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A Framework for Equity and Buildings with Kathryn Wright

As building professionals and policymakers, it is our responsibility to integrate equity into our work. But how do we ensure equity is being addressed in a comprehensive manner? Fortunately, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) has developed a framework for local government decision makers to serve as a guide for ensuring equity in the built environment.

On this episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with USDN’s Program Director for Building Energy, Kathryn Wright. Kathryn summarizes some of the concepts and practices highlighted in the framework and explains how her personal experiences drove her to improve equity in buildings.

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Air-Source Heat Pumps in Homes: Step #2 – Pay Attention to the Envelope

This is part of a series; see the first post here.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone:  In most homes, insulation and air sealing are the most effective ways to improve comfort and reduce heating and cooling costs.

This holds true regardless of heating systems or fuels used. So why is it emphasized even more when talking about heat pumps and electrification? Four reasons.

1.  Heating System Capacity and Cost.

Say your home has a design heating load of 60,000 Btu/h.[1] If heating with fuel, you’ll need a furnace or boiler with a capacity of at least 60,000 Btu/h. These are easy to find. (In fact, you may have a hard time finding heating systems with capacities lower than this.) Air-source heat pumps, on the other hand, have smaller capacities. I don’t think you’ll find an ASHP with heating output of 60,000 Btu/h at cold winter temperatures. So to meet this load, you’ll need multiple ASHPs. And that gets pricey.

Even if you are not talking about multiple heat pumps, a 3-ton[2] heat pump is quite a bit less costly than a 5-ton heat pump. Costs of heat pumps scale more dramatically than costs of boilers and furnaces. So lower heating loads → fewer, smaller heat pumps → lower upfront costs.

Spray foam insulation

Spray foam in an attic – one of many ways to insulate and seal.

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Choose Your Adventure: Constructing New vs. Adapting Old

Carbon emissions from new construction graphTo meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we must make decisions that will result in the greatest near-term carbon savings. This means taking into account both embodied carbon—those upfront emissions associated with the extraction, manufacture, transportation, and assembly of building materials—as well as the carbon that’s emitted over the course of the building’s operational phase.

We can build a high-performance building with very low operational emissions, but if its embodied emissions are so high that even if it’s a net-zero energy building (meaning it has net-zero operational energy consumption) it would take decades for the building to reach net-zero carbon (meaning it has net zero whole-building lifetime carbon emissions), we’re not actually helping to solve the critical issue of near-term carbon.

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(ENCORE) Why is Kitchen Ventilation So Important? With Dr. Iain Walker from LBNL

We first released this episode in April 2019. Since then, our topic of discussion with Iain has only become more relevant. We recently caught up with Iain and have some updates to share, which are reflected in the resources below and at the end of the episode. Enjoy!


When you fire on a stove-top burner, whether it is electric, gas, or convection, many byproducts are released. This increase in moisture, gas, and other particulates is not only detrimental to the health of a building, but dangerous for human health as well.

To advance our knowledge on this topic, we invited building scientist and ventilation expert, Dr. Iain Walker, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Dr. Walker discusses strategies for controlling byproducts associated with cooking by focusing on kitchen ventilation.

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Utilizing Enterprise Green Communities to Drive Equity in Affordable Housing

EGC logoIs Sustainability only for the wealthy? While staring at the double-digit price of organic tomatoes at the local farmers’ market I am inclined to think sustainable is synonymous with exclusive. Unfortunately, many things labeled “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” seem not to be within everyone’s budget. A society where the cost of a Tesla is the average annual income of a household easily convinces us that making sustainable choices comes with a cost many can’t afford.

The ”green” housing industry is no different. Walkable and well-connected neighborhoods, where residents can enjoy abundant services are often the pricey neighborhoods. Toxic-free natural materials, daylight, fresh air, and even living green walls fill the homes of the wealthier and healthier tenants, while high-efficient mechanical systems and solar panels provide (almost invisible) energy savings as compared to their sky-high rents.

On the other side, low-income families are often located in neighborhoods at the edges of cities where community services and fresh healthy food are out of reach except by driving, and where parks and options to catch some fresh air are far and rare. Here the apartments are more likely to be exposed to toxic materials, increasing chances to develop asthma or other diseases. Energy bills are often high with little opportunity to get any lower by using newer energy-saving appliances and equipment.

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Staff Profile: Minaiel Shoaib – Building Systems Analyst

Each day, SWA’s team of over 110 staff, spanning four east coast office locations, collaborate closely to create more sustainable, efficient, healthy, and accessible buildings. We have a passion and drive to implement best-practice solutions that help clients reach their goals – and that ultimately help the people that occupy these spaces and the environment.
We offer a wide breadth of services at SWA, in turn, we have a lot of staff who do very different things! Our knowledgeable staff provide consulting for services such as existing building decarbonization, accessibility compliance, net-zero construction, and green building program certification. We also have an outstanding operations team that help to ensure the business is optimized to run smoothly and efficiently on a daily basis.
We want to highlight all of this amazing talent that we have at SWA; so, join us in our series of staff profiles that will span across all teams, job levels, and offices. Check out our Careers page as well, for our open positions!

For our second staff profile, we interviewed Minaiel Shoaib, a Building Systems Analyst on our BODE (Buildings Operation, Decarbonization, and Efficiency) team. Minaiel is based out of our New York City office and has been at SWA for 1.5 years!

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Air-Source Heat Pumps in Homes: Step #1 – Be clear about goals

This is part of a series; see the first post here.

Building new homes that are all electric makes TONS of sense. I’ve written about that before. Electrifying existing single-family homes, however, is not necessarily straightforward. Many state and utility programs in the Northeast[1] offer hefty incentives for air-source heat pumps (ASHPs), but fuel-fired systems are often left in place and used as the primary heating system. Clearly, when that’s the case, carbon emissions are not reduced much. Other programs are pushing completely electrifying homes and removing fossil fuels, but these programs are not gaining all that much traction.

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to consider homeowners’ goals and desires when installing heat pumps in homes. I don’t necessarily see this considered by policy makers and electrification programs, and I think it’s a big disconnect. Programs and policies are focused on the big picture (appropriately) and generally want to reduce/eliminate fossil fuels to help meet carbon reduction goals. What homeowners want can vary like crazy.

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Trends in Healthcare: Hospital Gardens

“Trends in Healthcare” is a recurring series that focuses on exciting new designs and technologies we’re seeing in healthcare projects and provides best practices on how to ensure that these latest trends are accessible to persons with disabilities. We build on the wealth of knowledge we gain from working with healthcare design teams, construction crews, and practitioners to provide practical solutions for achieving accessible healthcare environments.


Accessible courtyardAccess to nature is known to promote healing and improve mental and physical wellbeing. The sights and sounds of the natural world have been proven to relieve anxiety, an attribute that can be immensely impactful in a hospital environment where patients, visitors, and staff experience increased stress on a consistent basis. With this in mind, hospital gardens that provide much needed respite have become an essential feature in many healthcare facilities. Even in hospitals built in places like New York City, where space is at a premium, healthcare owners and designers are prioritizing the integration of gardens and other natural spaces into facilities.

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Best Practices for Designing & Installing VRF Systems in Commercial and Multifamily Applications (Part 1)

With LL97 fines around the corner, building owners and managers are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To do so, building systems will need to rely on an increasingly green electric grid rather than fossil fuels.

And as we look to electrify our buildings’ heating and cooling systems, Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) systems have emerged as one solution. With buildings increasingly turning to this technology, we are sharing our current best practices for designing, installing, and operating VRF systems to help everyone — from design engineers and developers to installers and building operators — learn more about the nuances of VRF.

These best practices are based on manufacturers’ literature, ASHRAE and IECC standards, conversations with field technicians, design engineers, building operators, and manufacturers’ representatives, as well as Steven Winter Associates’ extensive functional testing experience. While the focus is intended to be large VRF systems ( >5 tons), many of the best practices are also applicable to smaller mini-split or multi-split systems.

Common terms used throughout this post are defined for those new to the topic and can be found by scrolling to the bottom of the blog.

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The Devil’s in the Details: Common Accessibility Oversights with Peter Stratton

With all of the moving parts during the design and construction of a building project, one wrong move can compromise accessibility compliance. Unintentional oversights are commonplace when project teams don’t realize the importance of accessibility compliance and how it can make or break a project’s success. In the end, the devil’s in the details.

On this episode, we welcome back SWA’s Managing Director of Accessibility Services, Peter Stratton. Peter describes the top ten oversights made by project teams during the design and construction phases that typically lead to noncompliance with accessibility requirements. Learn why they happen, and how they can be identified and avoided in your project!

Follow along with Peter’s list of accessibility oversights below:

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