Green Shoots Sprout in Russia
Text by John Harrison
For the majority of Russians, the idea of sustainability, green buildings and the like are not exactly considered to be vitally important, particularly at present, when hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs every month. Greenpeace and other environmentally- friendly groups have been successfully isolated and politicians are not yet using the green card. Green means a primary colour in Russia and not a lot else. The exploitation of natural resources continues to be the main driver behind Russia’s economy. When the price of oil rises by a few dollars a barrel, a collective sigh of relief is almost tangibly felt throughout Russia. Again, the oil-smeared, get-rich-quick drill bit is vibrating in Russians’ souls. To hell with a sustainable future.
Why, given such a scenario, should a group of building professionals gather in Moscow on May 14 to form, on a voluntary basis a Russian green building council? The answer is the simple equation that all real estate people use: supply and demand. Multinational companies, the crème de la crème of real estate tenants, sought after by real estate agents and developers alike, are beginning to express preference for ecologically friendly, sustainable, green, whatever you want to call them, buildings. What this means is that the headquarters of companies that hire thousands of square meters of Class A (top notch) office space in many countries worldwide have issued directives to their office procurement staff to get offices in ‘green’ buildings. In the recent past, when there was far more demand than supply, and lease rates in Moscow were as high as London, it didn’t really matter whether the building was green or not, but now that the market has turned, companies can be a little fussier, and developers, who even in Russia have to eventually produce buildings that the market actually likes, know that.
Most countries’ governments are interested in encouraging developers to build energy-efficient buildings for obvious reasons: to cut down on urban pollution (as buildings contribute to about 40% of all urban pollution), and to cut down on energy consumption. In Russia, urban pollution, although a real problem, is not serious enough to warrant public outcry. There is no serious water problem in northern Russia, and so much energy is on tap that the only way to control the temperature in winter in most residential blocks in Russia is to open and close the window. Some even argue that it is in the interest of some commercial groups to actually increase energy consumption, not reduce it. The opposite may actually be true. One analyst, Guy Eames, CEO of the Russia Green Building Council has argued that the Moscow city government is in favor of reducing the amount of energy the city uses because it is having difficulty meeting demand for energy. Be that as it may, there are no tax breaks for eco-friendly buildings as yet offered by the Russian government (as there are in many western counties), although various committees are discussing the issue.
At present, there are only a couple of ‘green’ buildings in Moscow. A few are being planned, waiting for the life blood of investor money to return to the market. Some of this money comes from abroad. Most international real estate investors are savvy to the direction that the market is taking and would prefer to invest in sustainable buildings if they could, as not only are they cheaper to operate, thus more attractive for tenants, but also easier to lease and sell.
Naturally, every developer will try in the future to promote his building as being ecologically friendly. Few actually will be. In the USA, a system called LEED has been developed to test whether a so-called ‘green’ building is actually up to standard or not. The UK version is called BREEAM. Many countries have their own standards, however LEED and BREEAM are the two most well known internationally recognized certification procedures. Developers take part in the process on a voluntary basis, although new buildings in some countries such as EU member states now have to be awarded energy performance certificates which are becoming more and more demanding.
The newly-formed Russian Green Building Council hopes eventually to introduce its own regulations for Russia, which will be based on LEED and BREEAM standards, adapted to Russian specifics.
So far so good for new investmentgrade buildings but what about the other 99.9% of buildings and the whole ‘green’ cause of promoting sustainability in Russia? A sea change in public attitudes is needed. What about encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient transportation and sustainable urban planning as a whole. You might find it hard to believe, but the process has started. On June 5, a public viewing of the film ‘HOME’, a joint project of two masters of modern art – worldrenowned aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand and film director Luc Besson was shown in two places simultaneously in Moscow. ‘HOME’ is claimed to be the most influential climate movie of 2009 as was Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in its time. I attended the showing in the ‘Sphere’ arts space on Bersenevskaya Naberezhnaya. The organizers were surprised to witness over 400 people crowding in, far more than expected; despite the rain which at times came in through the roof. This perhaps showed in 3D the force of nature, a theme that was adequately documented in Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s superb aerial photography. The crowd, mostly young, was spellbound as a hard-hitting commentary detailed the affect of upsetting the intricate balance of nature by man.
Whilst waiting for the film to start, event sponsors BMW introduced its ‘energy-saving dynamics’ and Sony it’s energy-saving BRAVIA WE5 televisions. Doubts about the eco-records of these two mega companies aside, it was uncanny to see hundreds of Russians watching eco-promotional commercials, which have yet to make it to the country’s TV stations. It appears that a battery of industrial giants are lining up their eco-promotional materials, used in other countries, for use in Russia, once Russian public opinion swings enough in the ‘green’ direction to make such publicity commercially viable. The new housing complex ‘Vorobyovy Gory’ was also promoted at the ‘Sphere’ event, despite the somewhat doubtful green credentials of the project’s developers.
The power of PR and the media, even in Russia, is a force to be reckoned with, even though there is no ‘green press’ as yet. Russia’s celebrities have not yet been enrolled for the cause of the green revolution that has swept the valleys, cities and politics of our native lands. Covers of Russian glossy magazines are not yet adorned with the new green elite such as Al Gore on the cover of Wired last year with a headline: ‘Climate Crisis! The Pro-Growth, Pro-Tech Fight to Stop Global Warming’, or ‘Wal-Mart Saves The Planet’ from the cover of Fortune, August 2006, or Julia Roberts posing as a green nymph together with George Clooney, Robert F. Kennedy and Al Gore on the cover the ‘Special Green Issue’ of Vanity Fair in 2006.
Be that as it may, Laima Vaikule, Artemy Troitsky, Alena Sviridova, Aleksander F. Sklylar and Viktor Gusev took part in a campaign in March 2008 organized by the VITA Animal Rights center. Their efforts brought the 15-year-old struggle against the slaughter of baby seals in Russia’s far north to the public’s attention, and later in 2008, a partial ban was imposed.
So far, the green cause is not a subject of household discussion in Russia, although ‘bio’ foods are making inroads into the country’s supermarkets and hypermarkets. One thing does look fairly certain: the western pre-occupation with green design for
buildings looks certain to have an impact on the development of new commercial real estate in Russia. New business opportunities are about to open up in areas such as waste recycling. Market peculiarities and lack of transparency of administrative systems will have to be taken into account by Russia’s new green missionaries, otherwise they are doomed to failure. New ideas are, however, taking a hold, particularly among the young, as long as western neo-green commercialism doesn’t ruin things.