Sustainable Change for All: Lendlease’s Sara Neff on Green Architecture, Social Value, and the Healing Power of Education

In the sustainability field, knowledge is everything, something that Sara Neff, Head of Sustainability for Lendlease in the Americas, knows all too well. As I logged in for the call where I would observe a conversation between her and Green World Alliance’s Director/Editor in Chief Jeff Grossberg, they were discussing her impressive feat of going to nearly every Greenbuild conference since 2009. Reflecting back on this moment later in preparation for this article, it became clear to me that this offhand comment was a perfect encapsulation of Neff’s dedication to her work as well as a concise explanation of the importance of curiosity and consistency. Working within the sustainability industry is a care-intensive process, both on the individual and institutional levels. Over the course of the conversation, Neff laid out her journey to her current position and the exciting work she is doing at Lendlease. 

Spending the last ten years heading up the sustainability programs at Kilroy Realty Corporation, most recently as Senior Vice President, Neff has proven successful in setting and achieving sustainability initiatives. Her leadership and management skills have withstood an impressive stress test, implementing science-based targets for carbon and furthering renewable technology, biodiversity programs, and zero waste initiatives to name but a few of Neff’s projects. No doubt her history at the Los Angeles chapter of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) further informed her passion to improve and develop built environments across the nation. 

It’s surely this passion, combined with years of experience in the various fields this discipline encompasses, that has led Neff to assume the role of Head of Sustainability for the Americas at Lendlease. Her appointment came right on the heels of two major announcements made by the multi-national real estate giant. The first, on March 16th, confirmed that a fleet of urbanization projects of theirs have been certified as “net-zero carbon.” Through this action, Lendlease Americas has offset 100% of the operational carbon emissions across their entire U.S. multifamily portfolio. Even more, they have also fully offset the carbon footprint created by residents from day to day living in their homes as well as the emissions associated with energy consumption during the construction phase of these projects. Lendlease’s second initiative, announced on the 20th of May, is their ‘Mission Zero’ campaign. This initiative, aligned with Lendlease’s status as a 1.5 C company, commits Lendlease to achieving Scope 1 and 2 net zero by 2025 and scope 3, or absolute net zero, by 2040. 

Throughout the business, care must be taken with the implementation of each new element with a company’s quarterly and long-term goals. The goal for sustainability within a firm is to increase sustainability as a legitimate concern for the future of the company. How to do that is a different process than how business is usually conducted because the principles of totally integrated sustainability run counter to the familiar process of capitalist growth. It is important to note that sustainability itself does not necessarily contradict the process of doing business but is rather another lens through which to look at the process. In fact, sustainability is a way to ensure that business can still be done when questions begin to arise about potential resource shortages and the like. 

Lendlease is committed to adding social value through its sustainability work as much as environmental value. Encouraging parity and equity along lines of race, class, gender, ability, and sexual orientation, Lendlease believes there is a significant ROI (return on investment) for these programs as well as their environmental ones. Measuring efforts for equality and equal opportunity is admittedly a difficult task. Neff stood fast to her belief that assigning a monetary value to these measures is a pragmatic and effective way to institute system-wide changes. Even if a company must take the long view with these initiatives, they are worth it in the end. Studies have shown a marked increase in firm performance in atmospheres with equitable gender representation and the same idea follows with parity for other marginalized groups. 

There is sometimes an exchange that must happen between long-term sustainability projects and short-term financial value. To that, there is an emphasis on effective communication. Noting that if something in that sector is not done immediately, it will be touched later as the company has ambitious goals that they have set out to reach. First and foremost among these is a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2025. Coupled in this effort are the movements for net-zero emissions from both concrete and steel, towards Lendlease’s goal of achieving absolute zero carbon emissions across all scopes, including their construction materials, by 2040. Neff commented on Lendlease’s use of low-carbon concrete as well as their support for ResponsibleSteel, a consortium dedicated to eliminating the emissions that are the responsibility of the global steel industry. Answerable for 7% of global emissions, ResponsibleSteel is striving to correct the harms done by this foundational industry.

A benefit of Lendlease’s status as a leader in sustainability as well as a multinational corporation is that they have at their disposal a “global knowledge network” able to tailor each plan to specific regions, avoiding one-size-fits-all conclusions. 

To cherry-pick an example that Neff mentioned during her interview, Clippership Wharf in Boston, a mixed-income housing development that includes “restaurants, boating and recreational facilities, and public art” is both lavish and in line with Lendlease’s sustainability goals. Aiding in that process is the way in which the development itself is both climate resilient and integrated into the natural shoreline. The “living shoreline” installed on the water is a measure to deter storm damage and avoid flooding. Using the natural architecture to their advantage, Lendlease was able to reduce risk and maximize reward.  

Successes such as the ones Lendlease is currently working on are difficult and can only be achieved by measured milestones and roadmaps. Neff highlighted in her interview the importance of incrementalism in achieving long-term climate goals. This prevents freezing at the gargantuan nature of the task ahead. Both effective business strategy and life advice, measurable goals are dire for implementing success in a complicated corporate structure. 

Ahead of the curve and an industry leader, you can read more about Lendlease’s sustainability initiatives here. For more information on Green World Alliance and our commitment to finding the best and brightest innovations you can visit this link here.

–Jacob Rosen