The Great Debate: 2011’s Key Sustainability Issues

Dec. 31, 2010

BUILDINGS: As budgets are allowing for less money to invest, people are not taking sustainability initiatives because money is not provided for the initiatives. In this environment, what are the most effective low-cost sustainability options that facility managers can take?

Coalson: While there is a long list of "low hanging fruit" type opportunities, the viability of those varies greatly by building. What we are seeing is a focus on process innovation where property managers, facility managers, and building engineers are assessing the ongoing practices and policies that impact building performance. An example of this is rolling out training programs that allow onsite staff to adopt energy auditing or even continuous commissioning as a core function.

Sharrard: Even in a down economy, we see many projects leveraging local and federal funds to make upfront investments in facility improvements. These building owners and operators are investing to improve not only their day-to-day maintenance, but also the short- and long-term costs of their operations. The first steps facility managers can take to operate their facilities smarter are the same as they’ve always been: update lighting lamps and fixtures, retro-commission building systems (and the whole building, if possible), and educate occupants about energy and cost-saving measures they can take at work and home.

BUILDINGS: With the EPA passing greenhouse gas reporting regulations in 2009, where is the future of the regulatory apparatus headed? Will these regulations be expanded? Are there more regulations on the way?

Coalson: It seems right now that most regulatory advances will be coming at the state or local level. While the EPA changes are certainly paving the way for the Feds to play a more active role, it is murky as to how much momentum really exists at that level. What seems more viable is the EPA changes have opened the door for state agencies that have wanted to take a more active position.

Sharrard: The political atmosphere right now does not seem conducive to increased federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. However, legislation is not the only mechanism for reducing environmental impacts. Many governments and municipalities are addressing greenhouse gas emission reduction locally through building upgrades and regional climate initiatives. The Pittsburgh Climate Initiative works collaboratively in the Pittsburgh region to reduce greenhouse gases through measurable actions in the community, business, government, and higher education sectors.

Buildings: We are currently seeing legal challenges to LEED certification – New York City’s luxury condominium, Riverhouse One Rockefeller Park, and an Eagle River, WI, school, Northland Pines High School, being two examples. How do you believe the USGBC and other green certification organizations will protect themselves, and the certification programs, from legal ramifications?

Coalson: Tough question, and honestly not one I am well-positioned to address. Each of these cases is fairly unique and has its own set of circumstances and claims. Personal opinions aside, legal challenges are fairly common events within the real estate industry and clearly green building certification is not immune. At the end of the day, the key is for project teams and certification bodies to function in as clear, thoughtful, and transparent of a way as they possibly can. If the genuine focus is to design, construct, and operate high-performing buildings and people avoid the urge to over-promise, then in the vast majority of cases, people will remain aligned.

That said, the industry can make progress on how we better align design and construction with occupancy so that everyone who impacts building performance can be best positioned to do so successfully.

Sharrard: Though a few recent lawsuits are challenging LEED through the judicial system, these are not the first legal disputes about building design, construction, or performance. Green building and product certifications have captured the interest of the legal profession for some time, and the success or failure of these two recent lawsuits will help determine what future safeguards green building designers, contractors, and owners will need to incorporate into their design and construction processes in the future.

Buildings: What are the three key sustainability issues that you foresee in 2011? In what way, if any, will these issues differ from 2010 and 2012

Coalson: Process innovation and automation – integrated design process, LEED automation, building dashboards, etc. It was just building momentum in 2010 and sets the stage for a very active 2012.

Scale jumping – the economy seems to have sparked a significant focus on executing sustainability efforts at larger scales. This effort drives down unit cost and offers quicker competitive separation. Like process innovation and automation, this was building momentum and sets the stage for a very active 2012.

The money – as more and more companies are seeking strategies to enhance performance and reduce expenses, they are, in fact, backing into sustainability. This is not so much new, but the rate of escalation is building and will keep building.

Sharrard: The key 2011 sustainability issues for the building industry will be the same as for 2010 and 2012. Key issues we see in western Pennsylvania are as follows:

  • How can we more quickly and effectively transition our existing building stock into higher performing buildings?
  • How can we collect more accurate and comparable information about building investment, operational, and occupant-based performance?
  • How can we encourage a larger percentage of buildings to incorporate green and sustainable principles and practices while continuing to drive innovation among practitioners who have been building green for decades?

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