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Integrating Social Equity Into Green Building – Part 3: Design, Construction, and Operations

In part one of this blog series, we established that buildings are only sustainable if they are equitable and accessible for all occupants. In part two, we detailed how to apply these principles to the planning stages and provided resources for improving social outcomes in your projects. In this post, part three, we will outline ways in which we can integrate principles of social equity into the design, construction, and operations phases.

Design Phase

Image of JUST label

JUST Label (https://living-future.org/just/case-studies/ilfi/)

Stakeholders

The earlier you commit to an inclusive and integrative design process, the better. The broader the group of stakeholders involved, the better. For example, consider including members from the following groups, among others, to participate in early visioning and planning discussions and workshops:

  • Leaders of local community groups;
  • Members of future user groups (occupants, tenants, staff, operations team, people with disabilities, etc.);
  • Public health professionals;
  • Local policymakers and government officials;
  • Representatives from local cultural organizations;
  • Specialists in the local natural and social history, ecology, economy, ethnography, building code, etc.;
  • Subject matter experts in sustainability, energy, accessibility, etc.

When possible, recruit project team members from companies that have committed to social responsibility by publishing a JUST Label or other social responsibility report. Companies can pursue a JUST Label and become a resource for others.

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Solar Panels or Asthma? Equity and the Built Environment with Jeremy Hays

Social equity is key to the work that we do in the built environment. Far too often, marginalized communities receive more of the burdens and less of the benefits of 21st century living – especially when it comes to housing. As an industry, it is our responsibility to address these disparities and come up with solutions that are inclusive of all people. But first, we wanted to grow our own understanding of the issues and hear what others are doing to prioritize social equity in the built environment.

Our guest for this month’s episode of Buildings + Beyond is Jeremy Hays. Jeremy has a wealth of knowledge, experience, and perspective that stems from a combination of social and environmental justice. We learn about how cities are incorporating equity into their sustainability plans, why diversity of perspectives can create better solutions, and how actively thinking about equity can help the transition to a green economy.

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‘Back to the Basics’ of Affordable Housing with Les Bluestone

In a city as crowded and expensive as New York City, there is a growing need for access to safe and affordable housing. With this demand comes great innovation, as well as roadblocks and challenges between construction, financing, and policy.

In this month’s Buildings + Beyond episode, Robb sits down with Les Bluestone, co-founder of Blue Sea Development. Les has been leading the way in affordable, green building in New York City since the 80’s. He gives us a brief history lesson on affordable housing in NYC, and provides us with his outlook of what development and construction will look like in 5 years and beyond.

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Interesting Elements: A Modeling View on Net Zero Homes

I recently performed some net zero energy modeling on a single-family home for work. Around the same time, I got to chatting with my neighbor (mindful of social distancing) and when I mentioned net zero,  he said, “Is that even possible?” AH! Get the word out. We have the means to offset our home energy use. What follows are the basics to consider when trying to fully offset home energy along with a breakdown of how different upgrades can affect energy use.

There are lots of resources available on how to reduce home energy use. You can look at program requirements and guidelines like the Zero Energy Ready Program or Passive House. Through modeling I will demonstrate how the energy use numbers change and describe what we have seen in real-world examples of net zero homes. Net zero is not new and we’ll be looking at some specific pieces of single family home modeling.

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10 Ways to Enjoy a Festive AND Sustainable Holiday Season

Between gift shopping and trying to keep up the holiday spirit with decorations at home, it can be frustrating to try to remain sustainable. It may feel as though you’re forced to choose between enjoying the holidays and feeling guilty about putting up all those lights around your tree.

Here are 10 ways you can have a festive holiday and feel better about it too:

Holiday Sustainability Ideas infographic

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Call to Action: Voting Open Until December 6th on the Changes Proposed to the 2021 IECC

ICYMI: The code change proposals for the 2021 IECC are open for voting by Governmental Member Voting Representatives (GMVR) from Monday, November 18th through Friday, December 6th, and your vote is instrumental in making buildings consume less energy! [Need a quick refresher on the code process? Check out our blog post here!]

Does your vote even matter?

Overall, there are not actually that many voters on a given proposal. In the energy proposals, last cycle, it ranged from about 200-400 voters per proposal, even though there were a total of 1,247 voters on the Group B codes, which includes the IECC.

IECC voting numbers

 

So a small handful of voters can entirely shape the future of the energy codes that dictate how energy efficient our buildings will be! If history repeats itself, while some online voters tend to align with the Committee, many online voters align their votes with those cast by their fellow ICC voters at the Public Comment Hearings. This happened 81% of the time in 2016. Unlike 2016, in this cycle all the electronic votes cast during the Public Comment Hearings will be rolled into the online vote tally (although those voters can still change their vote).

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New York City LL92 and LL94: Sustainable Rooftops

Image of solar panelsAs part of the Climate Mobilization Act, and in accordance with the its greater carbon emissions reduction goals, New York City passed Local Laws 92 and 94 in April 2019, mandating the installation of rooftop solar photovoltaic systems and/or green roofs on buildings across the city. The new requirements will go into effect on November 15, 2019 and will apply to all new buildings and any existing buildings completing a full roof deck or assembly replacement.

The Mayor’s Office estimates that the solar and green roof installations mandated by these bills will result in 300 MW of new solar capacity, 15 million gallons of new stormwater management capacity, 1 million tons of greenhouse gas reductions, and hundreds of green jobs. Based on these projections, this will account for close to 2.5% of the city’s overall emissions reduction goals.*

The laws require that solar and/or a green roof be installed on all available roof space. Areas deemed “not available” and excluded from the requirements include:

  • Areas obstructed by rooftop structures, mechanical equipment, towers, parapets, guardrails, solar thermal systems, cisterns, etc.;
  • Fire access pathways and zoning setbacks;
  • Recreational spaces that are recorded in the Certificate of Occupancy.

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Zero(ish) – Waste Living

In a world where everything seems to be packaged in two layers of plastic, where we are encouraged to constantly discard items to make room for new ones, and where social media drives our desire to consume the newest trends, it can seem impossible to reduce our waste. Living a zero-waste lifestyle seems almost too overwhelming. I find myself wondering, “How can I possibly reduce waste when industries target consumers to do the opposite?” and “Even if I do make changes in my own habits, is it enough to make a difference?

I struggle with the same paralyzing vastness that Jonathan Chapman mentions throughout his book Emotionally Durable Design. Paralyzing vastness describes the tendency to do nothing when a task seems too large to conquer, instead of taking smaller steps. In the past, the seemingly vast nature of zero-waste living discouraged me from doing anything beyond entry-level recycling, but I realized that minimizing my waste is something worth tackling. Therefore, I will be sharing some ideas for working towards a zero(ish)-waste lifestyle — because going from zero to one hundred, or in this case one hundred to zero can be scary — and I’ll include my experience implementing a few of the ideas myself.

WEEK ONE: Apartment Composting

In blogs and articles that speak on behalf of zero-waste living, the importance of sharing with others and asking for help getting started is most frequently emphasized. For example, my apartment complex does not offer any composting services, but the SWA office does (yay sharing!). For week one, I started composting and designated two small resealable containers — one for food waste, and another for paper towels — that are now living on my kitchen counter. I intended on utilizing these two bins throughout the week, and then bringing them to the office for a dump. If you have the ability to start your own compost bin, that’s great too.

While using paper towels throughout the week, I felt less bad about it knowing that they wouldn’t be going into the landfill, but I developed some questions: If I use the paper towel with cleaning supplies, can it be composted?… Is it worth collecting small bits of food waste when I could just eviscerate them in the garbage disposal?… Are garbage disposals bad for the environment and/or do they affect the energy utilized for wastewater treatment?

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Choosing Insulation for Carbon Value – Why More is Not Always Better Part 1

SWA’s Enclosure Group is acutely aware that insulation is the most important single material choice to maximize the enclosure’s thermal resistance over its operational life. Many of us in the building industry believe that, combined with a good continuous air seal, the highest insulation value makes the greenest enclosure, helping to reduce a structure’s carbon footprint and combat climate change. It may come as a surprise, then, that some of the most commonly used insulation materials are so carbon-heavy to manufacture and/or install, that for many decades they wipe away the carbon-energy savings they are supposed to provide.  The following is a detailed discussion of how and why this is, and what the industry is doing to change the equation.

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon

The built environment looms large in the climate picture, because almost 40% of the total carbon put into the planet’s atmosphere each year is attributed to buildings. Over the past 30 years of green building, we have overwhelmingly focused on operational carbon – the carbon that buildings emit as they are being used. Only recently have we begun to focus on embodied carbon – the carbon that goes into constructing buildings, which is typically far greater than the energy saved in the first decades of operation. Changes in energy codes are aimed at operational carbon, and even those organizations and standards that have been at the forefront of promoting sustainable building [LEED, PH] have not been quantifying or limiting embodied carbon, although they bring attention to it.

The Time Value of Carbon

Assuming that a building stands for many decades, or even centuries, its operational carbon will eclipse its embodied carbon over its lifetime, and therefore when the building’s carbon Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is calculated, operational carbon savings will be more important than embodied carbon saved/spent in the long run. Why does embodied carbon deserve equal weight with operational carbon? Because of the total global carbon emissions from buildings, 28% is pegged to embodied carbon. That’s already a large percentage, but when you consider the near term, the first 30 years of a building’s life, the percentage jumps to about 50%. In effect, every new building is in carbon debt upon completion due to the huge amount of carbon emitted  in order to construct it., And in order for the climate to benefit from the energy savings provided by a well-insulated and sealed enclosure and a high efficiency energy system, the building needs to last and be used for a very long time. The problem is that we may not have 30 years, let alone 60, to pay off that carbon debt.

Total Carbon Emissions of Global New Construction from 2020-2050 graph. Operational Carbon represents 51% and Embodied Carbon represents 49%

In the first 30 years of a building’s operational life, 50% of its total carbon emissions are still due to embodied carbon (Source: Architecture 2030)

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Become a Carbon Hero with Five Easy Tactics

Before you can really dig deep into the advanced design concepts of embodied carbon analysis and whole building energy modeling, you must first perform some bare minimum prep work. An easy way to get the pre-schematic plan up on its legs quickly is to add qualitative performance measures to the architect’s program study or create an Owners Project Requirements (OPR) document. For this article, “qualitative performance measures” refer to the metrics that express embodied carbon, but can also include operational energy, water, and even healthy materials.

Integrated Design Process ImageAn integrated design process (IDP) anchors the architectural program to performance metrics such as carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), Energy Use Intensity (EUI), and zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI). So, by completing the IDP, you’re getting the basic tools to optimize embodied carbon and operational energy use in your design:

  1. Target the early phase of the project
  2. Prepare a Carbon Hotspot and Simple Box energy analysis to compare carbon sensitivity of different schemes not limited to wall and roof construction, massing, and solar exposure.
  3. Schedule a workshop with the design team and owner to discuss findings and recommendations.
  4. Establish performance targets such as total Carbon Dioxide equivalents as a basic program requirement.
  5. Choose a compliance pathway and verify design with Life Cycle Analysis and a Whole Building Energy model.

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