Commercial real estate owners vow not to cut back on climate commitments

Commercial real estate owners will make plenty of changes to their properties as buildings open over the next 12 months. One thing that’s unlikely to change: Their commitments to cutting carbon emissions.

That, at least, was the promise from sustainability chiefs at three large real estate concerns that have made commitments to reduce their contributions to climate change.

Jonathan Flahery of Tishman Speyer in New York, Ben Myers of Boston Properties and Kim Pexton of JBG Smith in Washington were speaking Tuesday at a virtual summit on “The New Resilience: How the Global Pandemic Will Influence Building and Community Design,” organized by the International Living Future Institute. They were among nine panelists in three sessions who painted a fuller picture of what to expect as owners, occupants and public health experts scramble to ready office buildings and urban areas for “reopening” in the midst of ongoing pandemic.

It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that other real estate firms will keep up their carbon-cutting commitments — or, for that matter, that less sustainably oriented firms will suddenly develop a climate conscience. Still, the firm answer to the question of whether owners would retreat from climate commitments girds up a general hope among advocates that the pandemic will strengthen the sustainable building movement.

“We are all very bullish on climate action,” Myers said, even as he acknowledged that resources might temporarily be diverted to building tweaks meant to combat infectious diseases.

“This becomes a layer from a climate change adaptation standpoint,” Pexton added. ““One of the things that we have not paused on is any energy efficiency measure.”

An anticipated speaker at the summit was the Harvard School of Public Health’s Joe Allen, who’s emerged as a leading voice on infectious diseases and the built environment during the pandemic. As part of a panel on the specific measures that might be taken in buildings, Allen echoed optimism that the push for healthy buildings will only enhance the push for sustainable buildings.

“What has happened with this pandemic is that the pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already happening,” he said.

But Allen also expressed skepticism that progress will be embraced quickly enough by ASHRAE, the professional organization that sets standards for heating, cooling and ventilation systems. Instead, he suggested, “the market will lead,” while owners look to more healthy building standards such as WELL and Fitwel to assure occupants that they’re establishing that they’re caring for the well being of their occupants. The building standards, he argued, are “more nimble” than ASHRAE and can adjust to new priorities.

Indeed, both WELL and Fitwel have put processes in place to update their standards in response to viral threats.

The half day summit was one of six organized by ILFI as followups to the organizations Living Future 2020 virtual conference. The next of them takes place Thursday.

PHOTO AT TOP: Boston Properties co-developed and now owns Salesforce Tower (center) in San Francisco. Courtesy Wallpaper Flare.