6 Initiatives for Planning Commercial Real Estate Portfolio Decarbonization

The race to net-zero carbon is speeding up worldwide, and nowhere is this challenge being felt more strongly than in the commercial real estate (CRE) market. For CRE teams and their external stakeholders, it’s not enough to design new buildings to be more efficient. With half of today’s buildings expected to still be in operation in 2050, there is an urgent need commercial real esate decarbonization existing property portfolios.

We believe this transformation depends on Electricity 4.0 — making buildings all-digital to help better understand energy use and manage efficiency while making them all-electric by replacing fossil-fuel-based loads with electric and using renewable sources. But how do you tackle this complex task across an entire asset portfolio?

Commercial Real Estate

To help answer this question, I led a panel session at this year’s MIPIM conference in Cannes. The panel included David Leversha, Director & Net Zero lead for Property & Buildings for WSP UK, and Chris Maddern, the Brookfield Strategic Account Executive for Schneider Electric. We discussed key findings from our new collaborative study and white paper that propose a six-initiative planning methodology for CRE net-zero retrofits. The following are a few brief highlights from that discussion.

Estelle Monod: Regarding step one of the proposed framework, why are operational and embodied carbon targets important when establishing decarbonization pathways for portfolios?

David Leversha: It is understanding your goals, setting a benchmark of where you are today, and aligning all stakeholders on where you need to go because it is a hugely collaborative process. When looking at an individual asset, what energy use intensity, air quality, and ESG targets do you want to deliver? How do you enhance the performance of that asset and the performance and well-being of the individuals working in it? These targets are critical to align and act as a catalyst for everyone involved.

Chris Maddern: To further that point, it will be a bit of a ‘juggling act’ because a private organization will voluntarily set carbon targets but will also have the regulatory community pushing more and more stringent targets for building performance standards. Ensuring folks at the building level understand the goals of top-level shareholders and stakeholders is critical.

Estelle Monod: Regarding steps two and three — data capture and reporting — what is the minimum amount of data required when starting this journey?

David Leversha: You need to consider building archetypes in terms of what buildings are used for, then the area and total energy consumption of each. You can then look at the outliers (i.e., which buildings perform poorly) and target greater data collection to understand what interventions can enhance that performance.

Chris Maddern: Also, existing buildings bring legacy systems, people, and sometimes third-party intermediaries with which you need to work for data capture requirements. This is where we created a data responsibility matrix. And keep in mind that collecting data for voluntary programs can also help feed the metrics for regulatory requirements. At the site level, when working with Brookfield, using the ISO 14001 framework gave each facility manager a concrete process to work through. Training each of those folks across a fund of hundreds of assets takes time, but ensuring you have that framework can feed up in aggregate to the rest of the fund.

Estelle Monod: Step four is about assessing portfolio risks and opportunities. How do you identify interventions required at the site level?

David Leversha: Once you’ve got that baseline data, you can rank buildings and look at where you can get the greatest return for your investment. This could include enhancing the fabric of the building (e.g., windows, insulation) to reduce energy waste, using energy more efficiently, producing onsite renewables, zoning, better building controls, etc. Then you put a price against each intervention, determine the correct sequence, then finally look at prioritization.

Chris Maddern: You’re trying to create a building that saves costs, but you also need to understand your grid score and how you’re managing climate risk in the future. The payback on carbon reduction and the implications of sustainability reporting help the entire organization get on the same page.

Estelle Monod: Looking at steps five and six — the decarbonization roadmap and funding alignment — how do you develop the optimum roadmap for intervention implementation?

David Leversha: A key aim is to minimize disruption to the occupiers, so you need to look at the minimal intervention practically possible in a building with people living or working there. You’ll also want to consider the residual life left in those assets because you don’t want to go in and strip something out that still has a good level of design life since that’s just going to waste the embodied carbon associated with that asset. So it’s going through all those challenges, weighing them to determine what is the idealized solution for each individual building, prior to mapping the interventions across the portfolio. Then, to ensure you’re doing that in a holistic, cost-effective manner, you can also look at long-term partnerships within your supply chain to deliver in a more carbon-efficient manner and start upscaling their workforce training.

Chris Maddern: And you need to consider how you go up and down the chain of an organization and then outward to the breadth of your external stakeholders to enact that change. Some interventions, like building envelope improvements, offer a good payback and return, but can be very intensive and disruptive. So that is why the white paper focuses on interventions with minimal interruption. That’s one of the key aspects in the roadmap planning, to help the asset manager know they won’t lose rental income and the overall fund can still generate returns.

Estelle Monod: Based on your experience with this program, what advice would you give to people in the real estate industry?

David Leversha: One piece of advice that cuts through all six steps is the need for behavioral change. It’s about looking at every decision you’re making and whether it’s the right approach to deliver on your targets. And while target setting is good, try not to become fixated on hitting a number because you might be missing broader opportunities associated with that asset or that portfolio.

Chris Maddern: And something I also saw being drawn out throughout this process was the need for humility. You have to give a bit and understand that you don’t know everything today as you work on a long-term collaboration with folks to get to that end goal. But as you walk down that path, it does become clearer.

To learn more, download our white paper, “A structured methodology for planning commercial real estate portfolio decarbonization.”

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