Green building proves a real money spinner

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From his office building in Rotterdam, Dutch property developer Coen van Oostrom (41) looks out over the River Maas. Along the banks there are several buildings which are entirely climate neutral. All of them were developed by him. He hopes to distribute these green offices all over the world.

Last month Coen van Oostrom was applauded by Bill Clinton. At the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, the former US president called him a catalyst for sustainable property development.

This recognition didn’t come out of the blue. In 2007, Van Oostrom’s company, OVG, committed itself to investing one billion US dollars in the development of sustainable properties – properties that use up to 60 percent less energy. The company reached this goal within three years.

Not a tree hugger
This achievement gave Van Oostrom the reputation of being a green property developer. This might sound straightforward, but it isn’t. Coen explains:

“It wasn’t something I was into. Although I did believe that, as an entrepreneur, you should take your surroundings, the social footprint you leave behind into account. But back then I thought the conservation movement was a very left-wing and negative bunch. And in those days I certainly wasn’t a tree hugger.”

[media:image]A lecture by Al Gore, which he attended five years ago, opened his eyes. The message put across by the Nobel Prize winner and environmental activist was clear: there is no denying that global warming exists and organisations like Greenpeace and governments won’t be the ones to come up with a solution. Industry need to take the first step by making their production greener.

Sustainable building

The transition to green building turned out to be easier than imagined. OVG sent its staff across the globe to gather knowledge about sustainable technologies. The company discovered that the development of sustainable innovations was much further advanced than they thought. Sustainable building is therefore much more economical than it used to be, though that is still something of a well-kept secret.

These discoveries make it possible to convince potential customers who might otherwise have second thoughts. Van Oostrom presents them with calculations which show that the additional building costs involved in making a building sustainable can be easily and rapidly recouped thanks to a drop in energy consumption of around 70 percent. At the end of the day, he is a businessman through and through.

“As we see it, they are two sides of the same coin: it’s good for society and it’s good for business. It enables us to invest and to develop new innovations. It’s a win-win situation with terrific appeal. Sustainability can only be sustainable if it turns a profit in the long term. Otherwise you simply won’t survive. Competition is fierce.”

Clinton initiative

He is keen to bring this message to local governments, companies and property developers in the rest of the world. That’s why, at the request of former US President Bill Clinton, he is setting up an international knowledge network and a fund worth one billion dollars. The aim is to ensure that cities which are part of Clinton’s C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group become more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Coen van Oostrom believes that the platform’s value lies in enabling cities to discuss and share local problems with each other. It will incorporate specific examples of sustainable projects, along with strategies for persuading companies and governments to jump on board.

He wants to use the one-billion dollar fund to set up major sustainability projects in Europe and projects on a smaller scale in regions such as South America, Africa and Asia.

Green icons
These projects will serve as “green icons”, intended to get people thinking.

“In a major city, you’ll have a building which everyone knows is energy neutral. That will open a lot of people’s eyes. When they come home in the evening, they might well think ‘why don’t I take a look at my own home and see if I can make it more sustainable’. I genuinely believe in spreading the word like that, which is why it’s important to set this kind of example in capital cities around the world.”

He hopes that many companies will adopt a pioneering role in making green products to give the entire process a push in the right direction. Not simply motivated by altruism, but because there are real profits to be made. And that’s something Coen van Oostrom knows from experience.