digital edition

Green is the New Black: Eco-pioneers build a culture of green commerce in real estate, development, and construction.

November 2010
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By David Sokol

This year promised sweeping changes in the fight against global warming. A just-signed Copenhagen Accord was going to catapult nations into the sustainability stratosphere, as the U.S. launched a new cap-and-trade system. In reality, politicking kept carbon emissions from hitting the Senate floor before summer break, and a lackluster accord has environmentalists pinning their hopes to a Cancun conference in late November.

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Perhaps ironically, Americans have to look to the private sector for substantive progress toward a greener future. Take Google. Since vowing carbon neutrality in 2007, the search-engine powerhouse has visibly reduced its energy consumption—or, in the case of the company installing photovoltaics at facilities or its commencing a 20-year, 114-megawatt power purchase agreement with wind farmer NextEra Energy Resources—scrubbing it clean. In the design world, consider Interface, whose sustainability push dates to practically prehistoric 1996, and who intends to achieve zero environmental footprint by 2020. The carpet manufacturer’s eco-efforts range from boosting the recycled content of its products, to purchasing carbon offsets for company vehicles, and harvesting landfill methane to run a factory.

The real estate industry also has green ambitions. Betsy Boyle, senior manager of the real estate program at Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability advocacy working with capital markets, says those companies have a particular responsibility to embrace sustainability. “If we’re going to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, we have to reduce our energy use and switch to clean energy. If 38 to 40 percent of emissions is coming from the building industry, then we have a huge opportunity to mitigate energy use there.”

Evoking the work of Interface, developers, construction managers, and real estate services providers are making better buildings as well as embracing sustainability in their company cultures. As the following three cases demonstrate, a sustainability culture means recycling trash and easing off the thermostat—and, more substantively, embracing education about sustainability and applying those lessons to every aspect of their jobs. “A company’s products and services have the biggest impact [on emissions reduction],” Boyle says, “But you’re going to do an exponentially better job if you have an inherently sustainable internal culture.”

Get Ready, Get Set:
Tishman Construction Corporation

Dan Tishman
Photograph by David Yellen
"I eat, breathe, and sleep the green building movement."
Dan Tishman: Chairman and CEO, Tishman Construction
The company cultures that run greenest and deepest, are those with impassioned executives who personify ecological awareness. “I eat, breathe, and sleep the green building movement,” says Dan Tishman, chair and CEO of Tishman Construction. He also chairs the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In turn, Tishman’s employees make sure that sustainability is a priority from the earliest conversations about a project. They’re able to do so by ensuring the construction manager’s inclusion in highly participatory project teams. David Horowitz, a Tishman senior vice president who acted as project director for the recently LEED-Platinum-certified skyscraper One Bryant Park in New York, explains that Tishman worked with architect Cook+Fox and developer the Durst Organization to determine Platinum-level necessities such as waterless urinals and cogeneration capability even before design development was significantly underway, with continual updates to the LEED score sheet thereafter. Tishman then ensured the commercial availability of sustainable products bound for the architect’s specifications and, through cross-referencing and mockup tests, made certain of those materials’ longevity.

Horowitz says that this teamwork approach to determining One Bryant Park’s green products and processes then made its way into purchasing documents, which spell out “the expectations for both contractors and vendors.” And whereas contractors and subcontractors once required more handholding, many of these providers have since become more fluent with green construction tacks, such as sealing air-handling equipment. Now their bids show a realistic sustainability premium; previously, contractors had estimated high to cover their own uncertainty about the requirements.

The Circle of Life:
Jonathan Rose Companies

Jonathan Rose
Photograph by David Yellen
"We’re big believers in continual improvement."
Jonathan Rose: President and founder, Jonathan Rose Companies

Jonathan Rose Companies internal green committee underscores the dual-prong approach to sustainability culture. Senior project manager Homer Robinson says he was deputized to calculate the companies’ offices’ carbon footprint and, with several fellow committee members, to propose offset strategies. “At the time our green office policies hadn’t recently been reviewed or rigorously checked for feasibility and implementation,” he says. In addition to walking the talk, the committee was founded “so that we could share our construction development experiences, talk to each other about what’s going on in new technologies and construction and LEED strategies, and help each other determine what kinds of LEED protocols or systems made the most sense for different projects.”

The committee convenes once a month, with subcommittees reporting on the progress of research initiatives usually of enthusiastic individuals’ making, such as energy management in operations. “It’s easy to be consumed by your work all the time,” says Nathan Taft, one of Robinson’s 20 or so fellow committee members who directs acquisitions for the investment practice of Jonathan Rose Companies. “So it’s nice to get together and make sure you’re communicating across offices.”

“We’re big believers in continual improvement,” Taft adds. Indeed, a sustainability culture is a didactic one. Even Rose employees who don’t belong to the green committee are documenting their sustainability successes. They write and distribute case studies for each completed sustainable project and attend so-called learning sessions that examine forth-coming developments as they reach certain milestones. Far-flung colleagues share specific experiences about building tech-nologies or other green strategies using the Intranet and wiki tools. Regarding his search for the right energy-management interface, Taft says, “If we can log all these findings on a database, we can find out if somebody’s already discovered that device.” Even the free lunches for New York-based employees has proven a successful informal venue for exchanging tips.

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This article appeared in the November 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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