When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, its goal was to increase public awareness of the world’s environmental problems, including air and water pollution.
Over the half-century since, that has evolved into “going green,” as corporations and, even more recently, the real estate industry recognized the bottom-line value of saving energy — in short, what we’ve come to call “sustainability. ”
One year-plus into a global pandemic, sustainability has taken on a new definition: creating a built environment that not only saves energy and money for its operators but, through cleaner air and more, also fosters well-being for its users. Sustainability now is as much about sustaining quality of life as it is about reducing energy costs. And a number of commercial real estate owners and managers have taken action to make their buildings “well” in addition to doing well financially.
That requires a whole new look at buildings, said Charlie Szoradi, CEO of Purge Virus, part of Energy Intelligence Center, a privately-owned eco-system of solutions that includes optimizing HVAC to helps business owners and operators reopen and prevent the resurgence of COVID-19 and future virus outbreaks, while also employing advanced technology to save energy.
“It’s redefining sustainability with people, planet and profit in mind,” said Szoradi, a LEED AP, architect and sustainability executive with three decades of experience in advanced clean-technology and cost-effective solutions for retrofits and new construction. “We already have the advanced technology. We can save a fortune and turn some ugly lemons of COVID-19 into lemonade as we create new buildings and new standards.”
Purge Virus offers germicidal disinfection of air and services across commercial and residential real estate. The OptikW platform uses algorithmic software to optimize HVAC kilowatts by leveraging ambient conditions, such as temperature, humidity and dew point, to improve the performance of existing chillers and HVAC equipment. Clean Peak Energy uses the thermal mass of buildings as a “battery” to store temperature and reduce peak interval energy costs. Independence LED Lighting uses energy-saving lights to save 50% or more over traditional lights. Building Fit uses data analytics with measurement and verification to identify areas of savings and track performance. The result, Szoradi said, is a systemic solution to create a healthier, more efficient building.
“We do not distinguish between energy conservation measures (ECM) and indoor air quality (IAQ),” he explained. “They are doing different tactical things. ECM is more about the data, optimizing energy and saving dollars.”
COVID-19 resulted in most people spending 90% of their time indoors, he noted, so making those environments cleaner, as well as more efficient, is more of a priority than ever. Among other strategies, Purge Virus uses bipolar ionization to clean indoor air, stop the spread of viruses and reduce the requirements for as much outside replacement air.
In bipolar ionization, oxygen passing through a normal indoor or outdoor HVAC duct is imparted with energy that splits the molecules into positive and negative ions. To stabilize themselves, the ions will seek other atoms, including viruses; bacteria; contaminants, such as carpet glue, and other pathogens, to trade electrons, rendering them inert. The result is cleaner, safer air and reduced energy costs.
Purge Virus has been used by healthcare institutions and even WeWork, which utilized needlepoint bipolar ionization to realize more than 50% savings in its HVAC renovation costs.
“We have restaurants that have cleaner indoor air than outdoor dining,” Szoradi observed.
As important, the technology isn’t that expensive. The equipment can be mounted in existing ducts, or in the midst of a major renovation, which can permit the installation of smaller ducts. On a cost of $0.50 per square foot, companies average a two-year payback while improving their indoor air quality.
“It’s good for business. You can reduce costs, and because of the hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates, you can do it with other people’s money,” he said.
And there’s no reason to wait for more affordable technology to invest, Szoradi said. Costs are bottoming out.
“The market has matured,” he noted. “The price isn’t going to drop (more), and you’re not going to see some seismic jump in in efficiency. And the demand is going to continue past COVID-19.”
Other organizations are recognizing the value of sustainability and health. In March, developer Savanna officially earned the Well Health-Safety Rating certification for its entire New York City portfolio and achieved a four- or five-star rating for all of its portfolio-level submissions to the 2020 Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark survey. Issued by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), the Well Health-Safety Rating is an evidence-based, third-party verified rating for all new and existing building and space types focusing on operational policies, maintenance protocols, stakeholder engagement, emergency plans to address a post-COVID-19 environment and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing through seven core areas — air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.
“We have been making a concerted effort over a long period of time to continually enhance our ESG program and performance, and we take great pride in both of these recent achievements,” said Peter Rosenthal, principal and director of development and chief sustainability officer. “While our vertically integrated team has worked together for many years to integrate sustainability across our platform, this past year, the health and wellness component of ESG became a clear focus during the pandemic. We responded accordingly and worked hard to ensure that our portfolio was appropriately positioned to accommodate tenants in a post-COVID-19 environment.”
In addition to developing tailored re-entry plans for each of its properties and implementing numerous new operational protocols, Savanna also made physical changes to its buildings to address tenants’ evolving health and safety needs. Upgrades at certain properties included the implementation of touchless building entry with smartphone connectivity to turnstiles; destination dispatch elevators; touchless, automatic and anti-microbial fixtures and hardware in the restrooms; bi-polar ionization technology in the HVAC systems; ultraviolet germicidal irradiation; enhanced filtration and increased ventilation rates.
In February, retail real estate company Simon, which has long touted its focus on sustainability, also received the Well Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management for over 200 properties in its portfolio. Among the measures the company has taken to support health and safety are rigorous operational policies aimed at improving cleaning practices, a reduction in respiratory particle exposure and reduced surface contact, in addition to the comprehensive emergency response protocols already in place, including business continuity and promotion of health and wellbeing management.
“Our proven leadership is consistently demonstrated by the innovative ways in which Simon is protecting its employees, shoppers and retailers every day,” said David Simon, chairman, CEO and president of Simon. “Simon’s response sets the expectation for health and safety standards and should serve as a blueprint for the industry.”
That isn’t to say that energy costs are being neglected; the real estate industry is responsible for a staggering 40% of emissions, Szoradi observed, giving plenty of opportunity.
Already known as a leader in sustainibility, in February, Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT) announced a three-year contract with Green Mountain Energy to purchase renewable wind electricity for its entire commercial portfolio. The deal makes ESRT the nation’s largest 100% user of green power in real estate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One hundred percent of ESRT’s 10.1 million square-foot-plus portfolio is now powered by renewable wind energy. This three-year expansion will purchase more than 300 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable energy and avoid the production of 450 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
“ESRT is the leader in sustainable operations with a viable example of how to scale carbon neutral technologies, strategies and policies to balance with an effective economic business case,” said Dana Robbins Schneider, senior vice president and director of energy, sustainability and ESG at Empire State Realty Trust. “We have purchased renewable power from Green Mountain Energy for the world’s most famous building, the Empire State Building, for a decade. We now expand that to all properties in New York State with an additional Direct Energy contract for our Connecticut properties. We continue to advance our commitment to solutions that reduce our environmental impact. Our tenants now work in carbon-neutral offices, and the investment community can recognize our leadership.”
ESRT’s Empire State Building was one of the first Green Power Partners to be recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its use of green power as an effective way to reduce the environmental impacts of electricity consumption. More than 10 years ago, the landmark also underwent an energy and efficiency retrofit as part of the $550 million Empire State ReBuilding restoration program, which has already delivered a 40% reduction in energy use and emissions.
The company’s portfolio was also the first in the U.S. to achieve the Well Health-Safety Rating; additionally, it was named a Fitwel Champion from the third-party healthy building certification created as a joint initiative between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), with 83% of its New York City portfolio certified.
More still needs to be done, Szoradi notes, as the situation will only continue as the world suffers the effects from what Szoradi calls “climate weirding” rather than climate change.
“Sustainability has been presented as an option rather than a requirement,” he said. “It’s still about people, planet, profit. We should have conversation at much higher level of corporate governance.”