When in drought: the case for saving water in the property business

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It’s easy to forget we’re in the midst of a global water crisis when you turn on the tap and plentiful water pours forth. But thanks to climate change and over consumption, many regions of the world are now experiencing extreme droughts like never before. And what used to be a phenomenon limited to dry and hotter climates are now affecting places much closer to home.


For example some of the largest rivers in Italy and Spain are now literally drying up and even in ‘wet’ England, hundreds of rivers have been drained below sustainable levels.  And if the scientists are right things are set to get a lot worse: the Earth’s still heating up and the decade 2010-2020 is on track to be the hottest on record.

The property sector is already feeling the impact: In Cape Town some construction projects have literally ground to a halt because water has run dry.  Meanwhile in parts of Californian severe drought conditions have caused some towns, industries, and property values to dwindle. With so much at stake what should building developers and managers do to protect their interests?

Thirsty work

The truth of the matter is property is a thirsty business. Water is a vital ingredient in almost every stage of the construction and development process whether it’s for extracting and manufacturing essential materials like aluminium ore, or dampening down ghastly construction dust.

But real estates’ water footprint stretches well beyond the development phase, it’s also a big factor in a building’s operations. It’s key to basic services like toilets, taps and cleaning. It’s used in many heating and cooling systems and it’s what keeps gardens looking lush and lively. Indeed some sources estimate that buildings will use 12% of all global freshwater resources by 2030. And as pressure on global water supplies intensifies, the real estate sector will be scrutinised if it does not have a defensible strategy in place.

Water conscious design

There are plenty of ways to bring down the amount of water we use in our buildings. It starts right from the design stage by for example ensuring the building’s infrastructure and equipment is optimised to save water.  Often the most impactful water-saving features cannot be bolted on later and must be incorporated in the design in order to work properly.

Grey water recycling systems and rainwater harvesting tanks are just a couple of solutions that should be considered upfront. Water collected from taps or rain has a whole host of non-potable water uses including irrigating plants or flushing lavatories. More and more developers are taking note: for example in Westfield Stratford City – Europe’s largest urban shopping centre – rainwater is harvested in tanks on the roof. Meanwhile Bloomberg’s newly completed European Headquarters – designed by Foster + Partners – is projected to deliver a 73% saving in water consumption. But probably one of the most compelling examples is the Crystal in London. Operated and built by Siemens, 90% of the Crystal’s water needs are met by rainwater harvesting and blackwater treatment systems.

Rethinking water use

But with most buildings already standing and often built years ago, the big opportunities lie in retro-fitting the existing stock. Even here, installing water-saving fixtures and fittings and targeting really water intensive processes can make a considerable difference. Strategies that can make a difference include choosing concrete made with less water, hiring water-conscious cleaning companies, planting less thirsty foliage, or installing low-flow taps and toilets – all these things can cut water use in half, proving that small measures really can add up.

A sea of opportunity?

While droughts and water shortages are of course a highly localised problem, they are increasingly becoming a global talking point particularly as the problem intensifies and spreads to new areas as a result of a rapidly changing climate and continued over use.  And as more places stretching from California to Cairo are impacted, the human and financial costs of water shortages will become clear, and building standards everywhere will eventually catch up with reality. Those that embrace new technologies and solutions sooner rather than later, are sure to see benefits flow down to their bottom line.

Article written by Pauline Martin and Laura Jockers in JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services team.

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