I was recently asked to present the World Green Building Council’s new report – The Business Case for Green Building – on behalf of the Russian Green Building Council at Mosbuild, a major construction sector event in Moscow.
As an early advocate of green thinking in this BRIC market, it was good to see a well-intentioned document aiming to appeal to commercial audiences interested in the bottom line rather than simply environmental issues. However, it was also a reminder that sustainability is still not fully understood, not just by the general public but also by some green sector professionals. Sustainability is about creating added value, and as a branding consultant, I am in the same business, creating improved commercial equity for organisations, products, services and places. This requires defining and interpreting the ethos, vision, values and business principles that will positively differentiate the brand from the competition to achieve the desired ‘first-choice’ perception of target audiences and users.
The basic message of the WGBC report was that adopting the latest green thinking and technologies should be a no-brainer, as this would achieve better marketability together with short- and long-term optimum asset value. Real estate development that integrated best practices will be worth more in terms of image and credibility in being able to maintain and increase its value, because of its inherent adaptability and lower running costs. The report outlined the potential advantages for ‘stakeholders’, which it saw simply as developers, owners and tenants. But that’s where the report lost the essential plot, for me, in ignoring the needs and aspirations of the most important audiences, and ultimate force for change – the users!
Real estate users obviously cover a wide range of sectors, from shopping centre consumers, business centre and office employees, residents, hotel guests, city dwellers, visitors and tourists – i.e. all those using buildings and places for their work, rest and play! But no mention was made of the need to step back and reflect on the wider view of these essential ‘stakeholders’, who will use and inhabit green buildings and places. Ignoring this key aspect on achieving more universal acceptance of green building really misses the point and reflects a rather inward-looking approach by building professionals.
Those involved in image and reputation development in creating brand equity know only too well that ‘consumers’ in the widest sense are now the influencers that make things happen and change. Politicians, the media, communities of interest, the local community and the competition are influenced by consumers and create the climate of opinion and social environment that sets the overall agenda for what is good and bad acceptable practice. This provides the market for real estate development. A key stakeholder/influencer is therefore the next generation to achieve real changes in attitudes of an older generation still reluctant to understand the green building advantage. That is real future-proofing strategy, which should be high up on every Green Building Council’s list of priorities.
The real estate sector has to become more customer-centric. Retailers have to be, in order to survive, and are now targeted by their customers, not the other way round. Equally, banks are trying to remember they should respond to customers, not accounts. Some real estate developers have belatedly recognized that they need to be more than simply landlords. Successful shopping centres are based on customer engagement and developers, tenants and, increasingly, the local community, need to work as complementary partners. The aim is to create a first-choice destination venue so the centre and individual tenant experiences combine to achieve a unique offer. Good design is essential to satisfy visitors and the image and reputation benefit of green credentials combined with the direct commercial advantages of lower running costs becomes a positive shared benefit in terms of service charges and centre management costs. Light green and dark green leases are now being talked about and retailers are highly aware of the importance of maintaining their PR green credentials to further differentiate from the competition.
It was a pity the WGC report ignored the retail and shopping centre sector, given this is so clearly consumer-driven, as it represents a complicated set of interests. It would have raised a wider variety of issues to be addressed in what counts as true sustainability, given the changes in the UK for example, where the retail real estate market is undergoing significant changes in terms of adapting or dying.
Only in the very last section of the report are the interests of end users acknowledged – in a less-than-inspiring section headed ‘Workplace Productivity And Health’. Clearly there are major advantages in achieving healthier, more attractive workplace environments, and the commercial logic of appealing directly to the emotional needs of users needs to be addressed, particularly by green building professionals.
Offices should inspire and motivate the users to encourage optimum efficiency. And this raises a potential perceived key weakness of current green building certification in not being able to adequately take into account the aesthetic and emotional benefits of good sustainable design. These are not as easily quantifiable as energy and environmental impact, but user satisfaction can be measured and should be an essential part of any assessment metrics. Green buildings that do nothing for the soul are surely not sustainable in the true sense of the word. Sustainability, for the retail estate sector, should mean developing buildings and places that people seek out to visit, live and work in – surely the ultimate test of future-proofing and real green credentials!
Some lessons from the branding industry would provide added value for those involved in promoting, practicing and certifying in the green sector. Measuring happiness has become a political issue more recently so developing suitable metrics for assessing green development on the basis of end user satisfaction seems long overdue. As an architect, I am highly aware of the original definition of good architecture that reflects ‘Commodity, Firmness and Delight’, based on the principles outlined by the Roman architect Vitruvius. Commodity is about utility and function. Firmness – strength and stability, and Delight – reflecting enjoyment and beauty. If green professionals can focus as equally on delight as well as the measurables of commodity and firmness, then green building can become the mainstream normal it needs to be seen as.
Let’s hope the next Council report will start with an emphasis on consumer satisfaction, which in the end ensures a first-choice positioning and maximum commercial success.