Sustainable buildings: right on track

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Train driving at full speed

Climate change and the circular economy are hot topics and getting hotter by the minute, as treating our environment better becomes more urgent. Sitting in the train the other day, I thought of the Paris climate summit at which the world’s leaders will debate a new treaty. Seeing office after office building speed by, I wondered how the Netherlands is doing on sustainability – something like me on my train, I suspect. We’ve left the station and know where we’re heading, but our final destination is still a long way off.

Sustainable buildings are the future, bringing attractive rewards to companies and environment alike. Richard Kooloos Richard Kooloos Head of Sustainable Banking

ABN AMRO: a shining example

Sustainability is making tracks and we’re seeing many green initiatives popping up all over the country. Massive wind farms, more solar energy, and energy-generating office buildings are just a few examples of the way we see the Netherlands moving towards climate neutrality. Are we heading in the right direction? We are – and so is commercial property. A case in point: ABN AMRO’s head office in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district. Over the past few years, we’ve pulled out all the stops to ensure that it has a negligible or no impact on the environment. In September our efforts were recognised: we achieved the Excellent BREEAM rating, a unique feat for offices built last century. And our Zuidas head office wasn’t the only ABN AMRO building to win this certification: 18 others also made the sustainability grade, and we’re the proud owners of thousands of the country’s greenest places to work.

On the right green track

How did we do it? By switching to 100 per cent wind and biogas, by cutting power usage, by fitting smart meters in our buildings and by improving lift controls. And we also tightened up greening policies, reduced waste and saved more water. By making our buildings more sustainable we help reduce total carbon emissions in the Netherlands – an urgent requirement, underlined by the ambitious goal set by the Social Economic Council’s Energy Agreement. Currently, just six per cent of energy nationwide is generated from renewables; this should rise to 14 per cent by 2020, and preferably more. ABN AMRO is well on its way.

Investing in a more sustainable country

But we can do more. BREEAM certification is great, of course, and something to be proud of, but little more than ‘a basic certificate of health’ in the grand scheme of things. What we can do with the knowledge we’ve acquired on our BREEAM journey is much more interesting – how we can help take the broader property sector to the next station on the journey – and with it prosperity in the Netherlands. After all, making buildings more sustainable isn’t just good for the environment, it brings big economic benefits. Energy-saving office buildings and residential properties drawing on their own green energy supplies – it’s an investment today, but should pay off relatively quickly. Besides, sustainable buildings typically provide a much more pleasant climate to work and live in than traditional buildings – good for their owners, their tenants and their users.

ABN AMRO points the way

Sustainable buildings are a much better long-term bet: they make us less dependent on gas and coal imports, save our Groningen gas resources, and create work, as so much still needs to be built. Making Dutch homes and offices sustainable should give a big boost to the Dutch construction industry – yet another reason for our private and business clients to get cracking. Our head office buildings serve as an example, proof that it is possible for offices to be sustainable. We’re making our own BREEAM experiences widely available to all our clients, and these should give useful pointers for every step towards sustainability.

Clear-cut timetables

As things stand, we see the most exciting opportunities in the commercial market – a key industry for ABN AMRO, as we have over 15 billion euros in outstanding commercial property loans. Going forward, we will be getting at least 300,000 square metres of empty properties ready for new uses. What’s more, a minimum of 30 per cent of ABN AMRO-financed buildings should boast energy-efficiency A labels by 2017, while we’re also aiming for no less than 30 green landmarks: buildings that set a sustainability example, such as the Edge in Amsterdam. It’s a challenging task we’ve set ourselves and one we can only pull off by teaming up with our clients and suppliers in the construction industry. Luckily, we’ve got to know a number of leading names from our own sustainability process.

Paris not the end of the line

Clear social trends are now emerging that might speed up the greening of our buildings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, we’ll be taxed more steeply on non-sustainable properties. Such buildings will become harder to finance, as banks take a dimmer view of the risks. Companies will no longer want to rent F-labelled office space because of their higher costs and poorer indoor climate. And investors such as PGGM and ABP will probably put their money where their mouths are: at the end of the day, sustainable investments should generate better returns. Sustainable buildings are the future, as they bring attractive rewards to both companies and the environment. So hop on that train and roll along to the next stop in the sustainability journey: the Paris climate summit. I, for one, can’t wait to see the view.

PS: On 9 November I’ll be joining Marjan Minnesma on one day’s walk of The Climate Miles – not all the way to Paris, but 30 kilometres in Belgium to help support this worthy initiative. By walking to Paris from Utrecht with as many people as possible, Urgenda are calling attention to the urgency of climate action. Want to join? It’s not too late to sign up. Who knows, we might get to meet along the way!

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