ESG: 6 Things Building Professionals Need to Know

Clients need AEC professionals to help them achieve environmental, social, and governance goals. Here’s how people are turning aspirations into strategies.

by Paula Melton | BuildingGreen


When and why did the word “sustainability” in corporate marketing turn into the acronym “ESG”—short for environmental, social, and governance?

I’ve asked a lot of people this question and gotten a lot of different answers. But it seems to come down to this: although some people have been using the term ESG for more than a decade, a much broader shift toward that language started in 2020, partially in response to the murder of George Floyd. As many people told me, despite its origins in the “triple bottom line” concept of the late 1980s (the three bottom lines often being named people, planet, and profit), the word “sustainability” is widely perceived to be exclusively about environmental issues, while “ESG” explicitly includes social concerns.

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4. Existing ESG Goals Should Influence Every Building Project

Anthony Brower, AIA, often gets called into design meetings with clients who want to talk about ESG. “Before I even finish sitting in the chair,” says Brower, who is global climate action & sustainability leader at Gensler, the client is saying, “Tell me how to make an ESG-compliant building.” He adds, “It doesn’t work that way.”

“Measurable Impacts”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. It just means, as discussed above, that there’s no standardized ESG framework dictating how to design, build, or operate a building. For any client with an ESG program, buildings are absolutely relevant and should align with that program’s targets.

To serve this need, Brower and colleagues at Gensler have developed “Measurable Impacts,” a way of connecting ESG goals with building performance. “It’s data-driven design,” Brower told BuildingGreen. In addition to using data to inform design, it can also provide data that can be used in ESG reporting.

Brower uses the example of a real estate investment trust Gensler has worked with that owns factories and has ESG goals.

“Industrial properties are often the properties that create fenceline communities,” Brower notes. These communities “have less access to tree canopy,” which results in lower environmental performance, higher climate risk, and major health problems in neighborhoods that are usually already economically disadvantaged (see Fighting for Environmental Justice with ‘Smart’ Surfaces). By investing in tree cover in fenceline communities, the developer can raise its own property values while also creating “an environmental benefit that starts crossing into social impact,” Brower argues. Gensler works with clients to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) for their buildings and portfolios that align with any existing ESG goals. In this way, a “backward-looking” tool, ESG reporting, can become a design guide.

Other KPIs could include anything from thermal comfort data to a neighborhood’s access to a food and other necessities, as Brower has explained in a blog post co-written with colleagues Stacey Olson and Audrey Handelman.

More alignments to consider

Other experts we spoke with also had ideas for how to align building design, construction, and operation with ESG programs.

One increasingly common ESG goal for companies is a net-zero-carbon commitment, and this has clear implications for buildings and portfolios, as mentioned above.

And it’s not just operating emissions. “We can’t just rip down and rebuild” every time programming needs change, points out JLL’s Curtis. “The planet doesn’t have sufficient raw materials to enable us to do that.” Even if it did, “in order for us to collectively stay under the 1.5-degree temperature rise, we need to accelerate rapidly our retrofits, and deep retrofits in some circumstances,” she added. Curtis also thinks we should be designing circularity into any new construction projects that go forward “so that what’s being designed today can at a future point in time be repurposed or remodeled for another purpose.”

Like JLL, Lendlease has found that a huge percentage of its emissions are scope 3, which includes embodied carbon. “Something like 92% of our buildings’ carbon emissions are in the materials,” according to Neff. “Most of my time is spent on construction materials—lower-carbon steel, lower-carbon concrete.” Lendlease has also been working with mass timber on some projects. “Our targets define your activities,” she said.

Another big area of impact is on neighborhoods, as Brower mentioned in discussing tree canopies. So part of ESG, argues Curtis, is “thinking about the building not as a standalone asset or structure but as part of a community.” This goes both ways: building-scale decisions affect the neighborhood, but there are also neighborhood features that can improve a building. “It’s dynamic; they feed off of each other,” Curtis said. “How do you improve upon that structure relative to the surroundings? How do you leverage the surroundings to create a better space?”

SROI: Social Return on Investment

Social metrics are harder for most clients—and building professionals—to grasp and report on than environmental ones are. “The E components” like energy efficiency and carbon emissions “are the easy ones,” admits Gensler’s Anthony Brower. For other impacts, “It’s a wild, wild west out there. There’s no one measurement source that everyone’s going to. Clients have trouble navigating that.”

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