernier. “Every question is not only categorized into GRESB’s two dimensions, but also by different aspects, which relate more to areas, such as management, performance indicators or building certifications.”

In 2014, about 650 respondents representing $2 trillion of real estate took the survey, and Bernier forecasts more will follow this year.

In fact, 2015 will mark the first year Triovest will take the survey, although the company has previously shadowed its approach.

“GRESB is, from a strategic perspective, a compass needle north to achieving sustainability leadership,” says Bernier, adding that there are two supporting pieces that link GRESB to the company’s sustainability strategy, which help address possible holes.

First, is a materiality matrix published in early March 2015. Triovest completed multiple interviews including clients, tenants and employees to understand what their sustainability priorities were in order to better manage and measure what stakeholders desire. Identifying major influencers, along with shared and emerging priorities, surfaced in their findings. Meanwhile, such aspects like alternative transportation and net-zero buildings were identified by interviewees as less important than business ethics and safety, to name a couple.

Additionally, a sustainability scorecard with a July 2015 target date will draw from these various interviews and complement the GRESB results. With a holistic approach, the scorecard will be structured in an environmental, social and governance framework and will complement a closer examination of a global set of best practices, stakeholder engagement, while communicating strategy to tenants and employees.

Internal experts like Bernier are more able to guide property managers and owners towards a greater understanding of how to fix inefficiencies in all areas.

Sourcing expertise

Lorina Keery, sustainability manager at Colliers International (Canada), says it’s difficult for all companies to approach sustainability in a holistic way without having that in-house expertise to understand it.

“Organizations with experts allow sustainability to be approached more creatively and have the opportunity to intimately understand the needs of clients and a building’s position in the marketplace,” she says, adding that some property managers, without the luxury of an everyday expert, must hire a consultant who charges an hourly rate.

Some managers may feel they must arrive at an outcome faster as its less costly and may, therefore, be discouraged from approaching the process in an intricate and meaningful manner.

Such rating systems, therefore, have been an effective framework to making a building more sustainable, as many organizations don’t have an embedded energy or sustainability manager.

“Ultimately, that building is implementing things it wouldn’t have looked at before, without the context of LEED or BOMA BESt,” Keery adds. “What is important not to lose sight of is that such measures persist. That’s where property managers must use these agreed upon frameworks and monitor results—that’s when you’re really transforming a building.”

Tenant engagement

Long before the Collier’s Mississauga Executive Centre (MEC) in Mississauga, Ontario, had achieved LEED Gold status, it had employed an engaged management team that desired to make its building better and keep pace with the rest of industry.

But Sante Esposito, general manager of MEC and director of property management for Colliers, (Eastern Canada), says keeping up with certain inefficiencies requires constant effort, especially related to engaging tenants in the green process.

“One of the most difficult jobs as an industry is tenant engagement,” notes Esposito. “It’s a never-ending battle and we have to continue hitting it every single day.”

“You have to keep it very new and fresh and exciting and interesting,” adds Catherine Grammatikos, property manager at Colliers. “It has to resonate with a team or individual to gain momentum.”

What MEC tenants are now seeing is that simple measures can actually drive results. Two of its main tenants recently won BOMA Earth Hour awards for simply reminding staff to turn off computers and copy machines at night, resulting in a great reduction in energy consumption.

Meanwhile, other areas are continually revisited. Submetering systems, for instance, while driving results at many other buildings across the country, offer more opportunities for reduction.

“We’ve been successful in finding the phantom users of electricity in evening base loads,” says Esposito, “but the question is how much further we can go and influence tenant behaviour to drive loads lower?”

The MEC team has initiated training and analysis from different parties to help them achieve a proportionally increased reduction. In addition, mobile apps to specifically target millennial users and deploy surveys, contests and other tech-friendly engagement methods are in the works.

Tenant engagement is, therefore, one key factor in MEC’s approach to filling sustainable holes. Yet, not all companies think far beyond a points-centric approach, as programs are based on meeting a specific points threshold within various levels of certification.

“What is needed in order to move the whole industry to be truly green is a minimum performance within each assessment area for each level of certification,” suggests Gnanam.

Systems outside of North America

Other systems outside of North America serve as models for what could be done in Canada. Bernier emphasizes that despite the fact such systems are similar to North America because they use calculated averages for different component parts, they are still able to propel Europe through other factors.

Europe has been able to rise to a slightly higher level for various reasons: higher energy costs create a more economic imperative to conserve and a push for more energy incentives. Also, Europeans are more understanding of regulations as Bernier notes “there is a greater acceptance of the role of government in business.”

“As a result of this greater involvement, we have seen more stringent building codes,” he adds. Looking east, other systems prove to be creative, like the Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency (CASBEE). This Japanese system evaluates the internal building from two viewpoints of environmental quality and performance, while also looking at how the building is minimizing the impact on the external environment.”

Still, some programs are making strides in Canada. Bernier highlights some of the biggest improvements that surfaced from the GRESB survey last year were based in North America.

As such comprehensive systems within Canada grow in popularity and other programs evolve to better address various details, Gnanam stresses that individual actions should be recognized for their significance to the overall environment.

“While we’re pursuing various green building designations, where there’s a gap, we need to truly work to fill that gap,” adds Gnanam. “Not chase points on the surface, but rather put measures in place to address inefficiencies. Then, we will be truly green.”


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