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Sonal Jain, Head Of Sustainability Workspace Group – “We must recognise the impact of buildings on people and planet and ensure they are cordial to our environment and our health and wellbeing”

Sonal Jain is a senior sustainability professional and an industry expert on net zero carbon transition. She has a strong track record of helping Fortune 500 businesses manage key sustainability risks and opportunities, including creation of sustainability/ESG strategies and leading the business transformation through effective implementation. She is now the Head of Sustainability at Workspace Group and a Board Member at Better Buildings Partnership.

Main takeaways from the interview:

  • If landlords want to bring people back to offices, they have to offer them a very high-quality space, one that supports their wellbeing and productivity
  • Real estate still lacks transparency when it comes to buildings performance and waste management; real estate players should be more demanding about this data
  • Technology could be a saviour when it comes to diagnosing problems, whilst also optimising performance
  • At project level, it’s best to ensure the design brief is forward looking in terms of sustainability since the beginning

Sonal’s career in ESG began when she started her professional education. She graduated from architecture in India, learning about design principles – something she really wanted to specialise in.

After graduation, she moved to the US for a technical course in environmental energy engineering, which gave her a better understanding of building physics and how energy flows worked. Back then, this was synonymous with sustainability – how to efficiently use energy. At the London School of Economics, Sonal expanded her knowledge on the matter through an environmental economics degree.

And then here I am. I’ve always been in the built environment / real estate right from the beginning through my degree in architecture. But I think the roles evolved from being very technical, project specific, engineering solutions driven to now where I am, which is a bit more strategic, focussing on long term organisational strategy, stakeholder management and business transformation.

Even at sectoral level, we have seen this shift. Whereby ESG has moved from being a technical requirement at projects to an increasingly important business driver. The market, regulations, customer expectations and the looming risk of physical damage from climate change has transformed what sustainability means for the sector in a critical way. There is no room for being environmentally conscious on a voluntary basis – new laws and the genuine market pressure for more responsibility puts a lot of pressure on developers.

There is an expectation for prime assets in prime locations to meet certain standards, whether it’s through planning requirements or just market expectations. In London, you won’t build a new building unless it’s BREEAM excellent or outstanding. There’s no way you’ll get a chance of securing the lettings.

But at the same time, the lack of transparency in the sector poses a challenge. Just to give us a comparison, Sonal says:

When you buy a fridge, you clearly know its energy efficiency rating. You buy a car, you know it’s efficiency. It’s all very transparent. I think this level of transparency in the buildings doesn’t exist.

We need to know in much greater detail what our buildings are made of, how it performs, how efficient or inefficient it is, because all of these affect the impact the building has on people’s health and on the environment. 

We as humans spend 90% of our awake time in buildings, whether it’s at home or in our offices or shopping malls. So the environment we are in has to absolutely be cordial to our health and wellbeing – whether it’s the air quality, the amount of light we are getting and or the kind of finishes we have.

These critical facts for our health should be more transparent, but we should also be more knowledgeable about how these impact our health. There’s a need for mass education on sustainability, because if you don’t work in the field, you might take many things for granted – like a headache that we don’t know to associate with poor air quality.

Some might argue that more sustainable choices also mean more expensive choices. Sonal challenges us to a change of perspective and think about both budget and quality, and ultimately about long-term impact on our health and environment. Especially in this post-pandemic era.

If you want to bring people back to offices, you have to offer them a very high quality space. Otherwise they are comfortable working from home. In real estate at the moment we are seeing a flight to quality.

And it’s not just that. People want safer, more efficient offices, but also workplaces that allow them to connect.

You don’t want a concrete jungle where there are just offices. You need life around buildings that users can appreciate. And this has knock-on effects on added community cohesion, security, reduction in crime – all because there’s more footfall in the area. This in turn also results in higher economic benefit for local.

So how do we achieve this sustainable transition? One of the important tool the sector has is proven technologies. Through tech solutions, everything can be done more efficiently – during Covid, for example, we saw buildings equipped to run with no manual intervention. A building is a very complex structure and technology could be a “saviour when it comes to diagnosing problems” Sonal adds.

Some of the technologies Sonal thinks that have impressive potential are the ones related to energy management.

No one is coming five days to the office. So you have this building which has half empty throughout the working week. And yet often the plant and systems are running business as usual, serving the entire building. And so there is a role of technology, to optimise the usage of building systems to the changing occupier patterns.”

The other benefit technology can bring is related to performance transparency. Having a smart building energy management system to provide real data on how a building is performing will be critical, Sonal thinks. The challenge here is that we have many buildings without this system implemented. It’s much easier to embed from the start and for older spaces, the implementation is often too time consuming.

This idea takes us to a recommendation for real estate developers to think about sustainability since design stage:

What I’ve learned from real estate is it’s always easier to do things in the beginning. It’s best to ensure your design brief is forward looking in terms of sustainability because this is your only opportunity. You’re not going to touch the building for the next 20 years, 

So having a very forward looking design brief in real estate really is what is needed to ensure you’re building for the long term.

My second advice would be real estate businesses should be a more demanding about performance of their buildings. Like I said, whether you’re a tenant or a landlord, when you buy a fridge, you know what you’re getting. When you buy a car, you know what you’re getting. When an investor buys a building, they should be more demanding of what you’re getting in terms of sustainability performance. That’s going to drive the need for the sector to be more transparent and measure and report performance more consistently.

Finally, Sonal concludes with a recommendation for tenants as well:

From a tenant perspective, I think it is important to realise how my built environment impacts me in my business. Become more aware that you are influenced by the space you work and live in and make sure this is factored into your decision making.