Hollon: Building sustainability is more
than about environmental protection.

Read Victoria Hollon’s views about the future of sustainability in the upcoming issue of Better Buildings Magazine.

 

HOUSTON-While the 1.3-million-square-foot Pennzoil Place, an office building in the CBD was being retrofitted, 700 toilets were removed. Rather than discard the older toilets in landfills, however, the apparatuses were cleaned, the porcelain crushed, and sent to the Gulf Coast to help refurbish oyster beds.

Though this is an extreme example of “going green,” it does outline where the green building movement is headed. Soaring energy costs, combined with environmental concerns, tenant demands and even municipal regulations mean commercial real estate property managers and owners are being encouraged to consider ways in which they can get more mileage out of buildings.

According to Victoria Hollon, Transwestern’s senior vice president, innovation and quality assurance, making a building more energy efficient is a powerful money saver. With energy costs being a huge chunk of an office building’s budget, it makes sense to build sustainability initiatives into operations. Furthermore, there is the environmental factor; a building that operates more efficiently is less likely to spew all kinds of junk into the air.

This is why Transwestern joined the White House’s Better Building Initiative last year. As a partner with this initiative, the locally headquartered Transwestern committed to incorporating sustainability practices in 442 office buildings of its managed portfolio, totalling 78 million square feet. The goal of this initiative is to cut energy consumption by 20% by 2020. Transwestern, in fact, helped spearhead the Pennzoil Place retrofit.

But it hasn’t been an easy message to sell.

“For the past seven or eight years, we’ve been focused on energy efficiency because of an increase in energy prices,” Hollon tells Globest.com. “Years ago, we became active with the EPA; through its Energy Star program, we were aware of which properties might be consuming more than they need for a particular amount of square footage.” This, in turn, has allowed sharing that information with office building owners to encourage those owners to make some changes. However, “our owners haven’t always felt the same way we did,” Hollon acknowledges.

The good news, however, is that Transwestern and others are getting some help in hammering home the message. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), established in the late 1990s, came out with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which provides rating systems for the design, construction and operations of properties. LEED, Hollon points out, was a good first step and still remains the benchmark tool for measuring sustainability. It’s also caught on with a great many builders and designers – at one time, LEED certification of existing and even new buildings was more the exception than the rule. But these days, it’s rare to find a building going north that isn’t applying for some kind of LEED certification.

The challenge, then, is retrofitting the older buildings to operate in a more sustainable fashion. The good news here is retrofitting doesn’t necessarily mean tearing out entire HVAC systems or rewiring lighting components. “Most of the buildings in Texas are nearing their 20-year mark, and the ownership, management and caretakers have changed so many times, the controls in the building have gotten out of whack and aren’t functioning as they should,” Hollon explains. Simply studying those controls and making some minor fixes can make a huge difference on a building’s energy performance.

As such, a good first step for building owners is to get their properties benchmarked through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Once the buildings receive an Energy Star score, “you can gauge where you are, then take steps to reduce consumption,” Hollon says.

Taking steps to reduce that consumption is becoming more important, and not just to save costs. Municipalities are incorporating sustainability elements in their building codes. In Texas, Austin has led the way with its own green initiatives, and Dallas and Houston are starting to follow suit, especially because design sustainability means a better quality workplace as well as fewer pollutants in the air. This is especially an issue during Texas summers, when pollutants combine with hot, stagnant air to create “ozone alerts.”

And tenants are demanding greener offices, too. “A couple of years ago, we couldn’t say that tenants were demanding LEED certification or sustainability,” Hollon remarks. “But now we can say they are.” The federal government especially wants LEED-certified buildings for tenancy. “Anyone with a government tenant in their buildings needs to make changes if they want to keep those tenants,” Hollon says.

Furthermore, data is now available about the relationship between dollars and energy consumption. “We can show a situation in which someone invested $400,000 in a chiller change-out, with payback less than two years. We can show where that change-out reduced energy consumption by 15% on an annual basis, and reduced annual costs by about $100,000 a year,” Hollon says. “The proof is always in the pudding, when you can show the results of investment and payback, the question then becomes do we have the funds to do it.”

And finally, the next generation is concerned about sustainability. Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, grew up recycling and caring for the environment, and these folks are now entering the workplace. And they’re demanding workplaces that follow sustainable initiatives, all the way down to lighting sensors.

“We have people interviewing for property management positions at Transwestern who are asking: ‘What are you doing for sustainability? What are you doing for energy efficiency?’” Hollon says. “These are the people who will be making decisions for commercial real estate in the future.”