Takeaways from the 2021 Sustainability Symposium

By Winn Costantini and Sophia Winston

Posted September 24, 2021

Last week, Green Building United held our 11th Annual Sustainability Symposium. The theme of this year's conference was equitable decarbonization with sessions covering health, energy, and climate resilience. The following key themes for equitable decarbonization emerged through the Symposium’s keynote address and four sessions: Operationalizing the Whole Life Cycle Carbon Approach, Climate Activism Through Design, Health in Resilience Housing, and Diverse Voices for Change – Women Architects in a Quest for Regenerative Design.   

  

1. Building Decarbonization is a strategy for climate justice. 

This year’s symposium began with a presentation by the keynote speaker, Donnel Baird, the CEO of BlocPower, on how his company strives to address environmental injustice through their innovative model for clean energy retrofits. BlocPower’s model aims to “turn buildings into Teslas” – specifically transforming buildings in disinvested low- and middle-income neighborhoods into buildings that are electrified, fossil-fuel free, and serve as a safe and healthy environment for their occupants.   

Baird explained a cycle familiar to both low-to-middle-income Philadelphia homeowners: homes that are energy inefficient contribute to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, have higher rates of greenhouse gas emissions, lead to utility grid strain, and have higher utility costs. These costs mean homeowners have less capital not only to invest in improvements in their home’s energy systems, but also to invest in other forms of maintenance such as replacing harmful building materials like lead and asbestos.   

BlocPower, backed by leading global investors, offers a unified technology that identifies and analyzes retrofit opportunities and creates a streamlined process for retrofits of multifamily housing, as well as retrofits other buildings in marginalized communities including schools, healthcare facilities, houses of worship, and cultural institutions. These retrofits contribute to advancing environmental justice through decreased energy costs, green job creation, and improved air quality.  

 

2. Healthy housing is vital. 

In the Health and Resilience Housing Session, speakers explored how the health and efficiency of our homes has also become an important factor in the fight against COVID-19, especially as people spend longer hours inside residential properties and require better indoor air quality and ventilation to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Emma Raymont, Director of Engineering at MaGrann Associates, pointed out that an increased focus on updating ventilation systems to include better air removal, containment, filtration, and ventilation has become even more important amidst the current pandemic. The need to modify current spaces and develop new multifamily residences that accommodate the current market demands requires up-to-date financial tools that will assist in financing greener homes.   

Moderator of the event and Director of Sustainability at MaGrann Associates, Jon Jensen, gave a thorough explanation of the financing tools available both in Pennsylvania and nationwide for green building. C-PACE, a green assessment tool for commercial spaces, is a Pennsylvania initiative aimed at making commercial spaces more resilient while the Green & Healthy Housing financing options operated under large mortgage lenders such as Fannie Mae, offer incentives and financing options for projects that meet their green standards. While changes to residential spaces may be in the horizon, financing options that promote greener, more resilient properties, will help developers and their tenants contribute to more resilient housing that protects against future pandemics and promote greener building practices.  

  

3. Embodied Carbon cannot be ignored.  

During the Symposium, attendees learned about Whole Building Life Cycle Analysis (WBLCA), which is a methodology for design and construction that takes into account carbon emissions at all stages of a project’s lifespan, as well as LEED, Living Building Challenge (LBC), Passive House, Low/Zero Carbon, and WELL.  

According to data presented by Associate Professor at the Penn State College of Art & Architecture, Rahman Azari, from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, embodied carbon from building materials represents about 11% of all global CO2 emissions, and operating buildings accounts for another 28%. Building and design professionals can reduce CO2 emissions through both building and material approaches – design and build to reduce carbon emissions during operation and/or procure materials with less embodied carbon. In California and Colorado, procurement policies that limit the embodied carbon used within construction materials is one way that states are creating policy and regulation aimed at greener design and building practices.   

Incorporating resources from the circular economy - using discarded or recycled building materials in order to reduce emissions and avoid new extraction of natural resources - is a key strategy, discussed by Daphne More, Principle at Daphne More AIA, for minimizing embodied carbon. Interior materials, such as carpets and flooring, can also play a role in limiting embodied carbon in buildings, as Cecilia Freeman, an Interior Designer & Resource Coordinator for EwingCole, noted. Both state and federal policies have been enacted to incentivize greener procurement but, as the speaker and moderator, Esther Obonyo of Penn State’s Global Building Network discussed, a lack of codes, regulations, and certifications to ensure a more robust implementation of WBLCA has made this approach hard to reinforce.  

Multiple practitioners shared example work that illustrated how they considered embodied carbon in specific projects. Ilka Cassidy, a Passive House consultant and Co-Founder of Holzraum System LLC,  discussed her experience with the benefits of prefabrication for high performance and Passive House projects as a tool to reduce embodied carbon. She also shared her recent study, “Spaghetti Carbon-Era: Disentangling Operational and Embodied Carbon,” which looked at the impact of embodied carbon on greenhouse gas emissions over 12 and 60-year time periods. Finally, Kelly Moynihan, a Principal at HPZS, discussed her adaptive reuse project on the University of Chicago’s Keller Center. The project used part of the Living Building Challenge and achieved a LEED Platinum certification. She described the project’s focus on using sustainable materials, including reclaimed ash wood that had been ravaged by ash beetles.   

 

4. Diverse leadership and increased activism is needed in the industry. 

Building professionals, as explained by Janki Vyas, a Principle at Karma co/lab, adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University, and the Co-Chair of the AIA Committee of the Environment’s 2030 Working Group, can serve as “middle-out” (rather than bottom-up or top-down) agents of change for the future of sustainable building. Vyas shared her work to influence architecture degree curricula and ensure that future generations of these professionals are well-versed in sustainable building design and science.   

As agents of change, building professionals must be able to communicate about the necessity of sustainable building with a variety of actors. Angela Iraldi, a Sustainability Consultant at Re:Vision Architecture, shared her process for working with clients and contractors to remove barriers to sustainability: Enlightening, Whispering, and Coaching. Iraldi advised that people will become more invested in making their projects sustainable if they are able to connect it to personal motivations. She described how she has found success as a “sustainability whisperer”, communicating as directly as possible with decision-makers about high performance buildings and explaining why their current design plans may not achieve sustainability. Finally, she acts as a coach to train clients and contractors in specific sustainable practices.  

Brian Smiley, a Senior Project Architect at HOK, brought a different perspective on addressing climate change as an architect through describing his policy and advocacy work. He encouraged building professionals to pursue environmental justice beyond their work on individual buildings and contribute their voice and influence to create incentives for building decarbonization and grid electrification through building codes and other policies. He offered concrete actions for people to get involved: team up with peer green building professionals to amplify, rather than duplicate, messaging, read up on climate policies and legislation in other cities, and use your voice to build relationships and testify in support of climate policy.   

Beyond advocating for specific climate policies, building professionals must also consider how their sustainability work intersects with broader movements for justice. Tya Winn, the Executive Director of the Community Design Collaborative and Core Organizer at Design as Protest, discussed how the Design as Protest Collective approaches and furthers anti-racist design and design justice. Winn shared that design justice begins with acknowledging that design supports nearly every injustice and that today’s dominant planning, design, and development practices are rooted in racism. DAP works to use design as a tool to reverse the harms, oppression, and violence that the design industry has facilitated through public programming, academic organizing, direct action, and advocacy.   

  

Thank you again to those who joined us for the 2021 Sustainability Symposium! Recordings of these sessions will also be available to attendees. Please email Marjorie Alexander with any questions regarding recordings and continuing education credits.   

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