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Nat Levy
Real Estate Reporter

October 1, 2015

Real Estate Buzz: Q&A with Skanska's head of sustainability

Real Estate Reporter

Sustainability is one of Skanska's primary goals.

The Swedish-held company wants its projects to last for generations and be a benefit to the environment and the tenants in its buildings.

In Seattle, for example, Skanska developed Stone34 in the Fremont/Wallingford area and participated in the city's Deep Green program that encourages sustainable building practices. That structure has numerous sustainable elements including a 76,000-gallon container on the roof that collects rainwater to reuse throughout the building.

Beth Heider is Skanska USA's chief sustainability officer, and she is in charge of marking sure the company's sustainability goals are met across its various business units. She is based in Washington D.C. but recently came to town to speak about sustainability at the American Institute of Architects' Women's Leadership Summit.

Photo by Doug Scott [enlarge]
Skanska USA put numerous sustainability features in a project it built in Fremont/Wallingford called Stone34.

The Buzz sat down with Heider to talk about how growing up in a household of environmentalists shaped her passion for sustainability; the latest innovations in sustainability; and economic arguments for building green.

The conversation was edited for style and clarity.

Q: What does a chief sustainability officer do?

A: Sustainability is people; it's profit; and it's the planet. So it's a pretty broad mandate. I tend to focus on the upfront development of projects and work with our organization across all four of its business units in the U.S. to encourage and drive more sustainable design and construction. We often times will have an opportunity to influence projects at the front end.

Q: Give an example of a sustainable element of one of your Seattle projects?

A: Stone 34 has chilled beams that run fluid through a panel in the ceiling and provide cooling or heating, and it's actually a radiant system. It is a very efficient way of heating and cooling, but it also means the depth of the ceiling can be reduced. And from a development standpoint that means you can get more floors within the same height restriction. It's the same sense of being next to a radiator versus being next to a duct that is blowing lots of air at you. Because it is more efficient to run it's actually less expensive. It's good for the environment because you are using less energy to heat and cool space, but it's also good for the occupants because it provides greater thermal comfort.


Q: What are the benefits of sustainable buildings?

A: Sustainable buildings create a healthier environment for the most valuable asset of any company, the talent it employs. If you improve the well-being and productivity of the tenants in the building just one percent you're leveraging the largest investment a company has to make.

We are seeing a lot of interest in a certification scheme called the Well Standard. Well focuses on the health of people and is taking a look at what you do with the building to create more pure air; better access to light and air; surfaces on the wall that are more comfortable in terms of your eyesight; making sure that furniture and fixtures promote health; and the ability to stand at a desk as well as sit at a desk. Standing at a desk is healthier for you and it burns more calories.

Q: How do you decide which sustainable elements to include in a project?

A: Building more sustainable isn't formulaic; there isn't one right answer. When Skanska develops buildings the first things we take into consideration are the goals and objectives of the owner and tenants of the buildings so we can create a space they will value. Then we'll take a look at operational and maintenance costs and other forces in the market that would inform how likely the building would be to hold its value over time. We put together a strategy for each of our buildings that is affordable within constraints the market will bear.

We take into consideration that many of the clients who invest in the buildings we develop are institutional investors, so they're not just investing in something that is cheap and cheerful that they can flip tomorrow. They tend to look at investing in buildings that will stand the test of time and will provide a really excellent return on their investment over time. I think one thing sustainability brings to the table is a lens with a longer horizon. It influences more than just how this building will perform for the short haul. The buildings we build last for generations, and often times a modest investment up front will enhance the performance of the project over time in a way that returns many times on the investment.

Q: What are some lessons you learned over the years?

A: I think we tend to get really entranced with the latest gizmos: photovoltaics, wind energy. Things that we can see and touch and feel are really kind of sexy, but when it comes to enhancing energy and water performance the first thing you want to do is be thoughtful and build buildings or build exterior closures and windows and roofs that don't require as much heating and cooling. If you insulate the perimeter of your building well and provide insulated windows then you aren't going to have to pump as much cold air or hot air in to condition the space so that it is comfortable. If we eat our conservation vegetables first then we don't have to spend as much money on our photovoltaic cookies.

Tenants are starting to understand, and leases are starting to reflect that occupants are about a third of the equation in terms of how well a building is going to perform.

It's like when you buy a car. If you drive your Prius like a Prius, you are going to get great gas mileage. If you get in your Prius and slam down on the accelerator and drive it like a Maserati, you're not going to get great gas mileage, and the same is true with buildings. Really affordable sensors can be incorporated into all kinds of components in a building from heating and cooling to light controls. All of these things can provide feedback to the user so they know what their impact is.

Q: What do you see as the most interesting innovations in sustainable building in the last couple years?

A: There is a wonderful glazing system called View Dynamic Glass, and there are others out there, but I particularly like the architectural performance of this. I am an architect by training so the way something looks matters to me. View glass is like a pair of glasses where you can go outside and they automatically adjust and become sunglasses. View Glass controls heat on the surface of building. It will bounce light off the building when it is hot in the summer time, so you don't have to cool the building as much, but it still is transparent enough that you can see out. In addition it creates a more comfortable environment where you don't have glare hitting you in the eyes or marauding your computer screen. Because you are controlling heating and cooling you can actually reduce the size of your mechanical system by maybe 20 to 30 percent. It's a gift that keeps on giving because a smaller mechanical system takes a third less electricity or gas to run.

Another technology I am really intrigued by is Atmosair. Atmosair essentially charges particulates in the air so they stick together, fall and can be caught and removed. If you have pollen or viruses in the air it will essentially arrest them and pull them out of the air stream and by doing that, you don't need to have as much fresh air coming into building. And fresh air is whatever the temperature is outside, so if you don't need as much of it coming in, then you don't have to heat and cool that either, so you can recirculate that air and in many instances it's more pure than the outside air coming into the building.

Q: If I am a developer, why should I do a sustainable project?

A: I would like to get to know you better as a developer so I could figure out what your pressure points are because there are so many dimensions to sustainability. It actually makes a lot of sense to build buildings that are more durable and efficient. If you are going to hold onto that building for five to 10 years, you're just making an investment up front in something that will return benefits over time.

If you build a space that takes into consideration the health of tenants it will be easier for you to fill up the building. From a risk standpoint, regardless of whether you are a young developer or a grandfather concerned about your grandkids and great grandkids, you are going to want to make sure you are not building something that won't be desirable in five years or 10 years or 12 years and will have to carry a brown discount because you haven't anticipated where the market is going.

Q: Why are you personally interested in sustainability?

A: My mother was an earth science teacher, and she instigated Earth Day in my hometown after local hero here in Seattle Denis Hayes organized it in 1970. I was a kid then, but I remember her activism. I couldn't get away from it, so it was really kind of a world view. My mother, my grandparents, they were all avid gardeners, and they believed we don't wreck the earth; We leave it for future generations. I went to architecture school, and at the time there was interest in sustainability because of the oil embargoes of the late '70s. So there were some early green buildings that were the architectural equivalent of Birkenstock sandals. Then oil became less expensive again, and you don't want to build Birkenstock sandals everywhere.

I had an opportunity to work on a project for the federal government looking at the investment needed to green the federal work place. I thought ‘this is interesting.' What is the economic argument for buildings that my mother would delight in and my grandparents would approve of? I started to find in my work that really elegant sustainable structures could be built, and you could make up front investments that could return very quickly over time. You could have it all, if you were just really thoughtful about what you did, and to be able to influence that market working with an incredible company like Skanska has been a privilege and a pleasure.

And I love to garden at home too. I like to start stuff from seeds; that's my favorite.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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