The Sustainability Edge in Real Estate Investing - The Private Bank - Wells Fargo

Commercial real estate can have a significant impact on the environment and an increasing number of real estate industry professionals are incorporating sustainability practices into corporate strategy and building management. Kimberly Ryan, Portfolio Manager for the Wells Fargo Social Impact Investing (SII) REIT strategies and Kim Buncle, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Analyst for the SII team with Wells Fargo Wealth Management offer their thoughts on the benefits of integrating sustainability and ESG analysis into the REIT investment process.

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Why is sustainability important for real estate management teams to address?

According to the Department of Energy’s Buildings Energy Data Book, U.S. buildings account for 41 percent of primary energy consumption and 74 percent of all electricity consumed domestically.1 U.S. buildings also account for more annual energy use than the U.S. transportation sector and produce more greenhouse gases than any other country in the world except China. Greenhouse gas emissions from US buildings are expected to grow faster than any other sector through 2030.2

Greenhouse gas emissions from US buildings are expected to grow faster than any other sector through 2030.

Source: Buildings Energy Data Book. March 2012. Creative Commons 1.0  Most recent information available.

Further, regulation has arrived in multiple jurisdictions that require more proactive management of the environmental challenges posed by buildings. In California, regulators have set goals that all new commercial buildings will be zero net energy by 2030. A zero net energy building consumes only as much energy as can be generated on-site by renewable sources.3

We believe this presents a huge opportunity for real estate management teams to pursue retrofitting, upgrades and sustainability design to better position their assets for a lower-carbon economy.

Are there tangible financial benefits that accrue to companies and management teams that prioritize sustainability as a matter of regular business practice?

We believe adopting sustainability practices can positively impact property performance and valuation. The most often cited practice is a focus on building efficiency which provides real cost savings to landlords and tenants. Some of the more impactful initiatives include the installation of more efficient LED lighting; upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); smart metering; reductions in water consumption; and waste management.

Above and beyond any cost savings, however, sustainability is also associated with higher rents, lower vacancy and increased tenant satisfaction.4 This directly impacts property valuations and may also play a role in portfolio strategy as management teams evaluate whether to dispose, renovate or acquire properties as a way to generate higher returns on investment.

Further to the point on tenant satisfaction and valuation, tenants are increasingly attracted to properties that have lower environmental impacts and those which address the health and wellness of occupants.5

As an investor, how do you evaluate the sustainability performance of a real estate operating company?

‘Sustainability’ is commonly understood to mean environmental sustainability. Our team takes a broader approach to sustainability and analyzes social and governance performance alongside environmental performance, as we believe these factors also present material risks and opportunities to real estate companies. Some examples include:

  • Energy management
  • Water management
  • Waste management
  • Climate change adaption
  • Tenant satisfaction
  • Tenant health and well-being
  • Human capital management
  • Community relations
  • Director independence
  • Executive pay for performance
  • Diversity
  • Shareholder rights

Leading real estate management teams are working to address environmental issues such as energy, water and waste management through the achievement of building certifications such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star certification. These certifications, varying slightly in scope, ensure that the design and operations of a building are managed to maximize natural resource efficiency. In addition to building certifications, management teams can improve environmental performance through the implementation of ‘green leases,’ which allow tenants and landlords to create mutually beneficial sustainability goals and share building efficiency data.

One example of a social issue that we consider is tenant health and well-being. This is an emerging area of interest in the real estate sector and leaders are innovating to create healthier environments for tenants and achieving new certifications for their efforts. Initiatives may include improved air quality, green cleaning, exposure to natural light and access to healthy food, to name a few. Our governance assessment of REITs is conducted in the same way we assess governance performance of all sectors. We consider the quality of the directors and look for strong track records in the industry as well as a good mix of relevant skills and tenures. We also look for boards with high levels of independence to help ensure effective oversight of management as well as high levels of diversity of experience, race, and gender to help ensure diversity of thought and effective decision-making. We also examine executive pay practices to confirm pay is aligned with performance.

How might these factors differ when analyzing different types of real estate (e.g. data center real estate vs single family home real estate)?

Depending on the specific REIT industry, we may dedicate our focus to different material ESG issues. For example, when assessing a data center REIT, one of the main environmental issues we will consider is the company’s management of water and electricity use, as data centers require significant amounts of water and electricity to operate. We will assess how exposed the company is to areas of high water stress, programs to reduce dependence on municipal sources of water and efforts to improve energy efficiency.  In contrast, when analyzing the ESG performance of a single family home rental REIT, we will focus on customer satisfaction and service as a key social factor. We will investigate how well a company is serving its customers, maintaining the quality of the rental property and ensuring terms and conditions are clearly communicated. These examples help illustrate the industry specific nature of material ESG analysis.

How would you describe the SII team’s philosophy when it comes to real estate investing?

In general, we are looking for underpriced assets with good growth prospects, sustainable cash flows, disciplined capital deployment and a quality management team.  All of the SII team’s strategies (equity, fixed income, REIT) use a combination of fundamental, quantitative and ESG analysis when making investment decisions. We manage well-diversified portfolios with low turnover and we try to avoid controversy. We look at financial metrics that are specific to real estate as well as more common measures as shown below.

  • Relative/Absolute Valuation
    Pricing Funds from Operations (FFO), Adjusted FFO (AFFO), or Net Asset Value (NAV)
  • Operating
    Occupancy, Financial leverage, Cap rates, dividend growth
  • Controversy
    Estimate dispersion, Estimate revisions, Short interest
We supplement our proprietary work with research from industry leading, third party real estate firms. Our long-term investment approach aligns well with a focus on sustainability, as the benefits of these initiatives take time to manifest. Just as a homeowner may decide to replace windows with double pane glass or add solar panels to the roof to reduce utility costs, real estate managers also expect to reap the benefits of building efficiency upgrades and tenant amenities over the long term. As investors, we understand it takes time for companies to see their efforts generate and return value to shareholders.

The SII Team launched two REIT strategies in September, 2017. What do you see as differentiating these SII strategies from traditional REIT strategies?6

The two strategies are similar to other REIT strategies in that they are composed of publicly traded US equity REITS diversified across property type and geography. Where we feel that we differ is in our investment process in that we integrate ESG analysis alongside quantitative and fundamental analysis which helps us identify risks and opportunities that other managers may miss.

What this means, practically speaking, is that a company with a management team that delivers strong financial results yet fails to invest in projects or initiatives to mitigate long-term challenges like the environmental impact of its properties may not qualify for inclusion in our SII strategies. Conversely, those that proactively address environmental impacts could make for better candidates and may warrant higher weights in our strategies.

Closing thoughts

We believe by evaluating a company’s intention and analyzing its performance around sustainability, we gain critical insight about its future risks and opportunities. There is evidence to suggest that real estate companies realize tangible financial benefits whether in the form of lower costs, improved cash flows or higher property valuations.

Managers of residential and commercial real estate have a financial incentive to care about sustainability. Real estate is energy, water and waste intensive and practices that promote better management of these challenges should be mutually beneficial to companies and investors while spilling over into society in a positive way.

1 Buildings Energy Data Book. March 2012. Chapter 1 and Table 1.1 Buildings Sector Energy Consumption.
2 Buildings and Climate Change, US Green Building Council.,
3 California Energy Commission, Background on the 2016 Building Energy Efficiency Standards.
4 Avis Devine and Nils Kok, “Green Certification and Building Performance: Implications for Tangibles and Intangibles”, Journal of Portfolio Management (2015).
5 World Green Building Council, “Doing Right by Planet and People - The Business Case for Health and Wellbeing in Green Building”, April 2018.
6 The SII team offers a Sustainable REIT strategy and a Faith Based REIT strategy. The key difference between the two is alignment. Both strategies exclude REITs with exposure to private prisons or casinos. The Faith Based strategy also excludes REITs that serve the healthcare industry since there may be unwanted activities in those facilities.