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It was hard to tell there is a recession going on at last month’s United States Green Buildings Council in Boston. The conference had an attendance of over 25,000 people, and the main hall’s trade show was packed. One observer at the conference was Dick Purtell, BOMA’s chair, who is also a Grubb & Ellis portfolio manager. “We want to show our political leaders that we can do this on a voluntary basis as opposed to some of the mandates we might be facing,” he says of the industry’s proactive approach to sustainability. GlobeSt.com spoke to him about the conference and where green is going in commercial real estate.

GlobeSt.com: What was your biggest surprise at Greenbuild?

Purtell: The most impressive part of it is the number of people that attend that event and the fact that, at least at this point, it doesn’t appear that the economy is having an impact on what they are doing. Part of that could be that a lot of this had been planned before the worst news came down, but I was impressed with the passion you see out of that group and the shear numbers. On the tradeshow the exhibitors are there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. selling and working the crowd. I was there for two days of it and was never on the floor when there weren’t a lot of people. I’m sure the exhibitors were happy with the traffic.

On a side note, they had some issues in registration the year before. To their credit, they went out, did some research, and figured out how to do it. Registration was as efficient as I’ve ever witnessed. It’s an excellent operation.

GlobeSt.com: Do you see the recession hurting the green sector in the future?

Purtell: Sustainability is here to stay. Attendance for conferences like these…we’re all going to have to justify why we need to be there, but the sustainability issues are not going to go away. Part of the reason BOMA was there was to observe what they were doing. We feel that we are the industry leader in that area, and we want to see what everyone else is doing, so we can be prepared for that next issue and how to deal with a number of things our members are dealing with as well.

GlobeSt.com: What is the biggest sustainability issue facing your members right now?

Purtell: What we’re always focused on is energy conservation and being efficient with our energy dollar. A year and a half ago, we announced a seven-point challenge to our members, and we now have over 100 companies and local associations that have endorsed that. The main goal is a 30% reduction in energy conservation by 2012, with an average building EngergyStar rating of 50. It’s about 20% of the total operating costs of our properties that we manage. When we’re talking industry wide, about a $24-billion annual expense what 30% would mean. That pressure is going to continue. We continue to have members endorse the challenge and all that goes with that.

GlobeSt.com: Are there any parts of the industry that could do some catching up in sustainability?

Purtell: Clearly what the USGBC has been doing is with, primarily, new construction. They’re leading that area. Our biggest focus is the existing building stock and educating that group and keeping ahead of that curve. We’re trying to stay ahead of that. I’m not sure that anyone is necessarily in front or behind.

GlobeSt.com: Are there any regions of the country that seem to embrace sustainability more than others?

Purtell: With all of the sustainability issues, it seems like California has led the way in a lot of this. But it’s taking tsunami proportions and sweeping across the country pretty rapidly. Maybe they had the lead initially, but everybody’s catching up pretty quickly.

GlobeSt.com: Are you seeing a lot of tenant demand for sustainable buildings?

Purtell: I personally have a couple tenants that are national and international that are very active in this arena. Deloitte is a major tenant in one of the major properties that I’m responsible for, and they have approached in efforts to work together to make it a more sustainable-operated property. We’re working very closely with them in energy efficiency, recycling and water savings. It’s a platform for them they have taken internationally.

GlobeSt.com: Is it tough educating tenants about this?

Purtell: I don’t think there’s any issue with people understanding the need and buying into this. The main issue is doing more with less. You have to educate your staff to be able to do a variety of things with the properties. It’s just finding the people and time to get all this done and continue to do your everyday job all the while knowing that we don’t have a choice. But sometimes things don’t happen as quickly as we would all like. We all see the value in it, but everything else needs to be done as well.

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