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News Article

Sustainable Construction is Now a Necessity

By Cas Biekmann | Tue, 11/09/2021 - 18:18

You can watch the video of this panel here.

While COP26 climate talks gather steam and the world increasingly focuses on sustainability, some industries are unclear on how to achieve it. In sustainable real estate, sustainable materials, smart technologies and the retrofit of existing infrastructure are key steps, argue industry experts.

“If we want to prevent disastrous climate change, we need to keep sustainability firmly in mind,” said Alicia Silva, President, SUMe, an organization looking to promote sustainable construction in Mexico. “Sustainable construction is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity if the world is to continue as we know it today,” she continued.

Nevertheless, sustainable construction is a challenge, which must be addressed from the root: the sourcing of materials. However, there are numerous barriers in its implementation, some of them perceptional. “It is a myth that sustainable materials are more expensive,” said Silva.

Even if costs were to be higher, their consideration might be well worth the investment, said Luis Alberto Vega, Director of Sustainable Development for Mexico at globally leading glass maker Saint-Gobain. For manufacturers, costs concerns are also not the most pressing concern. “When designing solutions, companies need to ensure that designs improve life quality, meet regulatory norms and satisfy needs of modern buildings,” he said. Vega furthermore explained that Saint-Gobain further boosts the sustainability of its glass by recycling the materials the company uses in its industrial processes. 

More than mere material is needed, according to Alejandro Trillo, Partner and Director at engineering and sustainability group IACSA & Asociados. “A combination of materials and technologies is necessary to have an optimal impact,” he said. In addition, those using the infrastructure need to know how to operate sustainably, “otherwise we might as well not have installed anything at all.”

Fortunately, demand for sustainable materials and best practices are growing organically, based on the modern market. “This creates an organic driver to adapt sustainable technologies. But we cannot just pick and choose, we need to pick the technologies that best fit what companies need. Analyzing costs and benefits is essential,” said Trillo.

While the overall market favors sustainable practices, companies could benefit from focusing on the most environmentally-conscious clients, said José Suarez Picazo, CEO, Suarez Picazo Arquitectos. “We do look for clients that focus on sustainability. This mindset is essential to achieve good results,” he added.

Mexico’s real estate developers would benefit from a higher level of awareness regarding sustainable practices. “Building green makes a lot of sense economically, even though people might not be aware of this fact,” said Joel Sánchez, Mexico Green Building Lead, International Finance Corporation (IFC). As an expert in financing, Sánchez admits that accessing the funds that could boost sustainability can be difficult in Mexico. “But for commercial and industrial (C&I) players, sustainable solutions pay themselves back within a year and a half,” he said. What is more, “not implementing measures will be costly on the long term. Consumers increasingly demand sustainability and governments could impose regulations, for example,” added Sanchez.

Sustainability can also be more economically viable than the alternative. “Financial appetite for sustainability is already here,” said Sánchez, pointing toward a globally growing demand for green bonds.

When looking into sustainable solutions, real estate developers can take advantage of new materials and equipment, such as efficient air-conditioning and energy generation using photovoltaic solar panels. “Every year, these clean technologies drop in price, creating further incentives for companies,” said Sánchez. Many of sustainability’s benefits can be achieved through passive means. Once these solutions are constructed, they generate benefits without further efforts required.

Much of the market’s attention focuses on new developments, but the experts see an “elephant in the room,” said Silva: the buildings that already exist. “People were so focused on new construction, they almost forgot about their much larger existing portfolios,” said Sanchez. “Re-using buildings instead of demolishing and starting from scratch benefits sustainability,” agreed Suarez.

“In 2050, we will have much more real estate constructed but also many more buildings to renovate,” said Vega. After the pandemic led many offices to send their employees back home, the market for office real estate contracted significantly, leading to opportunity. “We have a major opportunity to re-transform these buildings into something more sustainable and cost-effective while matching it to new workplace cultures,” said Trillo.

But an issue is to measure the sustainability of new and existing infrastructure. “It is a major challenge to find the right tools that will certify our building portfolios,” said Sánchez.

Though the investment necessary to achieve this goal is extensive, some countries have managed to successfully implement this technology. In Colombia, for example, 20 percent of new constructions are green-certified thanks to the combination of positive government measure and easy access to financing to banks. “If we do not join the trend as financial institutions, we will be left behind. Therefore, I expect Mexican institutions to catch on rapidly,” said Sánchez.

“The private industry will have to invest significant amounts of money,” said Vega, since the country has fallen behind on the global energy transition. Climate change and its effects are real, so sustainability and a shift in the global mindset are crucial if humanity wishes to thrive.

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst