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The value of sustainability is continually coming under close scrutiny. All too often short term (and often short-sighted) gains outweigh the long term sustainable goals. In the commercial sector, with rent income the primary driving force for most developers, where does sustainability sit – can it aid or does it hinder? Overwhelming evidence indicates that sustainability is fast moving up a tenant’s wish list and as such up the real estate owner’s priority list.

Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report. This states that ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Sustainability is about people, the environment and economics. Over recent years we have been placing our emphasis on the environmental and economic elements and we are now seeing a growth in people focused sustainability, with more people understanding the importance of well-being. But I believe there is much more to it than that. We need to consider the governance and science of sustainable development – the way we inform, the way we act. We can drive change through tangible evidence of benefits and best practice but we will only create a mass shift if we can appeal to people at an emotional level and influence them in relation to what is important to them.

This shift change is particularly prevalent in the workplace where employers are realising that through a desirable workplace, they can enhance and improve productivity whilst even reducing staff churn and absenteeism due to sickness. In addition, employees are demanding better working conditions – they expect the latest technology, they expect a safe, comfortable and enjoyable working environment.

A survey of property investors held in 2010 posed the question, ‘How will green buildings perform against non-green buildings?’ An overwhelming 86 per cent of respondents said that green buildings will become more valuable. Since that survey was conducted, pressures on real estate owners and managers to make their properties more sustainable have continued to grow.

So where do they see the value? Quite simply from having properties that are more attractive to occupants, resulting in more stable tenancy periods and the ability to demand high rents.

The World Green Building Council’s report on ‘Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices’ cited factors such as indoor air quality, thermal comfort and lighting as having a significant financial implication for employers through the impact on staff productivity and absenteeism. Improving indoor environmental quality and occupant health has been one of the main objectives of BREEAM for over 25 years.

As the internationally recognised measure of sustainability for buildings and communities, with more than 530,000 certificates issued on more than 24,000 projects in over 70 countries, BREEAM has become ‘the badge’ of assurance for many tenants and as such the goal for many developers. But it is so much more than just a badge. Based on sound scientific evidence, good governance and global adaptation in line with local environmental standards, it enables and facilitates change and improvement that can be driven by individual requirements.

Putting this into a tenant’s perspective, it has been calculated that staff costs (salaries and benefits) typically account for 90 per cent of a business’s operating costs, with rent making up 9 per cent and energy the remaining 1 per cent. It therefore follows that the productivity of staff or anything that impacts their ability to be productive should be a major consideration for any organisation.

It stands to reason that if you put your staff in a building that is well lit, has natural daylight, is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, has good quality air and doesn’t suffer from noise pollution, you stand a much better chance to getting the best out of them.

With organisations coming under intense scrutiny to ensure best value and ROI at every turn, sustainability looks like one sure fire way of getting the best of both worlds. If you can reduce running costs whilst improving the performance of your staff it is surely a win-win.

Martin Townsend
About the Author
Martin has a diverse professional background covering all aspects of the built environment from advising UK Ministers when he was an Advisor in Government, to his time as a Regulator in the Environment Agency, or working on construction sites. He works closely with the construction industry bringing sustainability issues alive for companies' right across Social, Economic and Environmental agenda. As Director at BRE he looks to accelerate and broaden the uptake of tools, standard and learning throughout the industry, from component, building and city level, and in doing so, challenge the industry to improve, based on both best practise, but also the latest research.

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