Huey Lewis may sing that it's “Hip To Be Square,” but the commercial real estate community is now singing it's hip to be green. Taking their cue from the public sector, private developers are embracing sustainability by building environmentally friendly, cost-efficient and aesthetically pleasing facilities.

The private sector is largely following in the footsteps of the federal government. In the mid- to late 1990s, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) became a pioneer of sorts when it began focusing on sustainability for government-owned buildings and then followed suit with government-leased buildings in the early to mid-2000s. GSA's Public Buildings Service now has an inventory of more than 342 million sq. ft. of workspace for 1.1 million federal workers. That includes more than 1,500 government-owned buildings.

“One of the reasons the private sector is interested now [in green buildings] is that the GSA got the buildings up and operating and proved it was a good deal economically from an operations perspective,” says Tom Olmstead, vice president and national director of government programs at Opus. The giant developer has more than 8.3 million sq. ft. of green buildings completed or under development. That total includes several projects that are certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program, or which participate in Energy Star programs.

These days, if you're not green, you're on the outside looking in. The volume of press releases we receive yearly touting green design and construction could fill a recycling bin. Not since the emergence of “shoppertainment” in retail in the 1990s have I seen a real estate phenomenon so widely marketed.

The question now is: “Where does the green building wave go from here?”

The first step will be to monitor the performance of newly constructed buildings, says Olmstead. “Some green buildings are starting to come on line, so you can actually prove how they're performing vs. theorizing how they should perform,” he says.

Expect a greater availability of green materials going forward. In the past, the limited number of vendors that supplied green products posed a major obstacle for developers, Olmstead says, but that's changing. “There are just a lot more vendors out there. As a result, the prices for maintenance products and capital construction products that are green are coming down. There is still a cost differential between green and non-green products, but the two are closer together than they were five years ago.”