CCIM Education

Making the Most of Using Less

Sustainability practices offer commercial real estate a triple bottom line — one that is concerned with economic, social, and environmental performance.

Fly into any decent-sized airport, day or night, and you'll see what is meant by the built environment. The roads, the buildings, the power lines - these structures all combine to be a part of modern development. Focusing specifically on commercial real estate, think of the vast array of built environments, including manufacturing, education, and medical services.

But construction has changed in the recent years. We are not in an unbridled era of building as much as possible as quickly as we can. Sustainability is a prime directive. 

Today's construction industry operates with a triple bottom- line perspective:

  1. Construction must be financially sustainable. It must provide a revenue stream to support growth and further development. The business, after all, is still focused on profit.
  2. Structures must be environmentally sustainable. A building, for instance, must reduce energy usage and try to meet LEED standards for reduced carbon emissions.
  3. Finally, construction must be socially sustainable. Projects need to provide jobs for a community, to financially support the population. The concept of corporate citizenship, for example, emphasizes the social responsibility of conducting business. 

Here are eight common methods of reducing consumption, eliminating waste, and minimizing energy usage:

Eco-friendly toilets: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense, like its more well-known EnergyStar program, recognizes toilets that are 20 percent more efficient than conventional 1.6-gallon models. Low-flow and dual-flush systems are other ways to minimize water usage.

Waterless composting toilets are becoming a more feasible option in commercial settings, though city and county regulations often require permits.

Recycled insulation: While formaldehyde is no longer added to insulation in the U.S., fiberglass-based products require more energy to produce than insulation produced with shredded newspaper and denim. Denim insulation offers improved indoor acoustics but costs about twice as much as fiberglass products.

Bamboo flooring: Varieties of bamboo now grow in many of the lower 48 states. It's a fast-growing plant, with a harvest cycle of four years, compared to 60 or 70 years for traditional hardwoods. It can be cheaper than traditional hardwoods, is equally durable, and can be recycled into other products.

Porous paving: Permeable pavement catches precipitation and surface runoff, storing it in a reservoir so it can slowly infiltrate the soil. While the modified paving costs approximately 10 to 20 percent more and requires steady maintenance, it improves drainage and limits demand on stormwater infrastructure.

According to a U.S. Geological Survey, “[p]ermeable pavement is one type of green infrastructure practice that functions like traditional pavement for parking lots, sidewalks, and roadways but also allows for treatment and management of stormwater near its source.”

Cool roofing: New designs allow buildings to reduce cooling costs with the installation of a high emittance coating on the roof. Such cool roofs can reflect more of the sun's thermal energy, which reduces cooling costs. These coatings can also diminish the heat island effect of urban areas, which results from land modification and waste heat. 

What's more, cool roofing solutions can decrease maintenance costs and extend product life cycles by diminishing the sun's deteriorating effects on the roof.

Passive solar design: Intentional design choices are one method of reducing traditional heating methods. Structures built on a thermal mass can be heated by the sun, while an open floor plan allows for greater distribution of heat in the summer. Additionally, designing eaves that shade an interior from the summer sun, which is higher in the sky, and allow direct sunlight from the lower winter sun can reduce heating and cooling costs. While a variety of factors can constrain design, these options are typically free of additional costs during construction. 

Anaerobic digesters: Microorganisms can break down organic matter in a process known as anaerobic digestion. Food waste, greases, sewage, and other biological material can be processed without oxygen. Digesters reduce water waste and produce biogas, a renewable energy that can power engines, furnaces, and natural gas-based vehicles. The downside? Price is a major hurdle toward widespread utilization. 

Electrochromic glass: Glazing on a building can lead to significant energy waste. Electrochromic glass has LED particles embedded into the glazing align themselves to reduce visible and solar radiation through the glass when electricity is applied. Controlled via a switch or by remote sensors, this “smart glass” can reduce long-term energy usage.

Meeting the triple bottom line of construction - being financially, environmentally, and socially responsible - is a tall task. But with technological advances and improved design practices, the industry can meet the challenge of building in the 21st century.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from the course “Construction: Sustainability Planning and Management.” In addition to a discussion of green building methods, the course explores sustainability practices, certification programs, and examples of successful development and design practices. 

For more on this topic, check out CCIM Institute's "Real Estate Development: Environmental Factors" course. 

Eric Holt

Eric Holt, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Denver. Contact him at

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