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Reducing Expenses and Emissions

Depending on the scale of the project, the payback on energy efficiency measures can range between two and 10 years.

The most common sustainability strategy utilized by 59 percent of respondents is energy efficiency measures, which is followed by the use of sustainable materials in new development and/or retrofits at 34 percent; and reducing emissions at 21 percent. Other strategies used by a minority of respondents are investing in carbon offsets at 9 percent, green bonds at 6 percent and investing in carbon capture at 5 percent.

The fact that energy efficiency tops the list for sustainability strategies is not surprising as it has the most rapid payback. Depending on the scale of the project, the payback on energy efficiency measures can range between two and 10 years. “For most investors, that is wildly appealing, because you can see the return on your investment very quickly,” says Richards. Reporting platforms such as EnergyStar also make it very easy to see the quantifiable results of those energy efficiency measures. “I think energy efficiency will continue to be a major push. It is certainly the easiest for us to convince owners to invest in it,” he says.

Leading architecture and design firm Gensler is seeing significant interest from clients across industries in pursuing energy efficiency strategies. “The next step is to tackle embodied carbon—emissions related to the entire life cycle of building materials, from harvesting and manufacturing to transport and construction,” says Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler. Buildings generate some 40 percent of all emissions each year, between operations and embodied carbon. Embodied carbon in particular accounts for about 11 percent of total emissions annually, and that proportion is growing as building operations become more efficient, notes Cohen. “The structural components of a building are responsible for a significant proportion of initial embodied carbon emissions. So, opting for renewable and sustainable building materials like wood, instead of concrete and steel, can make a tremendous impact,” he says.

Interior finishes and furnishings are also significant contributors to a building’s carbon footprint, due to the churn of replacing them over the whole lifetime of a project. Gensler designers are not only specifying more sustainable products in buildings, but they’re also creating them, such as furnishings that are designed for disassembly, that are made from recycled materials, and that can be reused or recycled once they’re no longer needed. “The real estate sector in the U.S. is definitely making progress, but there is still so much opportunity for taking leadership as we move toward a more resilient and sustainable future,” says Cohen.