An Ounce of Prevention: Helping Property Owners Navigate California’s Historic Drought


Water conservation has become an unavoidable issue in the drought-stricken state of California. The dry period has been so bad, historically so, that Gov. Jerry Brown has imposed a strict mandate to scale back water use throughout the state by 25 percent, compared to 2013 levels.

Everyone, from commercial landlords to private homeowners, must heed the new guidelines. This of course includes those who own and manage the 730 million square feet of office space in California’s 10 largest office markets. Office buildings consume a relatively modest portion of the state’s water supply—an estimated 10 percent, roughly the same share used by the state’s almond farms. But building owners, managers and tenants in the world’s seventh largest economy are still facing the challenge of curbing water use.

This may be easier said than done, says David Pogue, LEED AP, global director of corporate responsibility at CBRE. Office buildings each use an average of 14,695 gallons of water a day—but individual tenants’ usage is tougher to pin down. The only real contact people have with water in the workplace is when they use a restroom, wash dishes in the communal kitchen sink, make coffee or drink from the fountain.


“We need to find a way to make everybody feel like they’re part of the process and part of the solution,” Pogue says.

New in-office technology allows tenants to see how their daily activities impact the building as a whole—for example, how much electricity was wasted by leaving a computer screen on overnight—but tracking water use is trickier.

Pogue says there are considerations to keep in mind for tenants and real estate professionals as they adapt to California’s ongoing drought — and it all starts with collaboration among the building owner, manager and tenants.

Engage your tenants

“[The office building] is an environment where no individual has control of the spigot, if you will, and nobody feels the pain of the payment of the water use because it’s in a shared meter,” Pogue says.

We need to find a way to make everybody feel like they’re part of the process and part of the solution.

What that means is tenants are almost always unaware how their water consumption affects day-to-day resource use at an office building. Unlike in a home, where the resident pays a water bill for his or her property each month, the individual office employee or business owner never sees the full cost of the company’s water usage in a given month.

“One of the concerns we have in matters like this is, how do you make everyone understand that they are in fact part of the process and have something to do with this, when they don’t share in the economic outcome?” Pogue says.

The responsibility, he says, falls on real estate brokers, building managers and owners.

This means encouraging good behavior, spreading awareness of the issue and persuading people to be part of the solution by offering ways to participate.

The benefit of friendly competition

In 2008, Pogue and his team first developed 101 Tips Toward A Greener Tomorrow, a comprehensive list that offered, among other things, advice on energy and water efficiency programs, how to implement a successful recycling program, and how to encourage and engage tenants to participate in a building’s “green” initiatives.

“We took the components of LEED EB certification and reverse-engineered them,” Pogue says. “The checklist set off a friendly competition among some of our buildings to see who could accomplish more of the 101 Tips.”

The program was developed specifically for building operations. But its success encouraged Pogue and his team to draft a complete “101 Tips” series—including one for building tenants, another for the home and a final one for travel. “Our hope was we would start at the building level, then go to the tenant level and then finally to the individual level,” Pogue says. “Our belief was that an employee’s newfound ‘green’ habits would carry over to his or her household and influence better sustainable actions across the board. Good habits and behavior anywhere can lead to good habits and behavior everywhere.”

Water is dear, but it is still too cheap.

Property owners are taking similar measures to ensure their energy footprints are kept in check. Hines, a prominent developer and investment platform, launched its own Green Office Tenant certification program in 2009. The company’s tenants (they include Coca-Cola and Deloitte) would earn certification after scoring at least 70 “leaf credits” for following and implementing Hines’ suggested green policies.

However, there is a fine line in how building managers and owners can handle such a competition.

“Bear in mind that the office building industry, our owners and clients, are in the business of keeping happy, satisfied tenants,” Pogue says. “They’re not in the business to name and shame their tenants who are paying them good money.”

Employ new (and existing) technology

The advancement of smart technology has helped landlords and tenants alike better gauge their daily energy use, Pogue says.

Honeywell and the U.S. Green Building Council recently announced their development of the LEED Dynamic Plaque, a “near-real-time” monitoring system that measures a building’s performance in waste output, energy use and water consumption, among other factors.

Practical measures like installing aerators in all existing sinks in a building and replacing toilets with low-flush models can reduce water use. Turning off decorative water features (like fountains) and reducing the amount used to irrigate a property’s landscaping to keep it green (“brown is the new green,” Pogue jokes) are other measures.

The overarching problem with any of these changes is the low cost of water in the state of California, Pogue says.

“Water is dear, but it is still too cheap,” he says.

That may change. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—which serves parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties—approved a plan to cut regional water deliveries by 15 percent. Cities that need additional water may pay a penalty of up to four times the normal price (upwards of $2,960 per acre foot of water).

Those current fees, and the potential for more severe measures in the future, make one thing crystal clear: Serious changes in the way water is used and distributed in an office building may not pay off in the short term, but they likely will in years to come. As the drought continues with no end in sight, Pogue says any steps taken now will yield benefits down the road.


Sign up to receive our Weekly Newsletter