When we talk about office flight-to-quality, where occupiers are increasingly focused on leasing office space in high-quality, modern buildings to better lure employees back to in-person work, the conversation usually pivots around a laundry list of amenities. It’s easy to forget that the flight-to-quality is primarily driven by the growing emphasis on sustainability in the workplace, and current market fundamentals are pushing energy-efficient systems even higher on the list of flight-to-quality must-haves.
Tenants are increasingly prioritizing sustainability and climate resilience when choosing office space, and net-zero targets are paving the way for more energy-efficient buildings. Buildings that are designed to reduce energy use are panning out to be more valuable as climate change draws near. Energy-saving features like LED lighting, state-of-the-art HVAC systems, and solar panels are being integrated into Class-A office buildings, but another sustainable feature that is growing in importance is onsite water reuse systems.
Onsite water reuse systems in office buildings work by treating and recycling the building’s greywater (which is water from sources like sinks, showers, and washing machines). The treated greywater can then be used for non-potable purposes like flushing toilets, irrigation, and even cooling data servers. This reduces the building’s demand for fresh water, which is especially important in areas with water scarcity or drought conditions. One prominent example of a wastewater reuse system in a Class-A office building is the system installed in the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. The building’s system collects greywater from sinks and showers, and then treats the water using a combination of physical and biological processes, including filtration, ultraviolet disinfection, and membrane bioreactors. The treated greywater is then used for toilet flushing and irrigation in the building’s rooftop garden.
If you’re reading this from any of the states in the parched Southwest, the rise of onsite water reuse systems in commercial buildings isn’t exactly news to you. Thanks to dwindling water supplies and population growth, California, Colorado, Florida, and Texas have directives mandating the installation of water reuse systems that have either passed or are on the legislative docket. City council members in Sacramento and Austin made headlines for passing ordinances requiring new commercial buildings to install water reuse systems into their plumbing, both of which will take effect later this year. Starting July of 2023, new commercial developments in Sacramento that are 10,000 square feet or larger will require greywater systems for irrigation, while buildings containing more than 50,000 square feet will need to install a dual plumbing system that would allow for greywater to be recycled throughout the building. Austin, on the other hand, will require new commercial and multi-family developments that are 250,000 square feet or more to have onsite water reuse systems as of December of 2023.
New York City also rolled out its Water Conservation and Reuse Grant Pilot Program, which offers grants of up to $250,000 to fund the installation of eligible systems. The program aims to reduce the demand for potable water and promote sustainable water management practices in commercial buildings. Eligible projects may include the installation of greywater systems, rainwater harvesting, or other non-potable water reuse initiatives. By providing financial support for the installation of water reuse systems, the program encourages buildings to adopt sustainable practices and meet regulatory requirements, while also reducing operating costs and promoting resilience in the face of potential water shortages or supply disruptions.
Aside from a growing regulatory framework, offices with water reuse systems are a more desirable asset. Onsite water reuse systems are becoming increasingly popular in office buildings due to their potential to conserve water resources and reduce costs associated with water usage. Not to mention, thermal energy from wastewater can be recaptured to heat buildings, which effectively tamps down energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with heating a building.
Water reuse systems can vary in complexity and design, with different types of systems offering different levels of treatment and reuse capabilities. One common type of system uses a physical treatment process, which involves using filters and membranes to remove contaminants and impurities from greywater before it is reused for non-potable purposes. Another option is a chemical treatment process, which can include methods like ozonation or reverse osmosis to purify the water to a higher degree. The specific type of system chosen for an office building will depend on a range of factors, including the building’s water demands, the available space for installation, and the project budget. Despite the differences between systems, they all aim to reduce the environmental impact of water usage and create a more sustainable building by reducing its water consumption. Whatever the methodology, as companies want to set up their operations in the most sustainable buildings, installing a water reuse system would be undeniably helpful in differentiating a building as a trophy asset.
Onsite water reuse systems can help municipal water supplies by reducing demand for freshwater and easing pressure on existing water sources. By using treated wastewater for non-potable uses like flushing toilets, irrigating landscaping, or cooling HVAC systems, buildings can offset some of their reliance on municipal water systems. This, in turn, can help cities and municipalities conserve their freshwater resources and better manage water shortages during droughts or other water crises. Additionally, using treated wastewater for non-potable purposes reduces the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated and discharged into the environment, which can benefit local waterways and ecosystems. Overall, onsite water reuse systems can play a valuable role in promoting sustainable water management and ensuring long-term water security for communities. By establishing a hyper-local wastewater treatment cycle and reducing reliance on municipal plumbing, water reuse systems also increase a building’s resistance to flooding. On-site reuse systems are less vulnerable to extreme weather, hydraulic capacity limitations, combined sewer overflows, and other infrastructure problems than main water systems are.
Water reuse systems are becoming part of the flight-to-quality equation because they help promote sustainability and wellness in the workplace, which are key priorities for occupiers and investors. After all, the current flight-to-quality is just as much about helping occupiers with their environmental goals as it is about attracting employees to the shiniest office on the block. As onsite water reuse systems in office buildings are an innovative way to reduce a building’s water demand and contribute to sustainable water use, the use of one becomes an amenity for both owners and occupiers. Owners can enjoy cost-savings by implementing a water reuse system, and occupiers can have another way to promote their sustainability efforts to employees, investors, and the general public.