LEED Fellow Daniele Horton helps clients achieve sustainability across portfolios

LEED Fellow Daniele Horton helps clients achieve sustainability across portfolios

Fall 2019 | Written by Catherine Shane

When Daniele Horton becomes alarmed about global challenges like fighting climate change, she doesn’t just throw her hands up in despair. Nor does she ever become complacent with people telling her, “Well, that’s just the way it is. Deal with it.” Instead, when this Brazilian-born activist and mother of two wants something to happen, she inspires others to join her and make positive change a reality—and quickly.

As a seven-year-old, Horton started cleaning up a river basin by her hometown during a family vacation. Quickly realizing she could get more done if she had more hands, Horton enlisted other kids to help collect trash. Another example comes early in her career, when she was participating in designing a four-story mall in Brazil—only to find out that her client couldn’t afford HVAC. Rather than pause the project, Horton helped the team incorporate natural ventilation and passive design principles.

When Horton became concerned that people wouldn’t take her seriously as an architect because she was a woman and an immigrant, she decided to prove them wrong, and she went for practically every accreditation out there: a degree in construction management (2003); a LEED AP credential (2003); a master’s in sustainable development from Harvard University (2005); a real estate license (2011); Certified Energy Manager status (2012); LEED Fellow recognition (2015); and an AIA architecture license (2016).

Most important, though, may have been the time, while working for the real estate investment trust Thomas Property Group (TPG), leading their sustainability programs from 2005 to 2012, she helped TPG LEED certify their entire portfolio within eight years and earn the number one rank in the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) for three consecutive years. Even with the big wins she and her colleagues were accomplishing, Horton was frustrated with the slow pace of change in the industry as a whole—particularly when it came to scaling the most impactful sustainable practices at existing buildings in other large real estate portfolios.

Daniele Horton is the founder and principal of Verdani Partners, a full-service sustainability consulting firm. Her experience in sustainable real estate assists national and international commercial real estate clients in promoting and implementing green building practices in a cost-effective way.

“I realized that there were a lot of limitations in what I could do as an individual trying to effect change within a larger organization,” says the 41-year-old. “Many sustainability professionals fought hard for these internal positions, and most companies don’t yet have a budget or capital to invest in a larger team to bring the skill sets needed to successfully manage comprehensive sustainability programs.”

So, Horton founded a sustainability consulting firm, specifically created to help expand sustainability programs for other large real estate portfolios. “I created a business model that would bring a team of experts, tools, and resources to green entire real estate portfolios, quickly and efficiently,” she says.

She founded Verdani Partners, of which she is president, in 2012. Headquartered in Carlsbad, California, the sustainability consulting firm works primarily with real estate organizations and their existing building stock. Their 11 core clients read like a Who’s Who of leading national and international real estate owners and managers: PGIM Real Estate, CommonWealth Partners, Clarion Partners, Jamestown, GID, Parkway Properties (which acquired her former employer, TPG, in 2013)—the list goes on. Collectively, Verdani manages more than 4,300 properties and 800 million square feet of space—100 million of that square footage being Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified across 250 projects.

The Russell Investments Center, Seattle, Washington, was awarded LEED Platinum recertification under Existing Buildings, as well as LEED ID+C certification. Interior Architects transformed the Russell Investments Center both inside and out, creating welcoming, communal space throughout the building.

What makes Verdani Partners such an attractive firm for sustainable real estate, beyond the fact that they understand real estate sustainability challenges from the owner’s perspective? It comes down to three core things: being full-service, cost-effective, and efficient. Leveraging a 30-person team of experts across multiple departments, they’re truly a full-service firm, specializing in corporate sustainability programs, green building certifications, energy audits and benchmarking, GRESB reporting, annual ESG (environmental, social and governance) reports, efficiency projects, utility data management, and stakeholder engagement.

“A client might need someone who knows corporate sustainability, then an engineer, then someone in green building certifications,” says Horton. “And often, that means they have to hire three different consultants for each of those areas.” That’s not the case with Verdani—everyone is in-house, able to be deployed at a moment’s notice depending on a client’s needs, and that means helping clients achieve results faster and more cost-effectively.

“We’re not just greening one building at a time for our clients,” says Horton. “We’re developing an effective ESG strategy, then scaling up—across the whole portfolio—so that we are helping our clients make a bigger impact on greening our existing buildings stock while adding value to our client’s organizations.” And that’s not just attractive to Horton’s clients, but also to Horton herself.

“Sure, as an architect, it’s exciting to work on a net-zero project from the ground up,” notes Horton. “But with more than 98 percent of our building stock being already-existing structures, and 75 percent of that number being buildings that are more than 20 years old and in need of efficiency improvements, that is where we need to focus our attention to make a bigger impact.”

Horton references how, currently, existing buildings are responsible for 40 percent of carbon emissions and how, in order to prevent irreversible damage, carbon emissions must be cut by 80 percent by 2050. “We have to target these existing buildings—much of which are owned by large real estate portfolios—in order to make the biggest impact across the board. This is how we move the needle. We don’t have much time left, so we need to think big.”

City National Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles received LEED Platinum certification and LEED Gold recertification in 2018.

She’s certainly making a big splash, too, when it comes to her clients’ sustainability success stories. For example, CommonWealth Partners has worked with Verdani Partners since 2013. In 2018, the Los Angeles–based REIT ranked first in the GRESB Health and Well-being Module and third in the GRESB U.S. office sector; they were 2018 and 2019 ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year; and, for the sixth year in a row, are a GRESB Green Stars award winner.

The array of awards is owed to the fact that their building portfolio, thanks to Verdani Partners, is 100 percent LEED-certified (54 percent of that being LEED Platinum). Plus, since starting work with Verdani, they have reduced their energy use by 22.8 percent and their CO2 emissions by 44.3 percent—meaning they met their 2020 energy and greenhouse gas emissions reduction target three years early.

However, CommonWealth is hardly a unique example: Since beginning reporting to GRESB in 2011, Verdani’s clients ranked among the top 10 performers in their respective categories, with many of the portfolios ranking in the top five places.

But Verdani Partners is hardly Horton’s only example of dedication to this industry. She’s been involved with USGBC since becoming a LEED AP in 2003 (she was the first Brazilian to do so). On a community level, that means she has served on local USGBC boards, including USGBC Los Angeles and San Diego Green Building Council from 2009 to 2015.

While serving the Los Angeles chapter, Horton founded (and co-chaired for seven years) the first national USGBC Existing Buildings Committee in the country. She’s also been an active participant in the evolution of the LEED rating system for the last 12 years, including serving on the LEED Advisory Committee, and she currently serves on USGBC’s Advisory Council, as a sounding board for the LEED Steering Committee.

Beyond USGBC, she’s sat on boards for the Performance Committee for the ULI Greenprint Foundation, BOMA Sustainability Committee, the California Sustainability Alliance, Journal of Sustainable Real Estate, GRESB’s Benchmark Committee, and the Sustainable Policy Advisory Committee of The Real Estate Roundtable.

“Being involved at a leadership level within these leading industry organizations and nonprofits allows me to collaborate with the best experts in the field and stay up to date on the latest trends,” notes Horton. “Not to mention, it provides an opportunity to influence decision-makers.”

It’s no surprise that her latest project, Verdani Institute for the Built Environment (VIBE), a nonprofit founded in 2017, was born of, yet again, another situation that she feels she must take action on.

“When the current administration decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, I became concerned about the lack of federal action on environmental issues,” says Horton. “But individuals, cities, and communities must remain committed to taking action in the building sector.”

VIBE is her answer to that, providing resources for green building and resilience practices, education, and collaboration to those in the global building sector. Because that’s just Horton’s M.O.: If someone else isn’t going to do it, she will. And she’ll do it in a big way.

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