Skip to main content

Tallying the ROI of resilient buildings

Thinking beyond cheaper energy bills can pay dividends for companies who buy into smarter infrastructure.

If there’s one thing the real estate industry doesn't like, it’s financial uncertainty.

With developers constantly trying to balance long project timelines and pressure to deliver short-term profits, unexpected costs such as new construction requirements or city fees usually are accused of sabotaging business activity.

But how does that square with the economics of the push to make buildings more resilient, bracing the built environment for the more frequent extremes — hurricanes, droughts, fires, sea-level rise — expected to accompany climate change?

On one hand, measures such as cutting carbon or experimenting with green infrastructure are still closely associated with long-term environmental goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against mitigating exposure to risk or saving money on energy bills by increasing efficiency.

"I understand the argument. … Well, I can’t justify it in a three- to five-year time frame,” said Lynn Thurber, chairman of LaSalle Investment Management. "But you can’t not justify it."

Citing destruction after extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy's landfall in New Jersey, Thurber added that investors such as LaSalle are increasingly making the case for up-front resilience investments by modeling the potential costs of "natural catastrophes" in vulnerable areas.

There's also the peer pressure effect to bear in mind, particularly during boom times for the real estate sector.

"Think about the next downturn. It is mitigation of risk," Thurber said. "When the next downturn comes — and it is when, not if — (developers) don’t want to own the asset in their marketplace that is not competitive. The time to make those retrofits is in the good times."

To build or not to build?

Thurber’s remarks came as part of a discussion on "The business case for investing in sustainability and resilience" at the Urban Land Institute’s annual meeting of the real estate minds this week in San Francisco.

In between tours of the Googleplex and a slew of presentations on new perks pervading the building industry — artificial lagoons, drones, wearable tech — resilience was among the more daunting topics to rise to the fore at the event.

In addition to multiple discussions on resilience, which ULI defines as "the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events," the organization also released a new report (PDF) that includes data on the actual return on investment for 10 resilient building projects.

City planners and third party groups such as Rockefeller Foundation offshoot 100 Resilient Cities are also aiming to address social and political stressors — income inequality, racial turmoil, crime, public health disparities — as other potential destabilizing forces for a city.

Learn more about financing resilient infrastructure at VERGE 2015, Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, California.

And while retrofitting buildings or bolstering new construction is one option, there remains the bigger issue of choosing where to build in the first place.

In a moment reminiscent of post-Katrina debate about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt despite its vulnerable geography, one especially long pause at the ULI conference came when an audience member asked whether developers are already cutting off investments to places deemed too at-risk.

"We haven’t actually said we will no longer invest, but we definitely rank them," said Mark Preston, group chief executive of U.K. developer Grosvenor.

Noting that Canadian cities rank near the top of the firm's list for the most resilient markets, Preston declined to specify which rank on the opposite end of the spectrum.

He only noted, "We’ll be able to put less money into the cities at the bottom of that list."

Paying for resilience

Post-Katrina New Orleans, India during a heat wave, the Philippines after a typhoon and, most recently, large swaths of South Carolina under water.

The list of places that have turned into poster children for fallout from extreme weather is expected to keep growing as scientists warn of a "new normal" marked by a more volatile climate.

In the new ULI report "Returns on Resilience," case studies are explored from the likes of Boston (coastal storms and sea-level rise), Miami (hurricanes and storm surge), San Antonio (drought, heat or flooding) and Nashville (river flooding).

Building types covered in the report include a medical center, a mixed-use office building, residential complexes, an island resort, a school and a master-planned suburban development.

The impetus for mitigation measures such as building controls elevated above flood plains, impact-resistant glass, on-site power generation and gray water recycling  varied from project to project.

The developers of Boston's a 267,000-square-foot residential mixed-use project called 6 New Street, for example, chose to elevate building controls, co-generate heat and power, protect ground floor windows with tall planters and plant saltwater-tolerant native plants.

They reported "$9 million-plus" in avoided losses and lower insurance premiums, $150,000 in annual energy cost savings and a 2 percent to 18 percent rental premium for added consumer appeal.

"The payback for resilience efforts can be measured in many ways," ULI noted, "including cost savings from preventing damages and reducing operating costs, as well as revenue enhancements from improved marketing, company brand and project image."

Other groups are also at work to make ambitious resilience projects the norm.

100 Resilient Cities is helping local governments hire trained chief resilience officers. Architecture firm Perkins+Will is at work on a "LEED for resilience" type of certification. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is working on sustainability benchmarks for the building industry, although executives at the ULI event expressed skepticism about the feasibility of draft standards.

Ideally, building additions meant to enhance resilience can help fulfill sustainability goals or meet green building requirements for programs such as Energy Star or LEED. 

"These efforts also demonstrate the private sector commitment and leadership that is necessary for strong public-private collaborations in tackling climate change, including in reducing buildings’ contributions to global warming," the ULI report noted.

More on this topic