The sustainability movement in Monterrey, Mexico, has created a safer, more peaceful city.
WRITTEN BY Alison Gregor

Opening: Southwest of Monterrey’s metropolitan area, renowned architect Zaha Hadid designed the residential component of a mixed-use development dubbed Esfera City Center that is seeking various levels of LEED certification. Above: María de Lourdes Salinas is the director of THREE Consultoría Medioambiental.

Only 60 miles from the U.S. border, the city of Monterrey, Mexico, has been well established as the most important industrial and financial center in northern Mexico and one of the wealthiest cities in the country—and the world. Perhaps inspired by the “Cerro de la Silla,” or Saddle Mountain, the iconic peak that is the city’s symbol, residents took hold of the city’s economic reins after the Mexican War of Independence, focusing on industries benefitting from railway development in the late 1800s, including steel and breweries. Hospitals and universities followed, and today the city is reimagining itself with its embrace of green building and sustainability.


“Monterrey is a city founded by entrepreneurs who built massive industries,” says María de Lourdes Salinas, who returned to Monterrey after years abroad due to her love of the city and is now the director of THREE Consultoría Medioambiental, a consulting firm specializing in design and sustainable engineering in the construction industry.
There’s a local joke with a grain of truth that circulates, Salinas says.


“The joke is they built all the industries that have to do with creating beers, because you have the glass, aluminum, and breweries—and then you have the universities for people to drink the beers,” she says affectionately of her home city, a metropolitan area of about 4.5 million people.


However, the course of evolution toward a city that’s safe, walkable, data-driven, and efficient has not been without bumps. There was a time in 2012 when it was said that Monterrey was in danger of falling to organized crime—an extreme statement regarding a city that had, at least as late as 2005, been called the safest city in Latin America and the sleek entrepreneurial hub of Mexico.


In 2006, as the rest of Mexico engaged in a violent war on drugs, even Monterrey, a city rich in culture as well as wealth and industry, could not avoid being drawn into the lawlessness and violence. A drastic increase in crime was attributed to the widespread presence of a criminal syndicate called the Zetas, known for kidnapping, extortion, and extreme violence.


Regiomontanos, as Monterrey residents call themselves, were witnessing gun battles in the streets, with violence peaking throughout the country in 2012. In 2010, two graduate students at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, a prestigious university dubbed by many of its alumni the “MIT of Latin America,” were killed in the crossfire just outside the university gates.


According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, between 2003 and 2014, the level of peace in Nuevo León, the Mexican state of which Monterrey is the capital, decreased by 54 percent. This strife began to lead to deterioration and population loss in certain parts of the city.


All this called for a plan that went beyond simply enhancing security measures. When Mexico’s level of crime was highest in 2012, Monterrey officials devised an ambitious urban development initiative in an attempt to reverse Monterrey’s declining reputation, and in 2014 adopted the Plan de Desarrollo Urbano del Municipio de Monterrey 2013–2025. The plan provides a regulatory framework to support a national plan to promote more sustainable, compact cities; rehabilitate the environment and improve the quality of life of residents; facilitate mass transit and nonmotorized transit; and foster the use and consumption of eco-friendly products along with clean, efficient low-carbon technologies, among other goals.

M. en C. Alejandra Cabrera, executive director of Sustentabilidad de México (SUMe)

M. en C. Alejandra Cabrera, executive director of Sustentabilidad Para México (SUMe)

Yet by then, green buildings were nothing new in Monterrey, playing a small but significant role in its renaissance and resurrection as far back as 2005. Since the first consultants in Mexico began promoting the benefits of eco-friendly building in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the concept has been gradually catching on, says Salinas, who’s been working in the industry for more than a decade.



“The first ones to get involved here in Monterrey were the multinational companies already showing leadership internationally, who wanted to be green in their headquarters and international offices,” Salinas says.


The first building to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified in Monterrey was built by the international industrial supplier Grainger, which achieved LEED Gold for its 239,701 sq-ft headquarters in February 2010 under the Building Design and Construction (BD+C) rating system for New Construction. Companies like ProLogis, an international company in industrial real estate development and logistics, and Carrier, a U.S. manufacturing company, have followed suit, registering and certifying their buildings.


Since that first certification, almost two dozen more have taken place, according to data from M. en C. Alejandra Cabrera, the executive director of Sustentabilidad Para México (SUMe), based in Mexico City, an organization comparable to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The original Mexico Green Building Council was founded in 2005 in Monterrey and had its headquarters there for several years, when it became SUMe in 2011.


As of early September, there were 23 LEED-certified projects in the state of Nuevo León—four Platinum, four Gold, ten Silver, and five Certified—representing 2,597,013 square feet in total. Of those projects, seven were industrial, seven were office towers, three were warehouses, four were retail, and two were institutional. Another 73 projects were registered in Nuevo León.


“We’ve seen constant growth in the number of projects that are registered and then certified,” Cabrera says, noting that Monterrey boasts the first LEED v4 Platinum projects in the country for both BD+C New Construction and Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) for Existing Buildings. “There’s something very interesting happening in the state of Nuevo León,” she adds.


One international company that has pursued LEED extensively is Arca Continental, the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in Latin America with corporate offices in Monterrey. Under the LEED Campus program, an area of almost 3.5 acres has been registered as a master site and is a renovation of the previous Arca Continental corporate offices, says José Angel Alba, a manager of corporate control processes at Arca Continental. So far, two buildings have achieved LEED Silver, and a third is registered and striving for LEED Gold, he says.


The Centro Roberto Garza VRV air conditioning system provides high efficiency in electricity consumption for the divided spaces configuration of the building. Lamps are high efficiency and with electronic ballast that is linked to an intelligent system that detects heat, motion, and daylight by sensors strategically located through the building.

The Centro Roberto Garza VRV air conditioning system provides high efficiency in electricity consumption for the divided spaces configuration of the building. Lamps are high efficiency and with electronic ballast that is linked to an intelligent system that detects heat, motion, and daylight by sensors strategically located through the building.

“Obtaining the LEED certification means international recognition for our values toward environmental conservation,” Alba says. “Being that water is one of our most important raw materials, its scarcity commits us to carry out the message to the community and our stakeholders, toward the conservation of the environment. And this commitment is reflected in the actions we have taken in designing, planning, and building spaces with the best worldwide green-construction standards.”


Monterrey is flanked by two universities that have been the primary drivers of its economic and cultural growth. One early academic adopter of LEED was the University of Monterrey (UDEM), a private Roman Catholic institution of higher learning that launched an iconic project for its new art, architecture, and design building around 2008. The university hired the world-renowned, Pritzker-prize-winning architect Tadao Ando of Japan to design a project encompassing 94,000 square feet. The university also decided to go for LEED certification, and the project has become a great source of pride for regiomontanos.


“They combined amazing architecture with all the sustainability features you get with LEED, so they finally certified this building,” Salinas says, “and it took some time, because the design and construction of the building was quite complex.”

The UDEM 7-Eleven uses 25 percent less energy compared to the first stores and generates renewable energy through solar panels.

Top and middle right: offices of Bioconstrucción y Energía Alternativa. Bottom: The offices of THREE Consultoría Medioambiental have been one of the first constructions to be LEED certified in the DistritoTec area.

Top: The offices of THREE Consultoría Medioambiental have been one of the first constructions to be LEED certified in the DistritoTec area. Middle and Bottom: Offices of Bioconstrucción y Energía Alternativa.

It took until June 2014 to obtain LEED Silver certification for the Centro Roberto Garza Sada. Ando’s design was true to the renowned architect’s roots, with a rectangular cement block from which huge triangular cutouts were carved into the sides, leaving an unexpected opening between its underside and the ground. The project focused on improving the sustainability of the 247-acre campus, making it more walkable and bikeable, and shifting design away from vehicular orientation. Indigenous plant materials and natural water retention and filtration for low maintenance landscaping were used.


The success of that building, which has drawn design and architectural students from all over Mexico and the world to UDEM, put LEED on the map as more than just a design protocol or certification to attract international companies and investors—it has become a signifier of an improved quality of life. Salinas says that the UDEM campus continues to strive for LEED-certified buildings—one example being a 2,045 sq-ft 7-Eleven store within the campus certified in 2013 as LEED Gold for Retail.


Meanwhile, as these projects were taking place, security conditions were beginning to improve for Monterrey. Between 2011 and 2014, homicides dropped dramatically by 76.2 percent in Nuevo León, and between 2011 and 2013, the number of crimes against businesses dropped by 43 percent, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. In the Institute’s 2016 report, Nuevo León was cited among the five Mexican states with the biggest advances in the levels of peace since 2011. (Nuevo León saw the third-largest improvement between 2011 and 2015 of the five states, and is now returning to the conditions it experienced prior to the drug wars, with the highest level of peace among its peer states.)


Green strategies are working their way into the Plan de Desarrollo Urbano del Municipio de Monterrey 2013–2025—mostly incentives to encourage developers to consider obtaining LEED certification, says Gabriel Eugenio Todd Alaníis, the general director of the Instituto Municipal de Planeación Urbana y Convivencia de Monterrey.


In fact, says Todd, there are other municipalities near Monterrey, such as Santiago, that are following these steps.


Under the new municipal code, projects with LEED or other environmental certifications will receive incentives, such as public recognition and promotion through the city’s website, Todd says. On top of that, land use, building, or construction permits will be issued in 15 working days if the project complies with regulations, a process that can typically take closer to 40 days, or even up to six months in certain cases. Eventually, there will be more incentives, and projects pursuing LEED may qualify for special tax rebates in the future. Some of the codes being proposed, such as one to create pocket parks from old parking lots, are “ahead of our culture around here but could [spark] a new approach to a human-scale city,” Todd says.


Monterrey’s ambitious urban development initiative may be yielding results. Many more buildings have achieved certification since knowledge of LEED and arguments for its advantages have spread widely throughout the construction and development world in Monterrey.


Consultants like César Ulises Treviño, one of the first to obtain a LEED AP in Latin America and a tireless proponent of green building since the early 1990s, have been indispensable. Treviño’s consultancy, Bioconstrucción y Energía Alternativa, has worked on a variety of projects, including the first green building in Mexico, the LEED Platinum HSBC Bank tower in Mexico City. Treviño has had a strong hand in penning part of the new development initiative.


César Ulises Treviño, consultant.

Consultant César Ulises Treviño was one of first to obtain LEED AP in Latin America

“Now the speech and focus in Monterrey is very different,” Treviño says. “We’re shifting into more evolved discussions, on things like real-time performance, life-cycle adjustments and life-cycle costs. Even two years ago, there were more theoretical and academic issues, that now are into the words of every major developer, and that’s very gratifying, to know the market has evolved and changed. And that brings new demand for experts, especially in green building.”


One of the highest-profile LEED projects to recently certify is the offices of Bioconstrucción y Energía Alternativa, which was awarded LEED Platinum certification for BD+C New Construction in 2011, and another Platinum certification in June 2015 for O+M under LEED v4.


Treviño says the building is now striving for a WELL building certification from the International WELL Building Institute, but in the interim, the headquarters received the first LEED Dynamic Plaque in Mexico. “We’re proud and honored to reach—together with USGBC—this important milestone for LEED and green building in Latin America,” Treviño says.


Another project to receive a high-profile LEED designation recently is that of Salinas’ THREE Consultoría Medioambiental, an innovative design of colorful stacked Martin containers and wooden decks serving as offices that received LEED v4 Platinum certification, the first in Latin America, in July.


“It’s weird how sustainability has flourished throughout all the insecurity of the past eight years,” Salinas says. “Even in 2012, 2013, it was still a bit rough for some people, and that affected the markets, the economy, and the international companies coming to Mexico to build green projects, but at the same time, green building still flourished and became something feasible and profitable for companies.”

Armida District, a complex of offices, apartments, shopping areas, and schools, occupies an area of 600 thousand square meters of construction.

Top:Edmundo Gómez, development director of GM Capital. Middle: drian Cantú, senior project manager at Capital Natural. Bottom: Torre SOFIA’s architecture brings harmony and integration into the urban landscape while its design and engineering interact with the senses and amplify experience of the space.

Top: Edmundo Gómez, development director of GM Capital. Middle: Adrian Cantú, senior project manager at Capital Natural. Bottom: Torre SOFIA’s architecture brings harmony and integration into the urban landscape while its design and engineering interact with the senses and amplify experience of the space.

In fact, there are several very high-profile projects being developed that will be striving for LEED certification, most of them in San Pedro Garza García, a city-municipality in the Monterrey Metropolitan area. Some of the more noteworthy projects are engaging in the battle of the tallest tower, a battle in which the winners’ laurels rarely stay fresh for long.


The Koi Sky Residences, a multiple-use tower being designed by Diseño Arquitectónic and master planned by HOK, will be about 917 feet tall and is aiming for LEED Silver. Also in the San Pedro neighborhood, one property development group, GM Capital, has developed a long-term master plan on over 16 acres of land, with a mission of providing cheaper housing for those who work and spend significant amounts of their lives in San Pedro, but can’t afford to live there, says Edmundo Gómez Flores, GM Capital’s development director.


The project, Distrito Armida, has a first phase consisting of an office tower, hotel, event center, and retail shops, all totaling almost 1.2 million square feet of construction. The development group, which has been developing shopping centers for many years, decided to register the office tower under BD+C Core and Shell and attempt to achieve LEED Silver.


“This is the first time we’re looking at certification as a company,” Gómez says. What prompted GM Capital to do so was its aging shopping centers—one of which is 25 years old—which have become inconveniently costly to operate and maintain, he says.


“For us, doing LEED is a matter of being smart about long-term planning and using sustainable systems that would keep our operating costs low,” Gómez says. GM Capital will certainly be considering LEED certification for all its future buildings, though Gómez said that he didn’t yet think LEED-certified buildings were so prevalent in Monterrey that certification is a requisite to capture tenants. Yet he said that he knows that tenants and investors certainly think highly of the certification.


Capital Natural, a management firm for private equity funds, also has big developments going on in the San Pedro area. Its first project, Torre SOFIA, is a 39-story office and residential tower containing 53 residential units and 48 office units, including one occupied by Capital Natural, which obtained the LEED Platinum for ID+C Commercial Interiors v2009 certification last February. Torre SOFIA has sold all the office units, and nearly 96 percent of the residential units, and is pursuing LEED Silver certification for the building, says Adrian Cantú, senior project manager at Capital Natural.


Another ongoing Capital Natural project that will be seeking various certifications under LEED is Arboleda, which will ultimately be about 3 million square feet on almost 25 acres designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. Arboleda currently has four different housing components under construction, including two towers and two lower-rise condominium projects. There are also commercial and retail components along with plans for a JW Marriott Hotel, rental apartments, and eventually a wellness center.


“We’re a forward-thinking company in terms of sustainability and the balance between human being and architecture,” Cantú says. “We feel it’s part of our nature and our vision to pursue these types of certifications.”


Capital Natural is also working with neighbors, schools, property developers, a golf club, and government officials in an urban revitalization project called Distrito Valle del Campestre, which seeks to improve the mobility and quality of life through urban and eco-friendly construction and community-engagement processes.


“We’re working with all these stakeholders to see how we can improve our public spaces and make Distrito Valle del Campestre a better place—friendly for walkers, bikers, and cars,” Cantú says. “We’ve been working three years now and are finishing the design development drawings.”


Capital Natural has also joined forces with Tecnológico de Monterrey in a similar community effort to revitalize Tec’s main campus and an area called “DistritoTec,” a cluster of almost two dozen neighborhoods that surround the campus. After the shooting incident in 2010, the university did some soul-searching, says Eduardo Armando Aguilar Valdez, the urban manager in the DistritoTec program.


“The university was very concerned about this, and they were even considering moving the campus to another area and creating a bunker where the students would be safe and nobody would get in,” he says. “But then they also realized that that was not the solution.”


Instead, three years ago, the university envisioned a $500 million campus and urban redevelopment project. The old football and soccer stadium, formerly home to the Rayados de Monterrey professional team, will be demolished and replaced by research, cultural, and sports facilities, and a new park open to the public. Those new constructions are currently registered for LEED certification, says Treviño, whose firm Bioconstrucción y Energía Alternativa has hosted LEED learning programs to educate Tec students since 2011.


Aguilar and coordinators of the initiative have held more than 100 community meetings with stakeholders in DistritoTec, including neighbors, government officials, property developers, businesses, and others to determine what infrastructure improvements are needed in the area and what services must be provided to retain and expand the vitality of the district, which has grown older on average and lost 22 percent of its population in the past decade.


Tecnológico de Monterrey New Main Library, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico.  Image courtesy of Sasaki Associates.

Tecnológico de Monterrey New Main Library, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico.
Image courtesy of Sasaki Associates.

While Capital Natural may focus on building research and development infrastructure to help spur a research cluster on campus, along with student housing, and commercial and retail space, the Tec de Monterrey will most likely construct the academic buildings. What goes on outside the campus in the district itself will be the work of people like Aguilar, who will educate stakeholders on the importance of building responsibly and in an eco-friendly fashion.


That involves promoting environmental certification systems like LEED to private developers and educating investors and homeseekers of their importance. A big component is education, Aguilar says.


“We’re talking about creating a community that’s attractive, safe, and accessible for people who’d like to live here, who will stay and have possibilities and amenities,” he says. “We want to create the environment that talented and creative people are looking for.”


Salinas agrees: “Ten years ago, nobody knew anything about sustainability in Monterrey. It would just be Ulises [Treviño] and myself, knocking on doors and people just didn’t care. But now everybody is just so attached to the understanding that green building is profitable, and it’s good for the community and the quality of life.”

The Saqqara mixed-use development, which comprises two 35-story apartment towers and an 11-story office building, combines uses and aims for LEED certification on various levels.