Key Points

ESG in Real Estate: 10 Questions For Andrea Pinabell, VP Of Growth & Innovation At RE Tech Advisors

We sat down with RE Tech Advisors' VP of Growth & Innovation, Andrea Pinabell, to discuss her nearly 30-year career journey and insights into sustainability within real estate.

Andrea brings a unique set of expertise, having championed global environmental and corporate responsibility programs across various sectors. Andrea unveils her strategies for advancing sustainability commitments, insights on industry challenges, and trends shaping ESG integration.

Gain expert insights and a deeper understanding of how Andrea works with her team at RE Tech Advisors to shape a sustainable future for the built environment. As a bonus, learn what career milestone she is most proud of and how she spends her days when she is not busy championing stellar innovation plans.

1. Can you walk us through your career journey and how you became involved in the sustainability and ESG consulting space, particularly in the real estate sector?

For nearly 30 years, my career has been focused on how we can use our planet and human resources in better ways to drive a cleaner, more efficient, and healthier environment. After a degree in chemical engineering with a focus in environmental studies from Iowa State University (Go Cyclones!), my career started in the energy world working for a division of Koch Industries where I designed and implemented hydrocarbon recycling systems in the US and Europe. I took a hand at owning my own firm then ran the green building and urban stormwater practice for Kimley Horn & Associates (KHA), at which I launched their internal sustainability program.

During this time, a love for the real estate sector and the built environment sparked within me based on my travels and understanding of the limitations of our natural resources. I left consulting and went to the Home Depot Foundation (THDF) where I started and led the Sustainability Community Development Program. I also launched the Sustainability Cities Institute, a web-based platform focused on building systemic and scalable change at the community and city scale.

Next, I went to Starwood Hotels & Resorts to develop their sustainability program, a fairly new concept in 2011. At Starwood, Global Citizenship was our holistic approach to environmental and social sustainability, spanning hotel operations, investor relations, finance, supply chain, and board priorities across 1500+ properties in 105+ countries. I continued with Starwood and this role through our acquisition with Marriott International, leading the integration of both company’s sustainability programs.

To get closer to the intersection of sustainability and the built environment, I joined Southface Energy Institute—the oldest sustainability NGO in the south—as their president. Since 1978, they’ve been driving improvements to energy/building codes, workforce development, education, and programs that support energy efficiency and community accessibility towards healthy, sustainable buildings and policies for all.  

This latest chapter of my career came with the pull for greater impact. On one side of the coin is supporting and using my network to grow businesses within the clean tech space including my work on the boards of both Lime Rock New Energy and the Atlanta Cleantech Innovation Hub. On the other side, I have the tremendous opportunity at RE Tech Advisors and Legence to influence 100+ clients, 22,000+ buildings and move the needle on both energy transition and decarbonization.

Our clients look to us as an extension of their teams. We really think of ourselves as not just consultants, but advisors, helping our clients navigate the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability and ESG.

2. As the Vice President of Growth & Innovation at RE Tech Advisors, what types of initiatives or strategies have you prioritized to advance sustainability and ESG commitments for clients?

Our clients look to us as an extension of their teams. We really think of ourselves as not just consultants, but advisors, helping our clients navigate the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability and ESG.

Key strategies I've prioritized include formalizing a strategic partnerships program, defining innovation at RE Tech, launching our proprietary analytics software, and focusing on verticals like private equity, hospitality, student housing, and the MUSH markets to align with Legence’s priorities.

3. Your career spans various sectors, from hospitality with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide to sustainability advocacy with Southface Institute. How have these diverse experiences shaped your approach to driving organizational growth and impact through sustainable strategies?

My past experiences have allowed me to drive financial, environmental, and social impact at every level. Ultimately, sustainability is about minimizing risk, driving optimization, and ensuring the responsible use of resources at the operational, organizational and community levels.  For example, during my Starwood days, our goals were industry-leading—20% reduction in water and 30% reduction of energy and carbon across our globally owned, managed and franchised portfolio by 2020. I wanted to demonstrate that we could integrate resiliency and renewables into our energy strategy. We launched a comprehensive partnership with NRG Energy, developing not only an integrated solar approach to our luxury properties, but also a program to stabilize energy access to our more remote and island resorts providing reliable and cost-effective energy to our properties and the surrounding communities.

4. What role do you believe ESG commitments play in the overall success of meeting sustainability goals and adhering to regulations, both from a financial and environmental perspective?

ESG commitments play an incredibly important role in achieving financial and environmental goals.  Michael Bloomberg often says, and I totally agree, that “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.” Goals help prioritize and establish accountability and provide transparency internally and externally for an organization.  For companies whose portfolios and operations span multiple jurisdictions, goals can also support brand and reputation building which can provide real estate owners an advantage in certain locals based on state and local regulations for acquisition, permitting, and development.

5. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles real estate stakeholders face in achieving their sustainability goals, and how does RE Tech Advisors assist in overcoming these challenges?

I think the global and domestic real estate market is extremely dynamic right now with the push and pull of financial markets, interest rates and the changing landscape of investors and regulatory bodies regarding building performance standards. In addition, for the office market, Return to Work (RTW) is greatly affecting the viability of everything except for some high-end, class-A office space. A recent survey by Castle Data showed that the US is only back about 49-50% while the EU is at 80-85% and Asia is back between 90-100%. In the US, this is leading to a 40-50% discount on office space.

One other major obstacle is the growing need for energy across the US. Historically, energy consumption over the past two decades has been nearly flat (0-0.5% annually). However, over the next five years, electricity demand will jump to nearly 5% (according to Grid Strategies) due to the electrification of our transportation system, and the onshoring of factories and data centers. Data center projects, in particular, while incredibly important to our future, are being slowed, stalled (Loudoun Co, VA) or tax incentives halted (the State of GA ended the state’s sales tax exemption for two years for all data centers) due to the lack of available energy in that jurisdiction and/or the local grid being unable to absorb that additional level of energy takeout.

At RE Tech, we work with clients to develop strategies to navigate this dynamic real estate market, helping them prioritize energy efficiency and decarbonization projects. We also help clients acquire and dispose of assets based on the data gathered from our in-house proprietary analytics software. Looking at the data together allows us to see opportunities to improve performance—from a financial and operational standpoint.

6. What are some of the key trends that you're observing within the industry regarding sustainability practices and ESG integration into real estate portfolios? How are we adapting to these trends?

There are several key sustainability trends that I am currently observing within real estate. In no particular order of importance, some of them include climate/water risk, transition risk, embodied carbon, supply chain management, compliance/reporting, DEI including justice, workforce development, and innovative financing, as well as evergreen trends of energy efficiency, decarbonization and transparency.

We are addressing these trends with our services at RE Tech, our sister business units across Legence, and via strategic partnerships. One example is transition risk or in other words, resiliency of real estate by working with our clients to address issues and questions including: Can we relocate mechanicals above the first floor? How can we assist our clients in supporting insurance premium conversations? Are there redundancy systems in place in case of a natural disaster? In an acquisition situation, what should the client underwrite in terms of resiliency?

7. In recognition of Earth Month, can you explain what commitments to improving the future of the built environment mean to RE Tech, Legence, and clients? How do you engage with stakeholders to foster these commitments?

Earth Month is a recognition that humans are on this planet as one species of nearly nine million. To survive and thrive in a time of climate crisis, we must all do our part in achieving a more sustainable future. At RE Tech, and more broadly Legence, that means that we do our part by not only decarbonizing and using our resources as efficiently as possible, but by providing those solutions to support our client’s efforts.

8. Beyond the immediate goals and projects within RE Tech Advisors, what broader vision or aspirations do you have for Legence?

As an Energy Transition Accelerator TM, by leveraging our expertise across our legion of companies, we can have a greater impact than the sum of our parts. We are known for our practical and impactful solutions for driving building efficiency by being agile and scaling solutions. As Legence continues to grow and evolve, I only see that quickening through expanded tools, data and manufacturing solutions, and innovative approaches to solving and financing problems we might not see yet.

9. What's something you’re most proud of, either personal or professional?

For me this is a tough question. No one goes through their career on their own, and there has been nothing that I have done that did not have the thumbprint of many. With that said, one program I am very proud of is co-launching the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN). This network which I funded while at THDF is a network of municipal sustainability leaders across the US and Canada. The launch of USDN sparked a movement to drive systemic and holistic sustainability solutions through communities across the US and Canada driving innovation and the decarbonization of cities.

10. Outside of work, what are your passions or interests?

Outside of work, I am passionate about many things. As a lifelong learner, I love to travel, read, cook, and listen to music and podcasts. Born and raised in the Midwest, I am also a lover of the land and enjoy hiking, gardening, and spending time outside. Most of all, I am passionate about my family, my son who will be a senior in high school next year, and my rescue fur-baby.

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