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10 Ways Green Designs Can Create Value and Save Money

When you hear the phrase “green building,” there’s a good chance you think of things inside your building: energy and water-efficient fixtures and mechanical systems, passive solar heating, sustainable building materials, healthy indoor air quality. But there’s a whole other dimension of green building waiting outside your doorstep which can help solve one of our nation’s biggest water pollution problems while creating value and saving money for commercial building owners and tenants. 

External design features like green (vegetated) roofs, tree plantings, rain gardens, and permeable pavement store water and either evaporate it or let it seep back into the soil to benefit vegetation.  Collectively, these sorts of stormwater management techniques are known as “green infrastructure.”  In fact, because of their utilization of plants and soils to mimic how nature handles rainwater, they are a doubly green approach – in both the senses of environmental sustainability and literal greenery.

Many U.S. communities are now relying on green infrastructure as a cost-effective solution to stormwater infrastructure problems, but green infrastructure on private property can also provide a wide range of benefits to commercial property owners and their tenants.

A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, called The Green Edge: How Commercial Property Investment in Green Infrastructure Creates Value, explains how these benefits can help build the business case for commercial real estate owners to invest in green infrastructure.

Here are the Top Ten ways investing in green infrastructure on commercial properties can create value and save money, based on the scores of studies collected in the report.

1. Increased rent and property values – Well-designed landscaping boosts average rental rates for office buildings by approximately 7 percent.  Green roofs can generate up to a 16% rental premium on apartment buildings.  LEED, Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) or other certifications can increase property values, rents, and occupancy rates in commercial and residential buildings.

2. Increased retail sales – Retail customers are willing to pay 8 percent to 12 percent more for products in shopping centers or districts with a mature tree canopy.  

3. Energy savings –  Trees can reduce building energy demand for heating and cooling by providing shade in winter and blocking wind in winter.  Multiple trees on a site can save hundreds of dollars in annual energy costs.  Green roofs can reduce daily energy demand for cooling in a one-story building by up to 75 percent; smaller, but meaningful, energy savings can be realized in taller buildings and cooler climates.

4. Local financial incentives (such as tax credits, rebates, and stormwater fee credits) – In many cities, a substantial portion of green infrastructure costs can be recouped directly through tax credits, stormwater utility fee credits, rebates, and development incentives.

5. Reduced infrastructure costs – Green roofs typically last twice as long as conventional roofs, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in roof repair/replacement costs.  Permeable asphalt, concrete, or paver blocks allow water to seep into gravel and soil below.  These systems can have significantly lower maintenance costs than traditional pavement, resulting in lower overall life-cycle costs.  For new development, green infrastructure designs can decrease the amount of required traditional drainage infrastructure.

6. Reduced flood damage – Large floods with catastrophic damage are relatively infrequent, but small events (which can be mitigated by green infrastructure) are generally more frequent and widespread; though they cause less damage per event, their repetitive nature can cause a greater overall economic burden.  Mitigating these risks reduces flood damage costs and can increase property values.

7. Reduced water bills –  The captured rain water can be used for landscape irrigation and other non-potable water uses, which can in turn, lower water bills.

8. Increased health and job satisfaction for office employees – Research shows that office workers have a clear preference for nature near the workplace, leading to reduced stress levels and even higher amounts of job satisfaction. Even trees, landscaping, and other vegetation situated among buildings has been found to provide these benefits.

9. Reduced crime – Recent research indicates that certain types of urban green space can reduce crime.  Numerous studies have found significantly lower rates of property crime, graffiti, vandalism, and littering in “green” urban areas, when controlling for other factors. 

10. More livable communities – Transforming urban water management is a task for both private property owners and local government.  Integrating green spaces into the built environment benefits everyone, by beautifying neighborhoods, cooling and cleansing the air, reducing asthma, reducing overall energy demand, and creating “green-collar” jobs. 

With the documented benefits of greener infrastructure, it’s essential for players in the commercial real estate industry to consider the complete picture of how retrofits could help efficiency efforts. .  This is especially true at existing developed sites – where investments in retrofits can improve older properties and create value.

Recognizing the real world benefits of green infrastructure can help developers maximize return on investment when determining how best to comply with – or even exceed – such local rules.

Larry Levine is a senior attorney in the NRDC's Water Program and can be reached at: llevine@nrdc.org

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