Greening Your Building

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Could Water Be the Next Carbon?

Commercial Real Estate: Green Buildings 2.0With all the talk about carbon footprints and energy reduction, water gets short shrift. But new efforts to measure water use, implement best water-related practices, and set reasonable targets for water consumption and conservation conjure memories of some of the most successful water-centred movements of the past—from Great Lakes renewal and wetland preservation to acid rain reduction.

A decade ago, the U.K.-based CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) began collecting voluntary disclosures from corporations on their carbon-generating activities and carbon-reduction programs, turning the organization into an international network of statistical and best-practices sharing. Among its programs, CDP Water Disclosure has for several years also asked companies to report on water-related risks and opportunities, but without requesting information on individual performance. Now, noting a four-fold increase in participation since its water program began, CDP has announced that it will begin scoring and reporting on corporate performance with regard to water usage in 2014.

CDP’s hope is that it will be able to report on insights into trends and best practices on water stewardship among leading companies, identify leaders and laggards in the field, and provide useful metrics to investors, leading to changes in corporate behaviour.

It’s part of an industry-wide awakening to the problems—and potential—of water management, according to Paul Finkbeiner, president of  GWL Realty Advisors, which manages real-estate assets worth close to $15 billion for its clients across Canada. “GWL Realty Advisors sees the responsible stewardship of water as rapidly evolving into the commercial real estate industry’s next major sustainability focus,” says Finkbeiner. “Like energy management, water benchmarking and conservation strategies are quickly becoming the focus of those companies that are committed to corporate social responsibility and responsible property investing.”

The increasing cost of water is a key driver behind the new consciousness. “Water rates are rising up to 10% per annum in a number of areas,” says James Gray-Donald, vice president of sustainability at Bentall Kennedy (Canada) LP, citing Calgary, Toronto, Los Angeles and Denver as examples. “That means rates may double every seven years, and that gets people’s attention.”

Gray-Donald notes that 70% of Bentall Kennedy’s continent-wide portfolio of buildings are certified to either LEED or BOMA BESt, which have prerequisites for water efficiency. And typically, significant improvements in water efficiency can be achieved by changing toilet, urinal and faucet fixtures, upgrading automated landscape sprinkler systems, and carefully maintaining rooftop cooling towers.

But according to Lorina Keery, energy manager at Colliers International Canada in Vancouver, in certain regions water conservation is not always a primary cost concern. She says that while B.C., for example, enjoys relatively inexpensive and abundant water for most of the year, Quebec buildings are not even metered, which means that water costs are incorporated into property taxes and so buildings are not paying for the actual amount of water they use.

First and foremost, anti-pollution measures and water conservation in general are social responsibility issues, and voluntary certification programs such as LEED and BOMA BESt demand a well-rounded approach to resource management. But, says Keery, “while energy management carries most weight in terms of points that count toward BOMA BESt, water comes second.”

Next, regardless of current local conditions, water costs are likely to increase over time. And with the continuing trend toward metering of building systems, owners and managers have the tools to monitor water usage, and are keen to get ahead of the curve. “Water usage is measured,” Keery says, “and what gets measured gets managed.”

She confirms that water is taking a higher profile in conservation efforts at Colliers. She adds, however, that with older buildings, owners and managers are inclined to opt for the best return on investment when it comes to upgrades, and energy reduction tends to be more cost-effective than water conservation. “So water system upgrades have to work with the overall building investment plan.”

Gray-Donald says that when it’s time for an upgrade, water system improvements make a lot of sense. “You can get a 40% to 60% reduction in water use [for toilets and faucets] by upgrading old models to low-flow models,” he says. While the payback period is usually 10-plus years, there’s no real premium on the more efficient fixtures. Another productive upgrade target is sprinkler systems. Replacing an automated sprinkler system with a “smart” system (which schedules lawn and garden watering according to its monitoring of barometric pressure, heat, recent rainfall and other measures) can result in another 40% reduction in landscaping water usage—and returns can be seen within two or three years.

“For a suburban property with a reasonable amount of landscaping, it would commonly be possible to get an overall 60% to 80% reduction in water use by replacing the original fixtures and upgrading the original irrigation system,” says Gray-Donald. For new buildings aiming for high-level certification, water conservation would often include rooftop water collection. “If it’s certified to LEED Gold or higher, it’s pretty much becoming standard.”

Whether water conservation can gain the same visibility as carbon footprints remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, says Lorina Keery: “You won’t see as much complacency about water in the near future.”

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Source: Canadian Business Magazine

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