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Integrating Community Into a Business Approach for Property Resilience

Resilience is not merely applying risk reduction and preparedness at a given site; but includes considering shared risks and resources across interconnected systems.

Resilience. Several years ago, building sector organizations coalesced around a shared definition of resilience, drawing upon work of the National Research Council, as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”

But more recently, events have brought into focus the importance of approaching resilience more broadly and we’ve seen a lesser known, but equally important side emerge. What is becoming clear is that resilience is not merely applying risk reduction and preparedness at a given site; but includes considering shared risks and resources across interconnected systems. This requires companies to think beyond a single project or building and incorporate strategies that benefit and consider community, social systems, the workforce, transportation, energy and financial systems.

Accounting for this broader view of resilience can inform how we approach real estate projects in several key ways.

Resilience goes beyond the property line and beyond the physical

We need to conceive of buildings as interconnected parts of dynamic systems—systems that are changing rapidly—and buildings must be able to adapt. Conversations around climate change and our response to it have been driving systems change and encouraging this kind of integrative planning. We have already started to see how new technologies, practices and business models are driving this kind of transformational shift in energy, transportation and food systems, among others. Buildings are both impacting and impacted by these systems.

To stay competitive, real estate companies need to optimize the way their properties interact with core systems. A building that is able to maintain operations during a power outage using on-site renewable energy is a plus, but even more impactful is a building that can reduce peak demands, helping avoid localized brownouts and that is capable of powering an emergency shelter-in-place location.

While planning beyond the property line can be complex and nonlinear, working with stakeholders from across sectors can lead to practical solutions to reduce known risks. A promising area with emerging best practices is building-grid optimization, with initiatives from several cross-sector collaborations of the building sector, power sector and government identifying and testing ways to recognize buildings that are good “grid citizens.” The New Buildings Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are testing Grid Optimal rate building-grid interaction quality, using metrics to factor in how a building contributes to, rather than detracts from, the reliable, safe and affordable operation of the grid. The evolution of the energy sector has profound implications for buildings and communities. By coordinating across industries now, we can ensure sustainable and effective solutions that benefit the greater good are brought to market.

Incorporating community and social impacts into resilience is still not a common practice for the real estate sector. Notably, the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) has found in its benchmarking of real estate sustainability that resilience-related management practices vary significantly. Among those portfolios reporting on a special resilience module, more than 80 percent reported assessing physical risks to asset value and business continuity, while fewer than 50 percent assessed social and community risks. GRESB benchmarks more than $4.5 trillion in real asset value from over 1,000 companies, and its data is used to support decision-making by over 100 institutional investors.

An expanded view of resilience may feel new and even outside the comfort level for some, but we can draw upon proven processes, applied in expanded ways to help us get started. USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) integrative design approach has revolutionized how architects, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, specialists and builders interact to develop buildings. A few decades ago, designs were approached by dividing work into discrete pieces and then bundling it together at the end. Now, it is fairly mainstream to bring multiple disciplines together at the outset, establish common goals and find ways to integrate elements and properly size building systems to work with each other. This process has proven to yield high-performing assets that align teams, reduce impact and significantly reduce costs and delays.

The same integrative process can be used as part of resilience planning. What we’ve been experiencing over the past few weeks shows how buildings can be called upon to serve a purpose beyond its initial intent. During severe weather events, buildings can also function as command centers and places of respite. Currently, we’re seeing rapid response and triage areas being quickly built or created in existing underutilized spaces such as parking garages, empty apartment buildings and hotels, as well as convention centers. These types of situations and others benefit from integrative process techniques that include public health professionals, indoor air quality experts and community leaders, as well as the necessary design and construction disciplines. As companies face decisions on investment and budget priorities and re-envision needs, cross-discipline approaches modeled on integrative process—such as by active and early engagement of stakeholders who aren’t normally at the table—will help them stay agile, adjust to changing circumstances and be in a position to better serve the wider community.

Real estate companies will need to place new emphasis on health

Incorporating occupant health and wellness into building plans and operations has become a critical topic across the industry in recent years. Research continues to look at the impact of construction, design and operations on people helping to inform strategies that better support occupant experience. Being knowledgeable and aware of building factors, such as HVAC, indoor air quality and more that impact health and well-being are essential. Certification programs including LEED, WELL and others can be used to distinguish properties and focus building teams’ attention to these issues.

Real estate companies are capable of improving health performance quickly, according to a GRESB review of three years of health and well-being benchmarks. Data showed that more real estate companies are beginning to integrate health into ESG frameworks and are elevating responsibility for health to senior management levels. Participants were more likely to have established internal processes for employee health promotion before developing externally focused processes for the promotion of tenant, customer and community health. Leading companies were taking actions to benefit both.

This focus on health will need to expand to consider community health impacts and opportunities as well. Illustrating this in action is the Health Promotion credit in the LEED green building rating system. Aligned with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health, this credit is based on public health research demonstrating that buildings and spaces affect physical, mental and social well-being in a holistic manner. The credit provides a framework for engaging public health professionals and the local community. The intent is to help the project team better use public health data and community input to understand how a building or space may impact social, environmental and economic outcomes —and, in turn, promote positive health outcomes.

Several projects illustrate how this can forge meaningful connections between property owners and local communities. After taking the step to gather community health data, a new healthcare development on an unoccupied site understood that the neighborhood lacked access to quality produce. As a result, the development was designed in such a way that its parking lot was able to support a farmer’s market, providing a much-needed resource and benefit to community health. In another case, a developer assumed that residents of the surrounding neighborhood, which had high unemployment, would benefit with construction jobs, but in fact they were not in a position to qualify. Instead, an apprentice program bridged the gap to engage the neighborhood in the project. 

Opportunities like these only arise when one looks beyond the property line and can reinforce a property’s value within a community beyond the economics. To help developers, property owners and other stakeholders jump-start this process, a series of conversation guides offer real examples from a diverse set of situations, while a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute provide step by step guidance on working together.  Technical resources also include the RELi 2.0 Rating Guidelines—with links to many reference materials—and a curated set of materials for the LEED Health Promotion credit. And, Opportunity 360 offers a measurement tool that provides a downloadable community health profile for any address. Considering strategies that support community health and well-being will remain a critical part of creating and maintaining a sustainable and high-performing space.

Learn to embrace flexibility and continuous improvement

Resilience is less of an end goal, as a process and state of being. When organizations bring resilience thinking to all of their regular activities and functions, they can create a culture that encourages ongoing improvement. The City of Philadelphia evaluates every capital project with a resilience lens: how can this project be designed to protect the investment? How can it be more resilient in terms of operations? And reduce its resource requirements and contribution to climate change? Having a systematic but flexible approach to ensuring resilience is considered, without a prefixed idea of what resilience looks like, can also support greater internal buy-in and in turn improve effectiveness.

Demand for resilient, high-performing buildings is only going to increase. With many private companies and governments having committed to climate goals, we are now seeing them move to implement actions and policies to show progress. This accountability will drive demand for carbon reduction strategies in buildings and portfolios. Further, with the increase in extreme weather frequencies and intensities, markets are driving demand for physical resilience. In particular, as insurers more fully incorporate the impact of climate conditions and other factors on their underwriting and pricing, real estate companies who invest in mitigating climate-related risks and limiting related claims through adaptation measures, will be in the best position. Core strategies of LEED, such as deep energy and water efficiency, onsite renewable energy and energy storage, graywater systems and water harvesting, can all serve to foster resilience of the building. Emerging building resilience systems such as RELi can also help position properties. These systems encourage innovative thinking and can help companies approach resilience flexibly.

Real estate companies that complement their buildings strategies with the new, expanded perspective of resilience, including communities and social impacts, and a renewed emphasis on health, will be in a stronger position for their efforts. Fully integrating the broad concept of resilience will establish leadership and create new, unforeseen opportunities for growth.

Elizabeth Beardsley is senior policy counsel for the U.S. Green Building Council.

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