A Conversation With A-P Hurd, Sustainable Real Estate Developer

APHurd-Post.jpg After working her way through journalism, operations management, and finance, A-P Hurd found her way to Touchstone Corporation, a Seattle-based commercial real estate developer, where she serves as vice president responsible for corporate and project strategy. Last year, she received the Better Bricks Advocate Award from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, given in recognition of her support of high-performance, sustainable buildings. Here, Hurd discusses why it is that sustainable neighborhoods must have a mix of uses that allow for multiple forms of access; how new urban buildings have a smaller carbon and watershed footprint than new rural buildings; and why sustainability experts that fly all over the country every week is something she could do without.

What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'

I'm a real estate developer. I want to make better cities by example, by shifting frameworks and by sharing ideas. I work at Touchstone, which is a small private Seattle-area developer that does some biggish projects -- mostly office, retail, and hotels. I'm a bit of a policy junkie: When our rules are not leading to the best in urban form, I'm pretty dogged about changing them. I have a book coming out in April from University of Washington Press, The Carbon Efficient City, that looks at how government can make better use of infrastructure resources and support cleaner cities. I also teach a course at the University of Washington: Sustainable Development and Regional Economics.

I love exploring ideas and then testing them against the rigors of the business world. Lots of people think an idea is bad if developers make a bunch of money at it. I say that there aren't too many good ideas that can scale without someone making money at it.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

For several years, people thought that the key to sustainable cities was to plunk down a lot of sustainable buildings. That is an important goal, but only part of the picture. Sustainable neighborhoods that have a mix of uses and that allow multiple forms of access beyond cars can have an even bigger impact on our energy use and emissions.

Changing land use patterns in cities is hard, because you start from something that is immoveable. It takes time for cities to adapt. It's partly about zoning, but also about market forces and making things that delight people. To make things even more challenging, there is a tendency to try to set something in place at one moment in time, when what you are really trying to influence is a slow-motion process. Cities and neighborhoods are always changing.

We're trying to do projects that work now from a financial and community perspective, and that still have value 100 years from now.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

People tend to think in absolute rather than relative terms. It's easy to get excited about a new whiz-bang building with some great technological innovation. Those kinds of projects get profiled in industry magazines and at conferences. But that's only part of the picture. Where is it built? New urban buildings have a smaller carbon and watershed footprint than new rural buildings. What was torn down? A re-used urban building (or part of one) almost always has a smaller carbon footprint than a high-efficiency new building. When you take into account embodied energy, it can take 40-70 years for the new efficient building to catch up with a moderately retrofitted old one.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Quantifying the value of ecosystem services.

Many regions are realizing that rural and working lands are important to their watershed management. For instance, absorption of peak rainfall in upstream areas is critical to the health of farms and habitat downstream, to the adequacy of existing flood infrastructure, and to our water supply and quality. If we lose too much of the ecosystem upstream we have to pay higher costs to mitigate the downstream effects. If we can quantify the value that these upstream working lands provide and pay owners to keep the land in "high absorption uses," that land is less likely to turn over to development and the ecosystem services are preserved.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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