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4 Ways the Commercial Real Estate Industry Can Help Address Water Scarcity

Commercial real estate is the second-largest consumer of publicly supplied water in the US. Imagine if we came together to tackle this problem head on! Here are four recommendations for how property managers and building owners can lead the way.

Record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought conditions are impacting communities all over the world. We see examples of this in the US Southwest, where the Colorado River — a critical water source for Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California — is reaching a crisis tipping point with frighteningly low water levels. In fact, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, the US southwest’s “megadrought” is the worst it’s been in 1,200 years. That staggering fact puts into perspective how urgently we need to address water scarcity.

While we’re seeing pockets of progress in the private and public sectors, we do not have a solution. Any governmental policy takes years to enact; we need coordinated action at the local, state and national levels now.

We can begin to take action in the commercial real estate sector. Incorporating water conservation and efficiency in places such as office buildings, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools would have a significant impact. According to the EPA, “the commercial and institutional sector is the second largest consumer of publicly supplied water in the US, accounting for 17 percent of the withdrawals from public water supplies.” Imagine if we came together to tackle this problem head on.

What can the commercial real estate industry do to propel water efficiency and conservation? Here are four recommendations for how property managers and building owners can lead the way.

1. Work with local, state and federal regulators to update old plumbing codes.

Base-level building and plumbing codes often reflect how buildings were designed decades ago, when there were no requirements for water-efficient fixtures. The introduction and expansion of “green” construction codes has helped prompt more sustainable practices, including plumbing codes aimed at increasing water conservation and efficiency.

States and local governments have the ability to modify existing codes. Building owners and property managers should continue to collaborate closely with government officials to build off the foundation established by these more sustainable construction codes.

2. Audit existing plumbing systems and upgrade to water-efficient fixtures.

Building owners can pinpoint high water use or water loss by auditing existing plumbing systems. A good way to get started is through the use of the EPA’s Water Simple Water Assessment Checklist for Commercial and Institutional Facilities, which calculates potential water usage and savings, as well as steps for reducing water use.

Properly upgrading to more efficient products in kitchen and bath areas can reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent. Additionally, the use of smart water shutoffs or IoT flushing-management systems — leveraging sensors and internet-connected devices — are also effective ways to cut water consumption in buildings. These newer, water-efficient products do not compromise performance; instead, they use water more effectively.

3. Install water-monitoring systems and use data to optimize water-conservation efforts.

The same water-monitoring technology found in smart homes can be applied to office buildings, where employees routinely use kitchen faucets, dishwashers and bathrooms. Installing smart systems in commercial buildings can have a profound impact on water efficiency by sharing daily insights on where businesses and property managers can cut down on usage.

By generating more awareness of real-time water usage at the office, people will become more mindful of their water consumption. And at scale, this can have a substantial impact on more responsible water use.

4. For new construction, use ‘green’ plumbing and building codes as your guide.

Building owners and property developers have a great opportunity to use the latest plumbing and building codes to construct structures with sustainable designs and advanced, water-efficient fixtures and fittings.

As water-scarcity issues persist, it is likely that governments will take action to enforce more rigorous building and water-efficient systems. Building owners must go beyond basic compliance requirements governed by existing plumbing codes and demand more robust water-efficiency standards. By being pro-active, builders won’t have to go back to the drawing board after they finish construction.

It’s not too late, if we start now

News headlines around water scarcity can be unnerving; however, there is reason for optimism. We need to see more of the great work that is taking place behind the scenes, particularly in commercial real estate. The use of smart technology, water sensors and monitoring systems show extraordinary promise and will continue to optimize water usage. Replacing and upgrading plumbing fixtures will yield immediate water-efficiency benefits; and new construction projects, increasingly governed by more rigorous building and plumbing codes, will lead the industry toward more responsible and sustainable building practices.

We all have a role to play. I am confident that the progress we continue to see in the commercial real estate sector will have a genuine impact on our journey to conserve our most precious resource.