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Brussels-listed developer Atenor has secured planning consent for its first UK project: the “deep retrofit” of Fleet House near Blackfriars Station in the City of London.

The project will retain more than two-thirds of the existing structure in order to reduce the embodied carbon of the 77,500 sq ft (7,200 sq m) project.

Designed by HOK, the rejuvenated building will prioritise user wellbeing through WELL principles and biophilic design, as well as providing public amenities, including a ground floor pub.

Eoin Conroy, country director UK for Atenor, said: “Our approved plans for Fleet House supersede an earlier scheme that would have seen the existing building demolished and a new one built from scratch. Instead, 72% of the building’s structure will be retained, emphasising our belief that the adoption of sustainable practices at the design and construction phases is both the right thing to do and will make this building more appealing to future occupiers.”

The importance of sustainability alongside wellbeing in the workplace has taken centre stage over the last few years, and as our understanding of how buildings impact both climate change and our health grow, so does occupier demand for better spaces in this regard. As a result, developers are pouring more resources than ever before into creating high performing, welcoming and supportive environments.

There is a commercial angle here too. Investors and developers are benefitting from the link between wellbeing and sustainability and real estate asset value, in both leasing and sale terms. These facets of a development are now essential to attracting investment and occupiers as well as maximising longevity and sustainability.

Occupiers and indeed their employees have been a major driver in this process. They are increasingly more rigorous in assessing the buildings they occupy and are demanding the highest ESG standards and flexibility to provide an enhanced experience. A range of multi-use spaces that can cater for everything from private work to relaxation and collaboration, including access to nature, are now a prerequisite.

It’s not just about amenities either. Employers have embraced their pastoral role and want their teams to feel cared for, with a sense of belonging and community and a focus on their physical and emotional wellbeing. It’s important for retention and attraction, but also for their employer responsibility and brand reputation. Employees in turn want to be inspired and encouraged to go to the office.

That said, while we are seeing a lot more businesses commit to wellbeing and sustainability targets, there is still a lack of creative expertise and knowledge; however, we expect this to change with rising understanding and adoption of smart technology, real-time data use, efficient heating solutions and biophilia.

Our 150,000 sq ft 11 Belgrave Road redevelopment in London Victoria is a good example of what a workplace of the future will look like. What does this mean in practical terms? The process of making improvements to sustainability and wellbeing is a hugely detail-led approach. Measures like preparing building materials off site, prioritising non-toxic materials such as timber and stone, as well as low carbon concrete and steelwork, all reduce an asset’s carbon footprint.

Next, the internal environment. Intelligent heating and cooling systems deliver thermal comfort alongside huge reductions in peak demand. Measures like passive ventilation remove fine dust along with carbon filters to remove carbon dioxide and, together with display screens to inform occupants of energy use, empower occupants to better manage their own carbon footprint while creating a better work environment. Tuning a building’s indoor LED lighting to circadian rhythms as well as adjusting the natural colour temperature of any particular time of day also keeps occupants comfortable.

Biophilic design is also key. We have a 2,600 sq ft garden on the ground floor of 11 Belgrave Road – re-assigning prime lettable space like this would have been unheard of, but it’s made our scheme more health and sustainability conscious. Pollution-filtering plants, such as ivy, contribute to the removal of toxic pollutants while helping to regulate indoor building temperature.

Finally, placing workstations in proximity to windows or an atrium will improve lighting, and with smart lighting and solar controlled glazing, can optimise energy savings while improving occupier wellbeing.

Technology like smart apps can also optimise digitally-enabled services to tenants, such as bike booking and charging along with smart lockers at on-site gyms, both reducing the individual carbon footprint of visitors, while also supporting them in their fitness goals.

Apart from higher asset value, better performing buildings are inherently more future-proofed and ready for regulatory changes. They will be at the forefront of the workplace revolution and drive environmental and social value too, ensuring the real estate sector plays its part in a more sustainable world for generations to come.

Ilyas Aslam is chief operating officer at real estate private equity investment and advisory group Quadrum.

As experts and leaders meet in Montreal for two weeks of discussions focussing on the biodiversity crisis, we take a look at how the role of nature-based solutions are crucial to help address the various physical risks cities face, namely heatwaves and floods. 

According to the United Nations, the global population is expected reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with 70% living in cities. Given that 2050 is also a target date for achieving net zero emissions,  ensuring cities are healthy and sustainable places to live is imperative.

Nature-based solutions are sustainable design, management, and engineering practices that weave natural features or processes into the built environment to benefit both people and nature. They leverage nature, such as trees and soft landscaping, to address multiple issues at once, including water quality improvement, coastal property protection from storm surges, and erosion prevention by stabilising shorelines and hilly terrains.

Cities can enjoy numerous benefits by adopting nature-based solutions designed to address specific issues. These range from providing shade during warmer months and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, and filtering air pollutants, to offering an increased sense of wellbeing to people by incorporating greenery and additional recreational spaces. Heat-retaining materials, from concrete and asphalt to steel and glass, are ubiquitous in cities, and vegetated spaces can help reduce the risk of extreme heat. The benefits of nature-based solutions also extend to urban flood risk mitigation.

Urban flood risk and heatwaves on the rise

Global warming has supercharged the water cycle, leading to increasingly severe and frequent rain events all over the world. This has caused floods of unprecedented scale that have severely impacted communities, homes and investments. Swiss RE Institute estimates insured losses for natural disasters globally reached $35 billion in the first six months of 2022, a 22% increase on the 10-year average.

Due to the prevalence of impervious surfaces, lack of natural drainage paths, and high density, urban areas are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sudden, extreme downpours, leading to flash floods. Cities with antiquated wastewater systems are particularly susceptible. Left with limited drainage for the water to go during extreme downpours, minor localised floods in these cities often transform to major events.

Urban floods become localised because of small-scale factors such as slight changes in topography and elevation, stormwater management infrastructure, and building design. Strategically placed nature-based solutions, such as green spaces for runoff control, can contain localised floods and keep them from expanding.

Many cities that deal with flash floods also suffer from extreme heat and urban heat island effect, aggravated by the same non-pervious paved surfaces that radiate the heat back to the environment and people. This could also be mitigated by adding more planting and green spaces, creating more opportunities for natural cooling, as vegetation can deflect radiation from the sun and release moisture into the atmosphere. 

For both flood risk and extreme heat mitigation, nature-based solutions are a logical, lower cost option which brings a multitude of other benefits into the urban environment. 

Bringing green back for environmental and social cohesion

From constructed wetlands at the former London Olympic Park to urban farms in Singapore and Detroit, the range of responses developed by cities speaks to the benefits of tailored ecological approaches. In addition to environmental benefits, strategies such as urban agriculture offer social benefits, tackling food insecurity in areas of need and brining community members together.

In Washington DC, a series of nature-based solutions, including rain gardens, has been introduced to address both flooding and pollution caused by stormwater runoff flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Financial incentives offered by the local government encouraged 4,000 homeowners to join the scheme, which currently runs a waitlist.

As we look to the work ahead for a net zero carbon future, nature-based solutions can serve as an effective tool to enrich our urban spaces environmentally, socially, and economically.

Authors: Hyon Rah (left, above), director in ESG Consultancy, US and Dr Kat Martindale (r), head of ESG research at Savills.

Data centres use a lot of electricity: so much, in fact, that they are defined by their use of electricity in megawatts (MW) of power load.

The International Energy Authority estimates the sector is responsible for around 1% of total electricity consumed worldwide, with the figure fairly flat over the past five years. While data centres built in recent times are more efficient, their huge power demands, much of which is used to cool the servers, can put considerable strain on the grid.

Until early this year, Singapore had a moratorium on new data centres, whose power use had grown to 7% of the city state’s total, and even now will only approve three new centres over the next 12-18 months. Amsterdam and Dublin have also introduced moratoriums similar to Singapore’s. 

The growth of the digital economy, cloud computing and 5G networks will drive the creation of vast quantities of data over the next decade and all of this needs to be served by data centres. However, real estate investors and managers who develop and own data centres and their ‘hyperscaler’ clients, such as Microsoft and Amazon, are all committed to reducing emissions.

The first challenge is to make the centres as efficient as possible. Data centre efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE), the ratio of total energy use to the energy used by the servers themselves. Typical modern data centres operate at a PUE of around 1.3, with some under 1.2. Older centres are far less efficient, however.

Craig Duffy, managing director of fund management at GLP, which is investing in data centres in Europe and Asia Pacific, says: “Sustainable design and operating practice are mission critical for modern data centres. Because data centre operators can spend up to half of their energy cost on cooling, it’s critically important to ensure the cooling equipment is operating at peak efficiency.

“There are techniques that can be used to optimise the air flow within the facility, such as strategic placement of cooling units and leveraging natural convection to minimise cooling power consumption.”

Thomas Liu, real estate partner at private equity firm Actis, which is investing in data centres in Africa, China and South Korea, says the move towards hyperscale centres, rather than multi-tenanted colocation centres, also reduces energy use, as “different tenants in the latter make it more difficult to optimise overall power consumption”.

Nonetheless, the sector still consumes a lot of electricity and, in most of the world, this does not come from renewables. The key to data centre owners meeting their own net-zero commitments, and those of their clients, is sourcing renewable energy. In some cases, this can be bought from power suppliers: however, in markets such as China, all energy must come from the grid, which is largely coal-powered.

Developing data centres close to renewable energy sources has worked in areas such as Canada, parts of the US and the Nordics, where hydropower can be used. A report from data centre operator Digital Realty says firms such as Apple, Google and Microsoft are buying renewables direct from power plant developers and committing to 10-20-year power purchase agreements.

However, Liu says: “It is not straightforward to build data centres in remote areas of developing nations, even if they offer cheap land and access to renewables. Data centres need engineers and it is much harder to recruit outside of major cities.”

On-site power generation is a partial solution, although the huge amount of energy required means that covering a data centre roof in solar panels would scarcely make a dent in the overall energy bill. 

One point very much in favour of the data centre business, but hard to quantify, is that it supports lower-emission businesses: the emissions created by video calls are tiny compared with those from business air travel. 

Furthermore, says Liu: “Data centres themselves represent an improvement on the prior situation, where you’d have servers distributed around a number of corporate headquarters buildings, which was hugely inefficient from an energy use point of view.”

You can read the full version of this story in the May issue of Sustain

Nordic real investment manager NREP has teamed up with city mayors group C40 to deliver projects promoting the 15-minute city concept. 

The new Green and Thriving Neighbourhoods programme is intended to deliver proof of concept for 15-minute city policies. The 15-minute city concept involves a series of dense, walkable neighbourhoods with mixed uses, essentially transforming cities to become a set of urban villages. 

The combination of density, mixed uses and walkability means the 15-minute city should have much lower carbon emissions, as people do not need to regularly travel by vehicle. Compact and resource-efficient cities can help cut urban emissions by around 25%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

NREP CEO and Partner Claus Mathisen said: “As much as 60-70% of the world’s CO2 emissions come from cities, so the quest for greener urban solutions is urgent. This partnership is an opportunity to shape what a sustainable and equitable city is and to create a blueprint for urban development that will help not only cities to drive ambitious urban policies but also business and other stakeholders to engage and adapt their operational models.”

Strategic partners in C40’s new Green and Thriving Neighbourhoods programme include UN-Habitat and the Sorbonne University's Carlos Moreno, recognised for his work on a framework for 15-minute cities. The programme will deliver projects in at least five cities.

C40 is a network of nearly 100 city mayors, dedicated to addressing climate change and and building healthy, equitable and resilient communities 

NREP is an urban investor with assets of €18 billion under management and 600 employees across Europe.

The real estate industry has been wrestling with its carbon footprint and how to reduce it for some time. However, until recently, the focus has been exclusively on emissions from building operations, such as lighting, heating and cooling.

But operational carbon emissions are only half the story. The construction of any building generates carbon. Making steel, glass and concrete results in carbon emissions. The transport of materials to and from a construction site and the work involved in erecting a building all involve emissions. It is estimated that 11% of total global carbon emissions come from building construction and materials.

Now the industry is beginning to look at the whole life cycle of a building to assess its emissions and it is driving changes in behaviour. Peter Epping, global head of ESG at Hines, says: “We need to be careful about which buildings we are knocking down and whether the benefit in terms of reducing operational carbon over time or other benefits are worth the embodied carbon of building new. No matter how green a building is touted to be, you still spend at least 30 years of operational carbon in its development.”

As building operations becomemore efficient, the embodied carbon in a building becomes more important. The longer a building can be preserved, the more the carbon involved in its creation can be ‘amortised’.

Billy Grayson, executive vice president, centres and initiatives, at the Urban Land Institute, says: “According to most estimates, embodied carbon accounts for as much as half of a buildings’ total carbon emissions over its lifetime. If we can develop strategies to use lower-carbon building materials and construction strategies, we can make significant progress in reducing overall emissions from the real estate sector.”

Projects that attempt to minimise embodied carbon can benefit from green building certification. Many of the major certification systems, including LEED, BREEAM and EDGE, consider embodied carbon.

Earlier this year, a pioneering low-carbon certification programme for real estate was launched in Europe, garnering support from real estate investors such as Ivanhoé Cambridge and Generali Real Estate, as well as the French BBCA association.

Like most exercises in making real estate more sustainable, measuring and assessing a building’s total carbon emissions over its projected life can help developers and investors judge its impact. A whole building life cycle analysis (WBLCA) attempts to account for all carbon sources present throughout a building’s life. Such analysis – while obviously requiring a certain amount of speculation – can give a more balanced picture of a project’s impact and might even sway decisions on whether to embark upon it.

To reduce embodied carbon, the real estate industry needs to embrace the four ‘Rs’: reduce, reuse, replace and recycle, says Grayson. Reducing the raw materials and energy used in the construction process will reduce embodied carbon. This might involve using modular construction to reduce waste and transport emissions, or producing materials on site. Of course, simply creating fewer buildings and instead refurbishing existing stock naturally reduces the use of materials.

Reuse could involve using the materials from the construction of one building for another, or they could be recycled. “Recycling all construction waste and using recycled materials for construction can also have a positive impact on reducing embodied carbon,” says Grayson. Developers are beginning to replace carbon-intensive building materials with lower- carbon or renewable materials, such as timber, lower-carbon concrete and recycled steel.

Such considerations are increasingly tipping real estate investors into refurbishing and improving existing buildings rather than demolishing them and building afresh. Grayson says: “Usually, refurbishment or repurposing of obsolete properties is better than redevelopment, from an embodied carbon perspective.”

However, refurbishment is not always the best option: it might be impossible for a building to be brought to the required specification, for example. As construction becomes lower- carbon, the balance may also swing back in favour of new buildings, especially if the building they replace can be recycled.

Using the four Rs to reduce embodied carbon should also not come at a cost; using less energy and materials in a project tends to mean lower costs. Furthermore, lower-carbon materials are often similar in cost to their standard equivalents, the ULI’s Embodied Carbon in Building Materials for Real Estate report argues. New technology is emerging to help the real estate industry reduce embodied carbon. 

Epping says: “It is very encouraging to see considerable innovation in the field of low-carbon construction, whether that is low-carbon cement, low-carbon steel or other materials.”

For example, advances in structural timber are making it a practical solution for large scale commercial buildings, even lofty skyscrapers, while solutions are emerging for concrete which are not just lower-carbon but carbon negative, as the making of the concrete involves storing carbon dioxide.

Throughout a building, the choice of materials will affect its final embodied carbon footprint. “Everything down to the choice of carpets can make a difference. And that’s why we were pushing really to getting environmental product declarations (EPDs) for everything we use in a building, so we can have a ‘carbon P&L’,” says Epping. Environmental product declarations will allow purchasers to weigh up the environmental impact of a product.

Embodied carbon could be further reduced by employing circular economy techniques. The circular economy refers to the constant reuse and recycling of materials to reduce waste, carbon emissions and pollution. This might involve reuse of buildings or the recycling of existing materials into new buildings.

Grayson says: “Circularity teaches us [that] any industry’s waste products should be a feedstock for other industries’ processes, and that we should figure out ways to reduce lifecycle environmental impacts by efficiently integrating different industries in the efficient use, reuse, and recycling of materials.

“If buildings were built from rapidly renewable materials and designed for adaptive reuse and disassembly, it would significantly reduce their life cycle greenhouse gas impact and contribute to the circular use of materials as feedstocks for future buildings and other beneficial manufacturing processes.”

Part of the challenge of reducing embodied carbon is in persuading people to consider it, how to measure it and how to reduce it. “We have seen that introducing this topic into the conversations with architects, designers and contractors means people get up to speed quite fast and act smarter. If you had mentioned this topic two years ago to anyone, they would probably just have shrugged their shoulders and looked for someone else to work with,” says Epping.

Hines has contributed to the debate by publishing an Embodied Carbon Reduction guide, which explains the topic and gives some detail on how it might be addressed by the real estate industry.

And it must be addressed, not least due to the existing and future legislation which is expected for the sector. For example, the Netherlands’ commitment to economic circularity by 2050 involves a requirement that the building sector reduce its raw materials use by 50% by 2030. Since 2013, all new buildings have been required to conduct a whole building life cycle analysis.

As noted in Sustain’s May issue, a number of new-build projects in cities across the world have been rejected, due, in part or whole, to the carbon emissions associated with their construction.

The major push factor for the real estate industry, however, is likely to be the wider implementation and higher cost of carbon taxes. Some 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces already use carbon pricing mechanisms, with more planning to implement them in the future, in order to shift the burden of climate change onto those who are responsible for it.

For example, in April, Singapore announced it would be revising its carbon tax and raising it incrementally to change behaviour. From 2024, large emitters in Singapore will have to pay S$25 (US$18) for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted, increasing to S$45 in 2026 and 2027, and eventually to between S$50 and S$80 by 2030.

Once carbon taxation expands to more countries, developers will have a strong financial incentive to take action and reduce embodied carbon.

Nordics investment manager NREP has hired Jesse Shapins as head of urban strategy and design, and as co-lead of its urban development team.

Shapins joins from Sidewalk Labs, an urban planning and infrastructure subsidiary of Google. During his five years at the company, he led multiple urban development projects and secured partnerships in cities across the US.

Prior to Sidewalk Labs, Shapin worked for online media company Buzzfeed, which had bought his GoPop app in 2014. He is also creator of the 'Yellow Arrow' public art project.

Based in Copenhagen, Shapins will oversee urban strategy and design for NREP, with a strong focus on the railway district project in the Danish capital. NREP plans to transform the site into "one of the world’s greenest and healthiest districts".

Claus Mathisen, CEO of NREP, said: “Jesse has achieved extraordinary success by combining his skills as an urban strategist with the creative use of media, public participation and storytelling, to create unique places with a strong sense of belonging.

“He is set to make a meaningful contribution to our mission to put environmental and social impact at the heart of value creation at NREP and to deliver on our commitment to being carbon neutral by 2028 without offsets."

Savills has appointed a head of research for its Savills Earth division.

The property adviser has appointed Dr Kat Martindale as head of ESG research and director at Savills Earth. She is based at the firm’s London head office in Margaret Street. 

Martindale has more than 20 years’ international experience as a researcher, consultant and lecturer in private practice, academia, government and the third sector, in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. 

Originally trained as an architect and urban designer before moving into research, Martindale has previously held senior level research industry based posts, including head of research and innovation at the Royal Institute of British Architects and research director at BVN.

Savills Earth has appointed Chiara Fratter as senior consultant to help deliver its sustainable design consultancy offering. 

Fratter previously worked for more than six years as a sustainability specialist in a number of energy and environmental consultancies and as a researcher within the low carbon building group at Oxford Brookes University.

Her expertise is in thermal modelling, passivhaus principles, low carbon design and post-occupancy evaluation, to support clients on net carbon transitions. She will be responsible for the use of analytical tools, such as thermal modelling and CRREM analysis, helping clients to transition to net zero carbon.

Energy efficiency is a hot topic right now. Globally, the built environment is responsible for almost 40% of carbon emissions – 28% of that from operational energy use. There’s urgency to improve the performance of existing buildings by minimising energy waste but this requires an attitude change about the perceived barriers to success. Let’s challenge some of the biggest misconceptions about energy efficiency, starting with how we use office buildings…

Myth #1: It’s cost and time intensive

Transformational sustainability programmes may seem like a big effort that will be disruptive, difficult and costly to implement, with results taking years. However, they don’t have to be monoliths and can be iterative, through simple building reprogramming and cultivating the right community. How do you inspire occupiers to switch off lights, shut down computers and care how many times they boil the kettle? By working with them on behaviour changes, you can capture the quick wins and kick-start long-term positive impact. ESG may be a business priority but it must resonate with everyday users to drive meaningful change. Tools like the CUBE Competition can deepen engagement and deliver savings from day one without major expenditure by gamifying the process and making it intuitive, where everyone strives towards one goal.

The greater cost is actually the cost of inaction. Failing to future-proof buildings brings risks including obsolescence (think stranded assets), the ‘brown discount’ and the uncertainty of securing insurance. Conversely, 73% of investors believe that green strategies lead to higher rents, overall value and occupier retention. The bias leans towards action now.

Myth #2: Only major retrofits can help

When facing ambitious targets, big retrofits may be the first things that spring to mind. These are hugely important - and their time will come - but since they are so costly and time intensive, it makes sense to make more informed decisions beforehand. For example, if you install a new heat pump based on your current energy usage, rather than the 10-20% lower level you might achieve after effecting behaviour changes and better basic building reprogramming, you might end up overspecifying the heat pump and spending more than you need to.

Additionally, you need to ensure that any changes you make align with the needs of the building’s users. For instance, you might invest a lot of time and resources designing openable windows to let in fresh air, without considering the air quality and whether employees will actually use them. The first step is to work with building occupiers to understand their needs and how you can jointly reduce energy usage, and produce a new baseline energy profile. With that knowledge, you can make better choices. 

Myth #3: Small actions make no difference

It’s easy to think that individual actions represent just a drop in the ocean. Actually, turning off four lights nightly in the office for one year can lower the carbon footprint by as much as ten flights between London and Paris. Setting up an actionable plan together with clear touch points increases motivation and shows how small steps add up to make a significant difference. The good thing is that it’s not necessary to wait until you have comprehensive building data to start making progress. Sustainability initiatives that use existing utility bills (which everyone has!) to benchmark against ongoing monthly consumption can already go a long way, allowing people to monitor progress and compare it with their peers to spur on further action.

It's time to adopt a new way of thinking and throw out old assumptions about energy efficiency to see real progress fast.

Mark Bruno is chief ambassador of CUBE & partner at Ampersand Partners