If climate change was the global big issue for most of the first decade of the new millennium, then economic survival has become the inescapable theme of the second. But are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? Surely thinking green when we think about property is part of what will make all our lives more sustainable in the future?
Mallorca, in fact, is the ideal place in which to start such a debate. It’s a property micro-market, part of Spain but an island with a unique international mix. It has a diverse range of purchasers: from local people to ordinary overseas punters looking for a modest holiday home, to pop stars, movie stars and low-profile business types.
When they go to sign their cheques, are they thinking green?
The answer, according to a completely unscientific abcMallorca straw poll of estate agents, appears to be that while there is a discernible trend towards green issues among buyers, it still doesn’t by any means dominate their thinking. In other words, it’s nice and it’s worthwhile – but it’s still by no means essential.
“Green considerations take a number of different forms,” says Daniel Chavarria Waschke, managing director of Engel & Völkers Southwest. “In the last few years, for example, there has been a marked trend towards the use of traditional, natural, locally sourced materials – not just because this is a more environmentally friendly thing to do, but because it looks wonderful too.
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“We’re also seeing much greater use of solar panels to provide – or, more often, supplement – power. And of course they’ve been compulsory in all new buildings here in Spain since 2007. And given the pressure on the island’s water system, we’re also seeing buyers being far more careful about finding separate water sources to irrigate gardens, for instance, so as to avoid using valuable drinking water. These are things that really make sense.”
And is any nationality particularly eco-conscious?
In the opinion of Chavarria Waschke’s colleague, Reiner Fischer, E&V’s licence partner in the Northeast, German buyers – along with the British, the most important buyers in the Mallorca market – usually win out.
“In my experience, Germans are the buyers most likely to ask in detail about the environmental credentials of any house,” he told abcMallorca. “This could be because of the wider green movement in Germany over the years – which has made people in general more aware.”
Andreas Dinges, managing director of Private Property Mallorca, agrees that while buyers typically like to be green, it’s not always top of their agenda – often for purely practical reasons.
“We sell apartments in Palma’s Old Town, for example, and there it is very difficult to use solar panels, even if the new owner has a very strong commitment to the environment. There is a limit to what they can do there. Similarly, if we sell an apartment in a Pedro Otzup resort, usually it is Otzup’s special and unique architectural style that buyers are looking for, and green considerations – while they may feature to some extent – are not uppermost in their minds.”
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He agrees with Daniel Chavarria Waschke, however, that green considerations really kick in when buyers opt for properties such as traditional fincas, which they plan to lovingly restore or renovate.
“Selling this type of property is not our main activity, but I do see that it’s here that the balance often tilts: buyers want to make substantial changes, they see a golden opportunity to make those changes in an environmentally friendly manner – and that’s what they do.”
Architect, John Wolfendale of EcoVida International, in Granada, makes the point that although many buyers may not realize that they are looking for environmentally friendly properties, those are, in fact, often what they want.
“It’s frequently a matter of language,” Wolfendale told abcMallorca. “They are looking for comfort; in other words, materials and systems which keep them warm in winter and cool in summer. Comfort in these terms means energy efficiency, everything from insulation to radiant heating and cooling to renewable energy systems.
So energy efficiency can be – and often is – the same thing as comfort.
“Many people also believe they have to pay a premium (typically 30 per cent) for energy efficiency, but this isn’t really true. You pay the premium for quality. And quality really just means careful choice of materials and good design. It can be a matter of taking a cheap and unsatisfactory villa and converting it into a comfortable energy-efficient home – something we do all the time.”
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And yet there are inevitably tensions between being greener and achieving the type of economic progress which will trickle down and benefit the entire community.
Take, for instance, the recent statistics from the Institute of Tourism Studies (Instituto de Estudios Turísmo) in Madrid, which revealed that almost one-fifth of the 32.2 million passengers who flew to Spain with low-cost airlines between January and October 2011 landed in Palma.
5.9 million passed through Palma Airport over those ten months – a 12 per cent increase on 2010.
For the Balearics as a whole, the equivalent figure was 7.6 million – up 14 per cent on 2010.
Arrivals in Palma by more traditional airlines were just over 2 million for the same ten months, an increase of 8.4 per cent on 2010 – though still less than one-tenth of the 23.7 million people using traditional airlines to reach Spain.
These figures should be good news for the local property market, says Stephen Dight, managing director of Mallorca Sotheby’s International Realty, because “improved tourist numbers are often a precursor to demand-led price increases in the housing market.”
The balance between cost and benefit in the green debate continues to be a difficult one, as we saw with the Durban climate summit in December and will undoubtedly see again during the Rio Earth Summit in June. Perhaps the answer in Mallorca is that, as the market revives, it must also become greener – even at the high end.