Happy Thursday (Every Day is Earth Day)

Another trip around the sun, and it’s Earth Day again. Many in our industry know it’s not a one-day celebration event, despite the lift it gets through marketing efforts. Especially now, when we find ourselves in a pandemic, as well as our ongoing climate crisis, Earth Day must be every day, like green must be the most common denominator, not just a moniker for some early adopters and strivers or, worse yet, imposters. 

Unless you’ve been immersed in the development industry in one way or another, sustainable building approaches, renewable energy, and climate change are concepts that may garner attention, but they are not really understood, nor do they resonate fully. I’m not sure we’ve got the popular vote on making buildings net zero ready, not only while building ground up but repurposing, rehabbing, renovating, and retrofitting.

Compare this situation to Covid: I don’t fully understand the science of how the Covid vaccines differ, or how they were derived, but I am in favor of taking the vaccine to suppress the virus. We can be skeptics but also work to support the greater good. Climate change, however, as a life safety issue, hasn’t received the same acute media attention, funding and market transformation incentives.

Getting the Message Across

Clean energy has proven economical despite traditional energy generation still receiving subsidies and policy favor, but so much more could be accomplished by leveling the playing field. It’s not only about business continuity, it’s truly about having future generations able to live, work, recreate and study in buildings in the future. And it’s a problem that can be solved with the right approach; we all agree economic sustainability is also crucial for our communities and regions around the world.

Pivoting seems to be the word of the year of Covid. So many of us through the years have had to pivot for one reason or another. It builds resilience and shows growth and purpose. Supporting and training displaced workers in a few areas of business and industry as they transition to the more bountiful, needed roles in reframing the built environment is a boon for economic development.

Reallocating subsidies, tax deductions and credits and other incentives to fund building improvements is also necessary. Here is where marketing can help; transforming public service announcements into campaigns that increase awareness and then demand for action, and continued voting for these programs is crucial.

Rewriting the Playbook

I had the honor and pleasure of participating as a juror for the retail building category of this year’s Solar Decathlon, sponsored and supported by the US DOE and NREL. The submissions for design and build around net zero for various categories and climates were aspirational, inspirational, and exciting, and the designs were feasible and cost-effective (well, some may need financial incentives along with permitting and policy adjustments, but…).

They showcased net positive solutions that are also resilient. These students worked together and collaborated in a vastly different way than in past competitions. Most of the work was done virtually or according to strict social distancing and with PPE. It didn’t detract from their passion, proficiency or presentations. They will become professional researchers, designers, architects, engineers, and technologists that can help influence not only how we deliver solutions for new construction but how to apply them to existing buildings and how to work together in all kinds of ways.

On Sunday, when category winners presented, a team member from Virginia Tech for the 1021 Prince St project asked, “Do we seek to return to normal or do we rewrite the playbook of what is normal?” and stated, “The future of architecture is one that recognizes the performance of the building is inextricably linked with the performance of human health.” While the grand jury was deliberating, we were fortunate to hear from recently sworn in Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. Secretary Granholm has a proven track record of success and a very strong agenda to move forward with solutions and recognized that these students are also bringing solutions to light. She then referenced the Virginia Tech student’s question and said she loves the notion of rewriting the playbook, and that all the teams rewrote playbooks, especially for families in every climate and neighborhood and whose needs cut across multiple crises like affordable housing.

As we’ve witnessed with the new administration’s infrastructure plan, new playbooks are being written, not just for stepping up energy efficiency but also for decarbonizing the building sector and making a clean energy future available and accessible for every person and community. Adapting and collaborating on approaches to design/build and performance-based operational criteria will be among many of the new plays.

Leveraging resources from various agencies, academia, energy companies and financiers will be critical to advance not only exciting new technologies (à la Ingenuity) but mundane yet important ones to address the more than 100 million existing and aging buildings in the US. There is no more time for silos. Competition is healthy and necessary, but we can also cooperate and partner with teams we would have thought years ago were on “the other side”.

Economy of Upgrading 

Working with the Solar Decathlon teams submitting projects that met not only environmentally sustainable development goals but also inclusivity and equity goals, has got me inspired and excited. Most of us understand the who, what and why, as well as the how and when, of addressing climate change, but it’s been challenging to bring all stakeholders together to have consumer demand, policy and financial support to get them all answered in the now.

We can work in parallel to install simple equipment upgrades (which are still critically necessary) in existing buildings, while also making them zero net energy and healthier for occupants. Buildings generate almost 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve seen and supported businesses and institutions that have implemented energy efficiency programs and met goals of saving 20% and more of their usage (which reduces their carbon emissions significantly as well), and there are so many more buildings and projects to tackle.

For some building owners and tenants, especially those hit by the pandemic, it’s difficult to earmark capital for some of the simple upgrades; they operate on break/fix, and even then, may have to replace with same efficiency equipment because the costs for the high efficiency alternatives are “prohibitive”. It’s easy for me to say, looking at lifecycle costs, and societal costs, that it’s a no brainer to move to high/highest efficiency, but not all building owners and tenants have the resources, whether financial or human, to manage these projects and programs. And deep retrofits can be cost-effective when there is a trigger, such as a capital improvement cycle or upgrades needed to meet new, stricter codes, but not all buildings will have these triggers in the short term.

I’m hoping all of us can find ways to coalesce with our stakeholders to bring solutions quickly to our communities for all of Earth’s inhabitants as well as for environmental and economic sustainability.


Kathy Loftus
Vice President Business Development
e2s Building Performance

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