Houston’s real estate deserves climate change scrutiny: report


Houston’s vast fossil fuel sector gets most of the focus when it comes to conversations on combating climate change, but another sector probably deserves more scrutiny – real estate.

Decades of urban sprawl and lack of zoning invited Houstonians to spread out and build new. Billboards advertise neighborhoods with mini-mansions and room to run. Homebuilders race to build new houses to meet soaring demand for a slice of the American Dream. Commercial tenants flock to newly-built spaces — pushing developers to continue the carbon-intensive work of new construction.

But newer isn’t always better. And even though everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas — bigger isn’t always better either.

While real estate is making strides in sustainability, it’s not time for the industry to pat itself on the back. At least that’s my impression after perusing a landmark report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizing research from hundreds of scientists about the how the world can curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The report, released this month, has three major takeaways for real estate:

People need to consume less space. The planet cannot provide an infinite supply of McMansions;

New building construction is extremely carbon intensive and should be avoided when possible by re-purposing existing buildings; and

Stricter building codes can force developers to make more energy efficient choices during new construction.

Buildings account for 31 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally, so there is a big opportunity for the real estate industry to help. A lot can be done without adding significant costs to construction, argues Jesse Keenan, an editor of the U.N. report and real estate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“We have the tools that we need,” Keenan said. “We don’t need massive advances in technology to decarbonize the built environment.”

The report advocates for re-configuring unused commercial buildings for residential use to accommodate growing housing needs. For new construction, small details from how a window is sealed to the color of the roofing material can augment larger investments such as efficient air conditioning systems and appliances, the report suggests.

But possibly the most effective tool is to take up less space. Not only do larger spaces require more energy for heating and cooling, but they use more construction materials, which generate their own emissions. North Americans consume just under 700 square feet per person in residential space, about double what’s consumed in Europe, according to the report.

Energy efficiency gains from design changes and technological advances are essentially offset by buildings taking up more space.

“That means we have to change our consumer preferences,” Keenan said. “You could have a super energy efficient mega mansion in Houston or the suburbs, but it’s still a mansion. You’re still over-consuming space.”

Globally, between 1990 to 2019, carbon emissions from buildings jumped 50 percent, according to the report, despite advances in energy efficiency. More than half of the increased emissions from residential buildings can be blamed on people consuming more space, the report suggests.

Keenen said stricter building codes would force the real estate industry to change faster — but building codes are a notoriously politicized topic, particularly for a city famous for its light touch regulation.

Building codes are getting more stringent, but Houston lags behind cities such as Austin, which often trails behind California, said Maria Perez, sustainable design director for the architecture firm Gensler and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Texas chapter.

When Perez started in sustainable design in Texas 20 years ago, she would often try to convince developers to consider greenhouse gas emissions for new construction. They wouldn’t always buy it.

Now, that’s no longer the case. More developers are considering emissions in response to demand from tenants and investors, she said. Green building certifications for new construction have become the norm rather than the exception, Perez said.

In Houston, developers such as Hines, Trammell Crow and Skanska are leading the push to build more sustainability, while projects such as Lovett Commercial’s POST HTX highlight the benefits of adaptive reuse, said Rives Taylor, global design resilience director at Gensler.

While not every building can be efficiently repurposed — a lot depends on the age of the buildings and its existing bones — Taylor said there are plenty of opportunities to breath new life into older buildings here.

“We need to be repositioning everywhere and if we build new, let’s build it to be durable,” Taylor said.



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