I’ve been chatting with my senior colleagues lately about what’s next for the green building movement, and through our discussions we found that many of us are having the same thoughts. There is a hunger for more – to go beyond where LEED has taken the industry. Almost all the streams of thought are exploring a transformational shift in our approach to sustainable real estate.
Many of these thought leaders align with Albert Einstein’s famous admonition: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” I believe that to be true, especially in the real estate industry. Ours is an industry of comparable driven performance, from first cost to measured consumption of resources. There is great risk in making a transformational move and there is ample reward staying with the pack. No wonder our industry leaders feel stuck.
What’s Next for the Green Building Movement
If I focus on the green building movement and look closely at the conversation about what is next, I hear talk about human wellness, and net zero impact, and living buildings, and regeneration. What these ideas have in common is that they are an extension of the tried and true development process: define a program, design a structure to house the program, and build it well.
It turns out that Einstein predicted these solutions with another well-known quip: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” So our buildings are getting better, cleaner and smarter. But fundamentally, they are still a massive investment of capital into bricks in order to produce a financial return.
Stepping back I can see there is a bigger board on which the real estate industry sits: a board where climate change threatens natural and physical assets; where income equality threatens market stability; where political instability endangers the workforce; where millennials and technology are redefining the workplace. The rules of the game are changing profoundly, and at an ever increasing rate.
New Rules, New Game
I’m betting that if enough of the rules change, one transformation that can be achieved is to declare that we’re in a totally new game. I can see that already happening where I live in Manhattan: the fastest growing lessee in the city is WeWork. This young start-up company picks up cut rate leases in second tier buildings, invests in capital that links entrepreneurs in collaboration zones and then gets out of the way. Tenants aren’t leasing space, they are renting proximity to other creatives that can help grow their businesses. The building simply keeps out the weather.
Another persistent trend in the architectural domain is the idea of vertical green space. As urban densification continues in our top tier cities, the green spaces are rising vertically in the sky along with the development. Many designs are based on creating the vertical green space first – for food and oxygen production – and fitting in occupancy as a secondary function. One of these noteworthy projects is the ‘Bosco Verticale,’ twin residential towers in Milan that embody the most superior of vertical green architecture. There’s something at work inside these designers’ brains trying to connect humans and nature even in the densest of communities.
The Building Blocks of Abundance
Perhaps these designers have read another of Einstein’s insights: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Einstein of course looked so deeply he was able to conceive of light and matter as different forms of the same energy.
There’s a similar way of thinking about project constraints without judgement, by viewing all project inputs as building blocks of abundance. The project team for the Tower at PNC Plaza viewed wind and sun just that way and harnessed these forces to create comfort for the workforce. And the abundant workforce provides input into the controls systems through their phones, functioning as a bigger and smarter brain, surpassing what any computer could ever do alone.
Historically, buildings have served as tangible proof to the success and might of the capital investors of a business. Monumental piles provided a prestigious address to woo customers and physical protection against assault by competitors.
There are a growing number of departures from this model. The mobility company Uber is currently valued at over $50 billion, higher than 80% of all the companies on the S&P 500. And the vast majority of Uber customers will never visit headquarters, they will experience Uber through a ride in a car Uber doesn’t own and through a driver that is not an Uber employee. The technology in your hand and how it helps you do your job are the new monuments to industry.
When the Tide Turns, Give the Gift of Value
As a building professional it can sometimes feel like the tide has turned. Technology, global finance and political volatility have seized the attention of the world’s best thinkers.
Personally I take comfort in one last thought from Einstein: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
What does a man or woman of value think about if they are working in the green building industry? I believe that many of us – the first generation – have a gift of immense value that we must pass onto to the next generation. And that gift is to inspire the next generation to become better than us and to reach farther than we did.
Our purpose is to surpass ourselves. Given that none of us will likely ever reach Einstein’s level of thinking, we must accelerate the digital natives, the group thinking Millennials, the intelligent entrepreneurs at the bottom of the income ladder to form a collaborative brain bigger than one brilliant mind.
That’s the smart money move for the leaders of the sustainable real estate industry.
A nationally recognized leader in sustainability, Tom Paladino is the founder and CEO of Paladino and Company.