Water Wisdom for Real Estate and the Built Environment

Published September 22, 2010
Water Wisdom for Real Estate and the Built Environment

When access to water seems cheap and easy, why should companies cut or closely monitor consumption in their buildings?

Confronting misconceptions about water availability and offering information about solutions that are available now and in development were the key subjects of “Water in Real Estate — Resilient Operations for Thirsty Times,” a recent webinar presented by the Artemis Project. The San Francisco-based consulting firm focuses on helping companies thrive in a water-challenged world.

“Historically, real estate people have always known that water is a live or die situation,” said Laura Shenkar, founder and principal of the Artemis Project.

For developers, lack of water and water permits can kill a project. For property owners, “it takes a very, very small leak to cause very, very big problems,” including structural damage, mold and building system failure, said Shenkar, who moderated the presentation.

But what’s well known to builders and portfolio managers typically is little known or unheeded by companies and property owners, according to webinar panelists.

With Shenkar, speakers David Pogue, the national director of sustainability for CB Richard Ellis, Rick Ferrara, a senior associate with the architecture firm Gensler, Professor John Macomber of the Harvard Business School, and Dominic Kulik, the founder and CEO of sustainable water company Natural Systems Utilities, examined:

  • The need for smarter, more efficient use of water in the built environment.
  • Best practices by leading companies.
  • Barriers to and opportunities for adopting better water practices and management technology.

Compared to agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of all water use, the built environment is responsible for considerably less consumption. But water waste in the sector is huge.

The U.S. has one of the highest rates of per capita water use in the world and waste due to old, leaking pipes and a failure to conserve are among the chief reasons for the bloated water footprint, according to a report released this year by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young.

For example, the report said, neglected leaks are responsible for 1.25 trillion gallons of wasted water annually, an amount that’s roughly equivalent to the consumption of Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago combined — a point raised by Shenkar in the webinar.

Corporate buildings account for 12 percent of water use in the U.S., said Pogue of CBRE, noting a statistic from the U.S. Green Building Council. Factors driving better water management by companies include high or rising water rates in some districts, penalty pricing by some utilities that charge double or triple the base rate for exceeding allotted use, and requirements for LEED certification as a green building, Pogue said.

He recommended seven practices for companies to consider:

  • A water audit
  • Weekly water meter readings
  • Closely monitored irrigation use
  • Use of native or adaptive vegetation
  • Water fixture cost/payback analysis
  • Water fixture retrofits
  • Water fixture replacements

Next Page: Five building projects that showcase rainwater harvesting.

Pogue stressed the importance of testing and calculating costs and payback analysis when contemplating changes to water fixtures. For these improvements, “go piecemeal, test and make sure the changes are appropriate for your building and use,” he said. Benefits from innovative fixtures — waterless urinals, for example –  can be lost, if they are not used or maintained properly.

Smart controllers, Pogue added, can deliver returns on investment in 18 months and in cases where existing controllers need replacing, three to six months. Both are considerably better than the 7-  to 10-year payback periods often projected for other water efficiency and conservation measures.

“Most of the buildings in the world aren’t new,” said Pogue, whose company manages 2.5 billion square feet of property and corporate facilities. “We have to live with what we have.”

When companies do build new campuses, there are ways to achieve resource efficiency through sustainable design by combining the best in natural systems and technology for specific projects.
Shanghai Tower
Ferrara of Gensler highlighted five projects led by his firm that are models for water efficiency and use of rainwater harvesting.

Shanghai Tower – A rainwater collection system, whose core component sits at the top of the 121-story foot tower (pictured right), enables the savings of 675 million liters of water a year — enough to fill about 245 Olympic-size swimming pools. Designed as the most water-efficient high rise in the world, Shanghai Tower also will feature grey water recycling, low-consumption toilets, sinks and other fixtures. The building is the largest planned of three supertall skyscapers in Pudong, China, (pictured below, right)

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute – Working with Pritzker prize winning architect Tadao Ando, Gensler is the architect of record on this project in Massachusetts that incorporates “water efficient fixtures and technology every place we possibly could, ” Ferrara said. The project includes porous paving, an infiltration bed and five cascading pools that are designed to acommodate annual rainfall, treat it through a natural cleansing process and recirculate it. The site is designed so that it won’t use potable water for toilets, urinals or irrigation except in an emergency.
Shanghai Tower trio
The Center on Halsted — The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center features Chicago’s first rainwater harvesting system, which is estimated to save over 500,000 gallons of water per year. Rainwater harvested from the roof and groundwater collected by an underground garage sump pump system are used for flushing toilets at the three-story, 185,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2007.

BP Helios — The project is to include rainwater and groundwater harvesting, filtration and storage. The site also features native plants, minimal irrigation and stormwater retention and filtration.

Pat Lobb Toyota — The car dealership in McKinney, Texas, which opened in 2006, was the first to be certified as a green building by the U.S. Green Building Council. It received a LEED-Silver rating. Rainwater from the roof and condensation from air conditioners are captured in an 8,660 gallon cistern. During peak periods, the system provides more than 24,000 gallons a month for landscape irrigation.

Kulik’s firm, Natural Systems Utilities, designs, develops, owns, and operates ecologically based water lifecycle management systems — including bio-regenerative wetlands and other nature-based and biomimicry solutions — for businesses, communities, local governments and homes.

Such systems can give businesses and others a competitive advantage by meeting water safety standards and slashing use of the resource, while also reducing fossil fuel consumption, building costs in the case of new construction and operating costs, Kulik said. The savings ultimately are passed along to the customer, he said.

John Simpson of the GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings was among the participants in a Q&A session who asked about making a business case for water efficiency upgrades.

“A zero environmental footprint is our generation’s moonshot — the emphasis is on not only energy but also water,” said Simpson. “What should be measured? How should it be measured? And how do we make changes pencil out?”

Next Page: The beachhead market for water management tools.

Pogue of CBRE underscored the value of waters audits and weekly meter monitoring, and, where possible, submetering. “We did a study last year of 154 buildings and we found that only 23 were separately metered for tenants — and on average they used 21 percent less energy,” he said.

Shenkar of Artemis called submetering and individual-use measurement the “holy grail for water products.” While an array of tools and devices are available to monitor, measure and manage energy use, they are in the nascent stage for water.

Fielding a related question, Ferrara from Gensler said, “What we see is a strong need for building operators to get meaningful feedback quickly. it’s vital to get them data in a timely manner.” Such information can help facilities managers detect and deal with water issues before they become major problems.

As to financing and investment, Macomber of Harvard said projects and technology that increase business competitiveness –  and minimize risk for damage or cost due to price volatility — are more likely to gain traction among investors.

What’s the best market for developing technology providing drill-down measurement of water use? The lodging industry, according to Shenkar, who termed it a beachhead market. “Venture capitalists look for low hanging fruit, commercial buildings are not low hanging fruit,” she said. “Hotels are a better target now.”

The hospitality industry can benefit more readily from tools that enable better management of any resource consumed by guests and general business operations — as shown by burgeoning industry adoption of energy management systems.

Although commercial buildings present a broad opportunity for resource efficiency in the built environment — there are 74 billion square feet of commercial floor space in the U.S. — getting building owners to pony up for water conservation is currently a tough sell, Pogue said.

A slow economic recovery, a need for swift ROI and a shift from using real estate as a long-term hedge against inflation combine to make water improvements less attractive for landlords than other efficiency strategies.

“While this is a very important issue for us, building owners have much larger concerns about debt, energy, occupancy right now,” Pogue said. “In the scheme of things for building owners, this is No. 26 in a list, of say, 30 things. Something has to happen with technology or regulations to focus attention on this issue. Until then, I don’t think we’ll see dramatic movement.”

The waiting game in the commercial buildings sector has a ripple effect for developers of water technology and products. Eventually, real estate will make a comeback as an “old-style hedge against inflation,” said Macomber — which in turn will make investment in property and improvements more appealing and increasingly necessary for competitiveness.

“The question for a small vendor is: Can you last that long?” Macomber said.

More information on the Artemis Project’s water management webinars is available at www.theartemisproject.com/webinars.

Top image of the Center on Halsted and all insets courtesy of Gensler.

Leslie Guevarra is an editor at GreenBiz.com and its sister sites.

She has been a reporter and editor online and in print, an associate producer and public affairs program host on television, and a podcaster.

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