Let’s talk 2020 Sustainability Trends! The ways that architects, developers, and building operators design projects, attract tenants, manage costs, and measure success are each changing. Attention has shifted to carbon, retail and dining habits, transit, regulations, and business issues. And did we mention carbon?

Ned Cramer was quoted in Architect Magazine in his editorial, The Climate is changing. So Must Architecture, “Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time. Not style, not fees, not education, not community, not health, not justice. All other concerns, many of them profoundly important, are nonetheless ancillary. The threat climate change poses is existential, and buildings are hugely complicit…”

We polled Paladino’s league of experts about their vision for 2020, and their perspectives echo the concerns shared by Cramer. The trends – and the imperative – are around climate change and carbon. Here are the highlights of the trends we see coming to a real estate development near you.

Net Zero Everything is the new normal

Questions about Net Zero Energy, Water, and Carbon are on the rise, and we expect there to be a wave of net-zero projects at unprecedented rates. Since buildings are responsible for 40 percent of global energy use, this is a good and important shift.

What our experts have to say:

Net Zero Energy, Water, and Carbon are no longer “pie-in-the-sky” goals envisioned for a distant future. Project teams are finally taking on the net zero challenge and being brave enough to learn along the way.

JD Harper, Consultant

JD Harper Carbon Trends

This image shows the frequency of Google searches of “Net Zero” in the United States during the past five years.

Net Zero Search Results

There is not one established strategy to achieve Net Zero for the range of construction and development projects we see nationwide. Our six-block method, described in this e-book, provides a framework for the process to achieve net-zero, but the site-specific strategies will vary.

We predict that designers and developers will be more transparent in sharing their strategies, successes, and failures in pursuit of net-zero energy, water, and carbon. Groups like the DMV NZE Coalition will pop up in more cities nationwide, leading to a more rapid exchange of best practices and ideas. This will drive rapid innovation and require greater leaps of faith on the part of developers.

Rating systems like LEED will continue to be important as a back-check on sustainability, and projects that need to truly differentiate on building performance will need to combine their LEED certification with Net Zero strategies. Paul Bierman-Lytle expects the shift to quickly go from energy efficient – to net-zero energy – to net-positive energy.

What our experts say

Successful buildings and communities will be more like natural ecosystems. They will be interdependent, resilient, and indefinitely sustainable. The shift will begin with energy, water, waste, materials, transportation, and technology systems working interdependently. Once this practice is normalized, we’ll expand the vision to include community infrastructure.

Paul Bierman-Lytle, Executive Technical Director

Paul Bierman-Lytle Natural Capital Trend

Low voltage lighting will be an increasingly important part of the Net Zero Energy strategy. You can expect to see more centrally controlled low voltage lighting control systems, which allow the same flexibility and adjustability as a BAS system, but with lighting, occupancy timers, and photosensors. With low-voltage lighting being more prevalent, it will be interesting to see how this evolves as the control systems catch up with the possibilities that LED technologies allow.

What our experts say:

Extra care must be taken to ensure all the communications work properly! We’ve seen several projects that had two separate types of central control systems, and they failed commissioning. Don’t let failed commissioning be your trend.
Jake Mello, Commissioning Engineer

Jake Mello  

Carbon takes center stage

Carbon emissions reached a record high in 2019 according to the Global Carbon Project. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the rate of emissions is slowing among some of the world’s largest emitters (including the United States, which has historically been and continues to be one of the world’s most prolific carbon polluters).

There is increasing pressure on businesses and the AEC industry to address the United States’ outsized contribution to global warming, specifically our carbon footprint. This image shows the frequency of Google searches of “Net Zero Carbon” in the United States during the past five years.

Net Zero Carbon Google Searches

Thanks to the green building movement and certifications like LEED, Passive Haus, and Living Building Challenge, our industry has developed an effective playbook to minimize energy waste. So now attention is turning to the embodied energy and carbon of buildings.

Projects are more frequently exploring embodied carbon, net-zero carbon, and non-combustible energy sources. The rise in timber frame construction is also fueled in part by its improved carbon performance. This article published by the Washington Post explores the mainstreaming of timber frame construction for high rises.

What our experts say:

Trending within the carbon category is the impact of embodied carbon. Embodied carbon reduction will continue to increase in importance as a critical aspect of sustainability, influencing the product/material sector dramatically as designers innovate to find low-embodied-carbon materials. The carbon conversation also places a renewed emphasis on reusing existing buildings.

Nash Emrich, Senior Consultant

Nash Emrich Sustainability Trends Carbon

The carbon conversation is making its way into operations discussions as well. We predict an uptick in connections between meat consumption and its carbon impact – only a few years ago, veganism was discussed as an ethical or health issue – now veganism is at the center of the carbon discussion.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report in August 2019 detailing the effects of agriculture on the climate and ecological systems. The point is not to stop eating meat altogether, but to find ways to consume less meat and incentivize strategies that are beneficial to people, the economy, and the planet.

In fact, Scientists insist the growth in meat consumption worldwide must come to a head by 2030 if climate warming is to be limited to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are seeing increased attention paid to the carbon footprint of food. One recent networking event included the representative carbon footprint of each menu option to help diners make their selection, much like calorie counts. The Golden Globes even served vegan meals to raise awareness about climate change.

So you can expect more questions about ethical sourcing of low-carbon food in commercial kitchens, cafeterias, and corporate events.

Next-Generation Retail

We’ve written before about the monumental shifts happening to retail real estate, particularly shopping malls. Despite the changing landscape for retail, there are new retail destinations being designed and developed now and into the foreseeable future. The way they are envisioned and designed, though, is changing for the next generation.

Retail owners and operators are taking an increased interest in the HVAC, lighting power, and plug load requirements at retail locations as the approach to energy and carbon efficiency is fine-tuned. The brands that lease the retail space are also making the connection between their purchasing/procurement processes and their stores’ carbon impact.

What our experts say:

We’ll continue to see the death of the parking lots linked to shifts in retail. There will be a wave of shopping malls renovated into innovative mixed-use developments, just like the Simon Mall at Northgate in Seattle. If I get my way, we’ll see a biophilic design-focused re-imagining of retail that turns the mall into a bike/ped “street with sky views, populated by local businesses, craft movement, and intermixed residential and recreation – all surrounded by a new nature park that has returned the parking lot into its original ecological footprint.

Nash Emrich, Senior Consultant

Nash Emrich Retail Sustainability Trends

A retail trend that is taking on importance in 2020 impacts restaurants. We spoke about the carbon implications of menu items above – here we are talking about the restaurant equipment, which is increasingly required to be all-electric. While there are chefs and cooks who may struggle to embrace a gas-free kitchen, the sustainability benefit is in demand by consumers, and contributes to several owner/operator-level objectives related to carbon, energy, and maintenance. Chefs will need to adjust.

Ding ding! Transit-Oriented Development

Urban planning that leans on public transit as a strategy is not new, but developing land uses around varied public transit options is on the rise. The connections between walkability, bus lines, light rail, and bike commuting are linked viscerally to placemaking and community connections.

We also predict a stronger connection between family-friendly affordable housing, new entertainment districts, healthy communities, and transit-oriented development.

In addition to the environmental benefits of transit-oriented development, there are marketing advantages – millennials prefer biking, walking, and transit to car ownership, as evidenced by car ownership rates that fall every year.

What our experts say

In tech-boom cities where the primary workforce wants to live, work, and play within the urban core, we’ve seen middle-income families who depend on workforce jobs pushed further out of the cities as housing costs rise. This trend, coupled with an expansion of our transit system, allows developers and property owners to rethink how once “suburban” neighborhoods can plan for density around transit stops. Creating new communities that are focused on environment, health and wellness are attractive to a broad range of residents, which helps rebuild community and equity in our large urban regions.

Renee Gastineau, Client Development Manager

Renee Gastineau Sustainability Trends Transit Oriented Development

Legislative Wave: Omnibus and Benchmarking come to our doorsteps

The trends we will see in laws and ordinances will mirror the trends we see in public demand. We’ve already written about the Omnibus Act in Washington DC, and energy benchmarking laws are coming to Seattle in 2020. These are examples of legal pressures that developers and operators will face as laws catch up with the public’s concern over energy use and carbon emissions.

Large developers, REITs, and large real estate owners with multi-state and multi-city portfolios are initiating their own benchmarking and reporting programs. In some cases, they are motivated by the inherent benefits that come from understanding energy and carbon waste – and in other cases, they are motivated by regulatory proactivity and the prudent avoidance of fines and penalties. Either way, energy benchmarking and optimized performance are going to be included in the risk management strategy.

What our experts say

States and cities nationwide are passing legislation targeting carbon emissions. These laws are requiring owners and operators to build better, benchmark, and reduce energy use, and will have a major impact on climate change by targeting the number one culprit of carbon emissions in the built environment – energy use.

Lauren Luckett, Client Development Manager

Lauren Luckett Sustainability Trends Legislation Omnibus

Monetized Natural Capital

As businesses find new ways to monetize the new economy, they will engage and invest in Natural Capital.  Natural capital encompasses natural assets, or ecosystem services, like oxygen, fresh water, sunlight, photosynthesis, and biodiversity. We predict that more businesses will establish a global ecosystem that creates measurable economic value using the natural capital housed in their real estate portfolio.

Corporate campuses, for example, will monetize the Natural Capital of their campus environments to acquire and retain talent, reduce sick days and absenteeism, and increase employee productivity. The concept has been tested, and is a sign of things to come.  Read more in this study that evaluates the benefits of ecosystem services (or natural capital) in cities.

What our experts say

Communities and cities have a huge opportunity to monetize natural capital. How valuable in monetary terms are city parks, bike and hiking trails, urban forests, wetlands, city lakes, and wildlife sanctuaries to attracting businesses, residents, educational institutions, corporations?

Paul Bierman-Lytle, Executive Technical Director

Sustainability 2020 Trends Paul Bierman Lytle

How accurate are we? Check out our previous predictions here:

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