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7 talks, 7 cities, 7 big sustainability ideas

September 15, 2020

By Blake Jackson

Conference season is upon us—however different it might look this year. Here are seven big sustainability ideas to keep in mind

In addition to juggling projects, I spend a great deal of time on the road sharing our work, best practices, and research. My recent presentations have ranged from regional events (ABX and DesignDC) to international conferences (GreenBuild and Healthy Cities Design International) across North America and the United Kingdom (UK). These opportunities provide more than a platform for sharing: They create space for listening and learning, and the ability to take the pulse of an industry in flux. As we ponder the time ahead with travel limitations and limited conferences, here are seven big sustainability ideas to keep in mind.

Full capacity workshop at DesignDC 2019 for “Lessons Learned from a Decade in Net Zero Energy,” which explored the mainstreaming and evolution of net zero energy buildings using our National Renewable Energy Laboratory and evolv1 projects as case studies.

1. Passive House has arrived

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has historically dominated the global third-party systems race. However, we are seeing a shift towards more stringent frameworks that significantly reduce energy and carbon emissions. One such framework, Passive House, is a German system in existence since the 1980s as a prescriptive solution for energy use 65-80% beyond code minimum. It is being leveraged to promote efficient, resilient buildings that foster social equity through providing tenants with more discretionary income via utilities savings.

Cities like Vancouver are leveraging Passive House to incentivize higher performing buildings, granting both additional height and area to developers certifying their projects, while US cities and states are using it to promote electrification, meet carbon goals, and to create better affordable housing stock.

MassSaves, a Massachusetts utilities incentives program, launched a Passive House pilot specifically targeting multifamily homes. It offers up to $25,000 pre-construction to teams for energy modeling costs plus post-construction rebates up to $3,000/unit, $0.75/kWh avoided, and $7.50/therm avoided over baseline. Such programs will increase energy literacy, high performance construction, and potentially the national portfolio of net zero energy buildings.

2. Carbon conversations

The primary focus of building codes and third-party systems has been energy reductions over code baselines. Furthermore, the business case for sustainable design has been predicated upon an acceptable return on investment to offset the initial premiums for efficiency within an acceptable payback window, varying from client to client. This model is being leapfrogged by cities, states, and countries in alignment with the Paris Agreement—the most viable strategy to reduce global GHG emissions. The shift from voluntary participation towards mandatory high-performance is here!

Designers are beginning to leverage their power to influence global supply chains beyond energy. It has long been known that buildings are the largest GHG emitting sector at roughly 42%. However, 11% of this comes from building construction and materials. Products are now being viewed as valuable carbon repositories, and prolonging their usefulness sequesters carbon long-term. This is manifested through takeback programs, salvage, landfill diversion, specifying natural materials (which also promotes biophilia), and transparency/disclosure methods championed in LEEDv4.

For the first 25 years of LEED, projects earned credit for single-attribute metrics: recycled content, regionality, etc. Today, while still considering these, products are viewed through a life-cycle approach whereby we are considering carbon modeling, environmental product declarations (EPDs), and chemical ingredients disclosure. Manufacturers utilizing these tools are making better products, righting ecological wrongs, and leveraging their goods and services to do more good than harm and the triple bottom line.

evolv1, the first ever commercial building to achieve net zero energy, demonstrates that a high-performance building can be a market-driven, cost-effective building where design decisions are driven by competitive construction budgets. 

3. Communities under pressure

With rapid urbanization, there is less emphasis on architectural icons and more on placemaking. My research for Healthy Cities Design International addressed the duality of cities: Firstly, as bastions of progress (technology, culture, and wealth) and secondly as unable to cope (homelessness, overstressed infrastructure, and genericism). As part of that research, we introduced eight community models from leading third-party standards as pathways for measurable and scalable community-focused sustainability, wellness, resiliency, and equity outcomes. Such standards are important because traditional urban planning is becoming increasingly privatized.

For example, New York City’s new Hudson Yards is completely privatized. Rents continue to rise unrestricted in major cities, far outpacing salaries, in areas diverse as San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, and Boston, which is also resulting in super-commutes. The harshest example is the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis where future generations will suffer from the decision to switch the water supplies of poor neighborhoods to polluted sources to save money. As we urbanize, designing for the good of all becomes paramount, and the community models offer a glimpse of hope.

While the conference season ahead may look different, it is sure to be a whirlwind tour of many great forums for informing the future of the built environment.

4. Design in reach for all

Social equity is a precarious topic. While built environment disciplines have made strides towards reflecting the communities we serve, this issue is not just limited to the makeup of the professions but also to the benefactors of their talents. I once heard that 75% of the built environment has zero input from architects, and I believe it. Why? Because as an industry, we are by default serving those with affluence—those who can pay for our professional services. But shouldn’t design be for everyone?

The 2019 GreenBuild theme, A New Living Standard, reaches for this through the inclusion of collective stories from members, expanding upon their 25-year mission of “green buildings for all within one generation.” The keynote speaker, Former President Barack Obama, expounded upon the power of stories to cross divides. Yet, he also felt it necessary to take a dig at architects when he stated: “…what makes an architect terrific is if they actually care about your opinion.”

The power of equity was best displayed at the EcoDistricts Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. EcoDistricts fills the void that top-down planning misses by offering a measurable, scalable framework for grassroots planning to promote inclusive neighborhoods. The event celebrated its 10th year and the first certified EcoDistrict: Etna, Pennsylvania. Etna committed to water preservation/conservation, mobility equity, air quality management, smart energy solutions, food security, and community diversity and inclusion policies. Pittsburgh is a hotbed for EcoDistrict innovation, with a rich history of activism amongst the 90 distinct neighborhoods.

The Eddy illustrates how new development can afford communities much-needed resiliency.

5. Establishing relevancy

GreenBuild stories contextualize the biggest challenge to our industry—relevancy. As a member of a LEED Technical Advisory Group (TAG), I was invited to a day-long event with other TAGs to brainstorm LEED’s future at 191 Peachtree Street—an iconic LEED Silver high-rise in Atlanta, Georgia. In the lobby was a massive display of the LEED story, admittedly one of the most impressive I have seen. When greeted on the 49th floor, the concierge directed me to the “LEEDS (sic) People”, which I shrugged off as a common miscommunication. However, I wondered if they’d ever taken the time to read the LEED story! Two days later, during Obama’s keynote, he also added the -S to the end of LEED, twice! At that moment, I realized we—the “LEEDS People”—were operating in an Echoplex and not reaching our intended audience: Everyone.

Despite 25 years in the market, LEED has yet to translate its wealth of knowledge into something tangible for average consumers. We are at a tipping point where this can change, both on large commercial projects and across the millions of DIY projects. How? By taking the green building’s applied research, knowledge, and products to retailers like Home Depot, Ace Hardware, Lowes, and the myriad of furniture stores out there—for starters. Short of adding an “S” to LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Sustainability—we have to translate our value and knowledge to the consumers of all buildings and products. This is especially true in an era earmarked by the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution that lays out a comprehensive plan for addressing climate change.

6. Landscape medicine

Evidence-based design came to the forefront in 2016 when WELL and Fitwel launched publicly. These programs have the greatest willingness to apply sustainable approaches in countries with nationalized healthcare, such as the UK and Canada. Despite mountains of research, there is still a lack of meaningful translation into practice. Built environment professions are notoriously slow to change, valuing experience over research. But technologies are bridging this gap, particularly in providing real-time, personalized solutions—with implications for the built environment.

Project CityZen utilizes proprietary technology that places care and city services within the hands of marginalized populations in São Paulo, Brazil—particularly the elderly who would otherwise have difficulty accessing medical information and care—through wearables and smart devices. These common and inexpensive tools provide an opportunity for real-time assessments by care providers, saving time and money, supporting ongoing wellness, and providing flexibility through dynamically adjusting care plans in digital, rather than physical, space. Doctors can prescribe exercise-specific plans to the patient’s ability and location, such as suggesting a walk (time and duration) in parks near their home or associating with peer groups. This effectively leverages the cityscape as prescriptive medicine.

7. Real-time evidence

Technology is revolutionizing urban space through its ability to give a voice to every-day users of parks, transit, etc. It’s done via “Yelp-like” readings of both the quality and quantity of amenities to encourage use or municipal improvements. Another app dubbed Streetwyze allows participants with paid subscriptions to input data from smart devices directly into an online platform that easily identifies the location and quality of goods and services. While seemingly omnipotent, the internet needs greater granularity so that it understands a search for something like a grocery store that can currently yield a variety of results, from organic markets to liquor stores. Granularity highlights the proliferation of food deserts, as was the case study in downtown Oakland, California. Here, a search for grocery stores yielded several results that did not offer produce or take food stamps. Beyond food scarcity, such information could pinpoint other social equity issues, such as access to nature that could be overcome through design interventions.

Interactive workshop on “Ecovillages” at the AASHE 2019 Conference and Expo in Spokane, WA.

I am fortunate to be able to share the work we are doing and absorb ideas shaping the field of sustainability. While the conference season ahead may look different, it is sure to be a whirlwind tour of many great forums for informing the future of the built environment. Just remember that you get more than you give when you play an active role in our industry. To all our colleagues enriched through such peer-to-peer dialogues, we thank you.

  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
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