I first discovered and joined Urban Green Council’s Emerging Professionals about three years ago when I first moved to the city. I was looking for a job in the architecture industry and wanted to meet like-minded people and share my passion for sustainable design. I felt welcomed into a tight-knit group from my very first meeting and have continued to gain valuable personal and professional relationships ever since this time. I became more and more involved with the group, volunteering to help organize events and making connections with an ever broader group of professionals. The relationships I made quickly introduced me to my current position, architect at Kohn Pedersen Fox, which has afforded me incredible experiences over the last three years.
Continuing to be involved with the Emerging Professionals has led to many leadership opportunities throughout the years. I served as an EP co-chair for one year, learning to engage a broad group of people in new and exciting ways. I moderated a successful panel discussion, Sustainability from the Bottom Up, which gathered industry leaders to to share their insider perspectives and forecasts for the future of green building. It was a great opportunity to interact with more experienced sustainability pros in a very tangible and meaningful way. Most recently, I was elected to the Urban Green Council Board of Directors, serving as the Emerging Professional representative and working to influence the future of the organization and its influence within the industry and city as a whole.
As I transition into the role of an “Emerged Professional,” I continually look back on my three years of experience and am grateful for the support and opportunities offered by the Emerging Professionals and Urban Green Council. Through my experiences with the group, I have made valuable industry connections, gained valuable professional skills, and honed my leadership abilities. These qualities have easily transitioned into my architectural practice, affording me opportunity to take on more responsibility on projects and within the office. I look forward to many more years ahead working with Urban Green Council and taking this valuable knowledge and experience back to my architectural practice at KPF.
Urban Green Council is introducing a new member level for sustainability-minded recent college grads under 30. The Emerging Professionals membership is now available and has all the benefits of our regular membership. We hope to make this a permanent part of our members structure based on participation, so please sign up today!
The New York Times carried a remarkable, front-page piece this weekend on the severe health risks of a chemical called normal propyl bromide (nPB), a substance known for many years to cause nerve damage, infertility and cancer. Commonly used in aerosol form in furniture adhesives, the focus of the piece is on the mendacious practices of Royale, a foam cushion company with a long history of exposing their employees to the stuff, and the ineffectiveness of OSHA in either limiting the general use of nPB or disciplining Royale for their myriad infractions. The Times also frames the issue in terms of unintended consequences- OSHA banned the use of something called trichloroethane (TCA) because it damages the ozone layer and companies began using nPB instead. Leaving aside the horrifying callousness of certain business managers- one is quoted as saying, “There are people lined up out there for jobs. If they start dropping like flies . . . we can replace them today”- one wonders how we got ourselves into a situation in which the various impacts of every chemical deployed have to be chased down by government agencies and employees. The article reads like a keystone cops version of regulatory malfeasance. Employees tell their bosses that nPB makes them sick. The employees (and their doctors) tell OSHA that nPB makes them sick. OSHA doles out fines that are so small the employers hardly notice so they continue to use nPB unabated, even as multiple employees are left unable to walk, have children, or get another job. For me, the moment of highest tragi-comic value in the story is when Mid South Adhesives, the company that makes the nPB-based adhesive, tells Royale to stop using their product. But they keep selling it to them, and Royale keeps pumping it into their employees lungs because, hey, it’s legal.
All of this has direct bearing on the building industry, where the vast majority of materials include substances with a huge variety of severe health impacts, from cancer to arsenic poisoning to lung diseases. A recent study by Perkins + Will found 374 substances in common building materials that are linked just to asthma. It is just this sort of staggering data that has led to the development of the Perkins + Will Precautionary List, the Living Building Challenge Red List, and for organizations like the Healthy Building Network to focus on eliminating the “worst in class” substances commonly deployed by the three-billion dollar building material industry. To date, the focus has been on simple transparency of what is actually in building materials. Astonishingly, most manufacturers are unable to tell you what’s in their products. No one has ever asked them. So programs like Declare are aiming to rectify this lack of knowledge. Which is all well and good. But maybe we should ask ourselves a different question. Like, why is it the victims’ responsibility, the people getting sick, to PROVE that a specific material has led to their specific illness? Shouldn’t the folks that are pumping the carcinogens and toxins into the system be required to, you know, stop doing that? Why isn’t it the responsibility of manufacturers to prove to us that they’re products won’t make us sick? As Michael Braungart once said to me, “If it causes cancer, and shows up in breast milk, surely we can all agree this is a bad thing?”
We’ve been nibbling away at the periphery of this system for a long time. Decades of banning the very worst substances, limiting the use of a few others, replacing a small percentage of raw materials with salvaged and recycled stuff- all of this has had an impact, in some cases dramatic. But we still are left with a system that enables the use of truly horrible substances, stuff that we’d never be exposed to in a just and equitable world. Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop and champion of social justice for the poor, is famous for saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Perhaps we need to be asking similarly fundamental questions about how we make things, in the building industry and beyond.
Postscript: Ian Urbina’s piece in the New York Times, referenced above, clocks in at more than 5,000 words and clearly involved a huge amount of research and interviews of dozens of people. Although he soft-pedals some of the conclusions that might be drawn from all this work, the piece is a clarion call for the kind of long-form investigative journalism that seems imperiled these days and which our society needs as much as ever. The message I take from this is that paying for online content (as the NYT requires after a few views) is very much worth it and we should all be prepared to do so more often on the internet.
Recently, Director of Programs, Tiffany Broyles Yost and I were invited to speak about sustainability in the classroom at Explore Charter School, a K-8 public school in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At Urban Green Council, most of our educational events are geared towards building professionals, so it was a nice change to meet with middle school students newly introduced to the world of green building.
We took the opportunity to speak with the students about USGBC’s Center for Green Schools’ Green Apple initiative to provide healthy and environmentally responsible schools. We wanted to discuss how schools with clean air and plentiful access to daylight have more engaged students and that better acoustics and more comfortable classrooms enhance productivity and alertness.
This information was not news to the 7th and 8th graders at Explore. Our first question to them was, “Why does it matter if your school is green?” The first student to answer said it mattered because schools need to be a healthy environment, so children can learn and take care of the planet for the future. I was impressed! As we presented images of “green” schools, the students immediately recognized the sustainable features, including everything from skylights to bicycle racks. The students also spoke of the difference between their school’s current location, in a large building with plenty of operable windows, and its previous location, inside an “old warehouse” with fewer and smaller windows. They described how hot it had been, which made it difficult to concentrate, or worse, made them tired.
Throughout our presentation, Tiffany and I emphasized the importance of conserving resources and how “using less” is really the first step to going green. By simply turning off lights, students can help lower the school’s energy use. The students also offered several ideas for renewable energy sources, citing biomass and geothermal among the more common solar and wind. To end our discussion, we talked about some innovative systems, such as soccer balls that generate power, solar backpacks, and energy producing sneakers. The response was fantastic!
In addition to being a nice change from the office, our visit to Explore was an extremely encouraging experience. The students already had a firm grasp on sustainable practices and how they can positively impact their environment. They are now more aware of the benefits of green buildings and will inevitably bring that knowledge home to their families. As they continue through school, they’ll want to attend green colleges and eventually work in green offices, creating a demand for sustainable building. That’s a good sign.
To qualify for LEED EBOM, an ENERGY STAR score of 69 or higher was a benchmark many older buildings just couldn’t achieve. The score means that the building performs better than 69% of buildings with a similar use, regardless of age.
If only you could get a few more of those ENERGY STAR scores above 69, you’d have a portfolio full of LEED buildings! This used to be the building owner’s lament, but no more. Now there’s Energy Jumpstart.
The innovative USGBC program is the first pilot prerequisite in USGBC’s Pilot Credit Library. This alternate compliance path will qualify buildings for LEED EBOM if they reduce energy consumption by 20% over a 12-month period, regardless of what their ENERGY STAR score is. Although buildings using this compliance path are only eligible to achieve the LEED Certification rating, it offers a clear route into the LEED system. USGBC also encourages recertification, so buildings using Energy Jumpstart will have the opportunity to re-certify at LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum in the future.
With Energy Jumpstart, USGBC hopes to determine the effectiveness of a performance improvement path for LEED – the more projects that use the pilot prerequisite to jump into LEED, the better. If you would like to see this option become a permanent pathway, then begin using Energy Jumpstart on your projects and spread the word. Let’s get all buildings running efficiently and reward significant achievement throughout the market.
We are surrounded by recommendations. Everywhere we turn we find grand solutions to the grand problem of climate change. Many of the visionaries around us insist on broad policy moves, like a carbon tax, which has little chance of implementation when numerous politicians choose not to accept the simple facts of climate change. Others have focused their resources on battling signature projects like the Keystone pipeline- a battle that might be incredibly important but is largely symbolic. So we do not lack for big pronouncements. What we lack are nuts-and-bolts solutions that we can, each of us, deploy today, while the larger political and geopolitical battles are waged. In this context, it was with great expectations that I picked up Two Degrees, a remarkably practical book by a stellar team at Arup including Fiona Cousins, Alisdair McGregor and Cole Roberts, and 10 additional contributors. Fiona Cousins is on the USGBC Board of Directors and an Urban Green Board Member Emeritus.
It seems likely that Two Degrees will become a definitive resource on the role of the built environment in producing, mitigating and adapting to our changing climate. The book is divided into three broad sections; Fundamentals, Mitigation and Adaptation. Since Sandy, everyone has been talking about resilience and adaptation but as this book was started roughly four years ago the strong emphasis on those subjects has to be counted as relatively prescient.
The Fundamentals section includes a review of the science of climate change and new findings since the most recent IPCC Report in 2007. (And the source of the book’s title.) It’s a strong summary, but for me, this focus on the science tends to obscure the singular content of the book- which are strategies for the built environment- and might even play into the hands of climate change deniers with the inherent assumption that the science needs to be reiterated or bolstered in some way. (And if you’re reading the book, you probably aren’t among those that need convincing about the now fantastically obvious science of climate change.) These early chapters also outline the role of the built environment in greenhouse gas emissions, the major policy prescriptions being pursued at different scales and the basic synergy between mitigation and adaptation. The content of this opening section is first rate, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I couldn’t help wishing the authors had spent time further deepening the exemplary solutions featured later in the book rather than review and update science that is dealt with in so many other places.
I say this partially because the solutions portion of the book is excellent. To date, most of the work in this field has been approached from two distinct perspectives. On the one hand you have the pied pipers, like Al Gore in the film An Inconvenient Truth and Ed Mazria with Architecture 2030, who have focused almost entirely on challenges at the expense of solutions. This can be pretty frustrating and has left a lot of folks on the sidelines- folks that might have engaged in the fight if they’d been handed some tools. On the other hand, among those who have focused on overcoming those challenges. the overwhelming emphasis has been on individual technical widgets that can be plugged into any given project. From solar panels to high efficiency equipment, there is a huge amount of marketing and salesmanship driving what I cannot help but call green Band-Aids.
Two Degrees avoids these pitfalls by largely focusing on the design/decision making process- and then providing a few key examples of successful outcomes from that process. How you approach lowering the impact of a building or community- the actual steps you take, the questions you ask, the tools you use to answer them, and the stakeholders you involve- has a remarkable effect on the results of any project. This focus on the process of decision making (there is even a chapter on how humans make choices, and how irrational we are about them) is commendable and much needed. Following the critical path thinking outlined in various ways throughout this book should improve any project, regardless of scale. They describe, for instance, the importance of 1) reducing loads (both internal and external), 2) developing passive strategies (like natural ventilation or thermal mass) to the extent feasible, prior to 3) developing active strategies to condition the environment and counter the much reduced loads that remain. Only then do they recommend the introduction of renewable energy and offsets. Such a process will allow most teams to optimize buildings as whole systems rather than discrete parts, and understand the multiplied savings that ensue when you pay for one system to solve multiple problems (or, to put it another way, to produce multiple efficiencies.) One of the primary examples the authors offered in support of this process, the subject of an entire chapter, are the efforts over the last decade by Walmart to dramatically reduce its environmental impact. The systems and thinking deployed in this effort are described in great detail, from passive building strategies like daylighting to active systems like a cogeneration plant. Perhaps most notably they don’t shy away from the various challenges the project faced, including commissioning complicated systems, lower-than-expected performance of some equipment, and the prohibitive cost of deploying some of the most successful upgrades, like solar PV panels, across their entire portfolio.
The authors address both the design of buildings and communities, and quite sensibly devote a separate chapter to the particular challenges of existing buildings. (There is a nice case study of a UC San Francisco project in which simple monitoring of airflow rates produced savings in fan power, heating and cooling energy.) Although I wish the community design chapter in the mitigation portion of the book was more granular, the authors do an admirable job of describing the different challenges faced by inland and coastal communities in adapting to climate change. The book excels at describing solutions that address both mitigation and adaptation and they boldly address the cost and economy of climate-positive solutions (a topic most design and engineering professionals avoid.) They also outline the risks for communities in hotter, drier climates as opposed to warmer, wetter climates. These chapters break strategies down in to items that must be done now, like increasing professional capacity and selecting the right places to build, and things like the Thames Barrier in London that must be done in certain long-term timeframes of 25, 100 and 200 years. I will be surprised if these chapters do not become required reading for everyone, including policy makers, looking at adapting to anticipated changes to regional climates.
I have a few quibbles with the book. There are some strong visuals but some of the graphics leave the reader guessing as to the message being conveyed, and some images are not particularly educational or are given a prominence at odds with their importance. There is a fair amount of overly technical language that will limit the book’s appeal to lay people (including chapter titles like Low Carbon and Climate Positive Communities which I had to think about for a second to gather what they were talking about.)
Today, most project teams understand that sustainability is something that they must address in some way. But many still leap from ill-defined green goals to a list of technological widgets that have been incorporated into projects that are not otherwise impacted by green thinking. For those looking to dislodge projects from this typical track, Two Degrees will be an incredibly valuable resource. It goes a long way to helping those folks to, as Amory Lovins says in the introduction, “. . . create abundance by design, through practical transformation, in a spirit of applied hope.”
By the end of 2013, over 1,400 New York City buildings will have to comply with Local Law 87: Audits and Retro-commissioning, the second in a series of laws that make up the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP). In requiring buildings 50,000 SF or greater to perform periodic energy audits, the city hopes to encourage energy efficiency retrofits that typically result in significant energy and cost savings.
Buildings that need to comply with LL87 in 2013 must submit Energy Efficiency Reports demonstrating compliance by December 31, and every 10 years thereafter.
Last year, Urban Green created a Local Law 87 Compliance Checklist and User’s Guide to help property managers and owners understand the steps required to comply and get the most out of the process. With support from NYSERDA and Con Edison, we’ve presented this information free of charge to over 1,000 building owners, managers, and operators. That’s a lot of people but it’s not nearly enough. We’ve undertaken a second round of outreach to more effectively pinpoint property managers and owners who may need added support in complying with the law and re-tuning their buildings.
Here’s what we did:
For a similar educational program on Local Law 84, which required the same group of large buildings to benchmark their energy and water use, we reached out to owners and property managers overseeing the greatest amount of square footage. This methodology was carried over into LL87 outreach but with some slight modifications using lessons learned from the city’s Benchmarking Report released last year.
First, we looked in detail at compliance rates for benchmarking and found geographic areas where compliance was much lower than the overall rate of 75%. We then reached out to Business Improvement Districts, various Chamber of Commerce locations, and neighborhood associations within these areas.
In addition, we looked at compliance rates by building sector and reached out to associations serving sectors with below-average compliance.
We’re optimistic that our combined efforts will improve compliance rates for LL87 in 2013 and subsequent years (10% of 13,500 affected buildings are required to report each year).
We continue to deliver presentations and share information about the law through our fantastic volunteer speakers bureau and Checklist mentioned above. Please contact us if you need to find out how to comply.
The GGBP laws are truly a win-win, as they encourage building practices that reduce energy use and carbon pollution, lower operating costs, and create “green” jobs for New Yorkers who specialize in building audits and commissioning. We think the tools we’ve developed go beyond helping property managers and owners comply with the law, adding value to the process. With an additional 12,000 buildings affected by LL87, we have our work cut out for us!
I attended Greenbuild for the first time in 2004 when it was hosted in Portland and it was truly a revelation. I understood for the first time, in a really tangible way, that I was not alone in my interest in healthy, energy-conserving buildings and communities. Having felt like a pretty lonely voice at various architecture firms over the years, this was enormously empowering. At that time, there were also very few places you could learn about products or systems that were greener than the rest. The floor of that showroom was where I first learned of the existence of Icestone countertops, tankless hot water heating, biodegradable textiles and a host of other amazing materials that few if any architecture firms had in their materials libraries.
Sadly- it was also the first time I would run into the forces of darkness and their heavily funded program to retain the status quo (in which we DO NOT ask questions and we continue poisoning our environment and ourselves.) This came in the form of a booth for the Vinyl Institute. Back in those days most manufacturers had not invested heavily in marketing for Greenbuild. Booths were mostly scrappy affairs, high on content and low on glitz. In the middle of the floor, however, the Vinyl Institute had erected a gleaming white rectangular space, with a staff in pristine white uniforms.
It was like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey and was almost as creepy since it included no products or materials- just disconcertingly cheerful staff handing out white postcards with their pitch for using vinyl in buildings. Written by what must be the most brazen PR team in history, I kept this comical brochure on my desk for years. The debate about whether LEED should reward buildings that avoided vinyl was brewing and the brochure was full of vague language asserting that vinyl created “healthy” buildings because the surface was easy to clean of germs and bacteria- totally ignoring the up- and downstream impacts of polyvinyl chloride. It was mealy-mouthed stuff but the best part was the asterisk at the end of a paragraph, which referenced the following caveat: “This is not meant to be a technical document.” I was very glad to have THAT cleared up.
Sadly- almost ten years later the debate about vinyl and many other materials rages on. The most recent evidence of this battle is industry pressure on the Government Services Administration (GSA) to include other rating systems than LEED in their performance standards. Eco Building Pulse notes the efforts of a group called the American High Performance Buildings Coalition (AHPBC) to influence the public comment process. Certainly this is a decision that should be reviewed. Green Globes is a much better system than it once was, and as code standards like IGCC and ASHRAE 189.1 are developed, the GSA and others should look into whether and how to incorporate them.
But I think we are allowed to question the motives of a group like AHPBC professing deep concern for the environmental impact of our buildings that is funded by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the Adhesive and Sealant Council, the American Chemistry Council, and the aforementioned Vinyl Institute.
Among other complaints, the AHBPC is opposed to the inclusion of the European REACH standard in LEED v4. One of their prominent spokespersons, Craig Silvertooth of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, has even said that the materials standards proposed in LEED v4 “prohibits the design and construction of energy-efficiency, safe buildings.” Because, you know, they don’t have any of THOSE in Europe. Many positions of the AHBPC seemed predicated on a willful misunderstanding about the role of voluntary, market leadership guidelines like LEED and minimum threshold codes for things like life safety. They also have failed to understand that not getting credit for something isn’t the same as that thing being prohibited. You can pack all the non-FSC woods you want in your LEED Platinum building- you’re just not going to get the FSC credit. It must be frustrating to them that LEED is structured so reasonably. The real problem seems to be that they just don’t want anyone, ever, pointing out that lots of their materials contain toxins and carcinogens, or that their extraction processes are deeply harmful to the regional ecology.
In related news, Lloyd Alter over at Treehugger does some digging to discover who is funding the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, another group that seems determined to undermine LEED, and finds deep connections to major players in the far-right conservative universe, including Dick Cheney.
As a proponent of LEED and as someone who disagrees with everything I have read about the positions of AHBPC and TPA, I actually find it heartening to learn that Dick Cheney may be our enemy. From a purely objective perspective, having someone as prominent as that as a detractor is clear evidence that the green building community is an important movement making real impact. Big enough to be noticed by the biggest players is a good thing. It is also evidence that those of us who disagree with folks like AHBPC and TPA need to remain vigilant, engaged and determined. We are what stands between progress and a harsh reversion to the status quo of 20 years ago.
The work of the Building Resiliency Task Force, convened at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn, is now well underway; over 200 members have rolled up their sleeves and taken a first pass at detailed policy proposals.
This week the Task Force Steering Committee is sharing two key documents that chart our progress:
1. Working Group & Committee Guidelines provides a high level statement about our common and differing expectations for the various building sectors (Residential, Commercial, Critical, and Homes).
2. Summary of Proposals frame the proposals we have heard thus far from the working groups and committees. It’s a summary and conceptual overview; teams are hard at work on the details that underlay each “big idea.”
As reflected in the Guidelines, there are certain parameters common to all building types, including an expectation to drive change through best practices, removing barriers, and heightening standards for new construction in areas not covered by existing codes. But we also see very different levels of public interest and obligation for different building types, especially when it comes to retroactive requirements.
On one end of the scale are commercial buildings, where we will largely look to the market and incentives to drive changes in existing buildings. On the other end are critical buildings, which we expect to be fully functional no matter what our changing climate may bring. And somewhere in the middle are residential buildings where some level of functionality is absolutely necessary, though we must balance any requirements against financial hardship.
These documents will guide our work going forward. We look forward to early summer when the Task Force’s work will be complete and we can issue our report and recommendations.
A New York City Council vote today brings us to a new milestone: 40 Green Codes Task Force proposals are now incorporated into laws and practices.
The particular proposal that brought us to this milestone was UE1 – Increasing Biodiversity in Public Landscapes. In UE1, the Green Codes Task Force was concerned about the impact of public landscaping practices on urban ecology. Foreign species and monocultures widely used in landscaping tend to displace native plant species, and deprive native birds and other animals of the habitat to which they had been accustomed. Many of these species also tend to run amok, spreading far beyond the original planting sites. In addition, many monocultures require intensive irrigation and fertilization, wasting water and polluting the environment.
The law passed today requires the Parks Department to maximize the use of plant species that are native to New York City, where appropriate, and to prohibit the planting of invasive species. Native species tend to require less water and fertilization, and are more likely to survive drought and disease. The use of native species also helps preserve our natural ecosystems, which help clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.
The Council also passed a related law requiring that Parks Department plantings help in stormwater control. The Parks Department is to develop a manual providing information about what plant species and planting materials (i.e., soils) best facilitate stormwater retention, and guidelines for planning and structuring plantings for stormwater management. This law encourages innovative stormwater management practices, as the GCTF called for in its proposal SW5.
Both the stormwater rules and the native species rules are to be followed in Parks Department plantings starting on May 1, 2014. The manuals the department develops will also be available on the city’s website for public use.
The Delaware Aqueduct is the world’s longest tunnel and an engineering marvel, delivering water 85 miles to the city using only gravity. However, a portion of it travels through soft limestone and this has become a problem. A small stretch has been leaking water for decades – up to 35 million gallons per day, or more than 3% of the city’s water consumption.
From 2015-2019, NYC will be constructing an 8-mile bypass tunnel around these leaks. During most of this construction the Delaware Aqueduct will continue delivering water, but at some point it will need to close to make the connection to the bypass. Read the details from the Department of Environmental Protection here.
How will New York function with 50% of its water supply turned off? Thankfully, by the time the Delaware spigots close, those at the new Croton Filtration Plant will open. Right now, 10% of our water comes from Croton; when the plant is completed, it can supply 30%. The city has a few other tricks up its sleeve like moving water between various reservoirs and relying on groundwater supply in Queens. The challenge is also mitigated thanks to a 2010 law that increases water efficiency standards for new plumbing fixtures (a Green Codes Task Force recommendation). However, it seems probable that there will be some restrictions on water use that year, such as limits on water for landscaping. Without restrictions, NYC might be forced to “borrow” water from neighbors in New Jersey and Long Island.
From time to time I’ve heard the sentiment that thanks to climate change, we no longer need to worry so much about water efficiency in New York. This theory is that our region is getting wetter, which is why we haven’t had a drought in 10 years. That may be the case, but I wouldn’t want to bet my money – or my drinking water supply – on what the weather forecast predicts for next week, never mind years out. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that water efficiency ensures we aren’t needlessly wasting resources and enables us to operate our drinking water infrastructure below capacity, giving us critical breathing room at times like the closing of the Delaware Aqueduct.
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