City Rising 4: Greening Buildings with Philadelphia 2030 District
Alex Dews, Director of Green Building United, joins us to talk about the Philadelphia 2030 District, with goals including 50% reductions in energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions (below baselines) by the year 2030. Find out how cities are combating climate change is changing the buildings we work, live and use every day.
CITY RISING EPISODE 4: Philadelphia 2030 district WITH Alex Dews, Green Building united
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EPISODE four OF CITY RISING – Philadelphia 2030 District, green buildings, energy use & more
We’ve transcribed City Rising to help make the message more accessible.
Julie Hancher: Welcome to City Rising, a podcast that compares how different cities are working towards climate solutions. I’m Julie Hancher, co-founder, and editor with Green Philly.
Brady Halligan: And I’m Brady Halligan, the director of strategy and business development with the green program. Our goal is to chat with diverse stakeholders about our changing environment on how it connects people planet and creates future opportunities.
Julie Hancher: Green Philly as a website that helps you live a more sustainable lifestyle by making sustainability simple, accessible, and fun. Find recycling tips, news about local changemakers and upcoming events by visiting thegreencities.wpengine.com.
Julie Hancher: One way cities are combating climate change is changing the buildings we work, live and use every day. Philadelphia announced the 2030 district in October 2017 leading the charge is green, building united, a nonprofit that promotes the development of buildings that are sustainable, healthy for inhabitants, resilient and cost-effective. Today we have Alex Dews, Director of green building united, joining us to discuss this initiative. Hey Alex.
Alex Dews: Hi Julie. Thanks for having me.
Julie Hancher: Thanks for being with us today.
Alex Dews: Absolutely. Happy to do it.
Julie Hancher: Awesome. So I know previously before you were a director of Green Building United, you were working for the city of Philadelphia in city government. So how has the experience of working in the government, specifically with the office of sustainability, has strengthened your experience leading a nonprofit?
Alex Dews: So actually I started my career at working in real estate development here in Philadelphia before taking a detour into city government for about five years and then moving into the nonprofit sector. So I’ve got an interesting perspective on how real estate development in the built environment works from all of those different angles. But I’d say specifically having the experience of working in government before moving to the nonprofit sector is really helpful to understand how policy, both development, and implementation works because that’s a big part of the work that we want to do as a nonprofit that has the mission to make the environment healthier and more sustainable. As we know, we need policy. We also know we need programs that are going to help support the work that people are already doing or the work that people aspire to do. And I think anytime when that works, well it’s because there are partnerships between the private sector but also government and the nonprofit sector really can’t move these goals the way we need to unless all of the partners are working together effectively.
Julie Hancher: And how do you feel like that’s changing? Is it’ strengthening or what with the federal sector sometimes maybe withdrawing for some of these initiatives with the Paris Climate Accord?
Alex Dews: Sure. I think it definitely cuts both ways. You know, it does not help to have a federal government that is moved us backward on a lot the things where we’d seen progress over the last couple of decades, and so I don’t want to minimize that, but at the same time, a lot of the work that we do as a regional organization and the city government does is focused more at the local level. People have more of an opportunity to engage with that in the place that they live in, the buildings that they work in. And so a lot of the sustainability progress that I worked on managing and tracking and reporting on when I was with the city’s office of sustainability, it really is local. It helps to have some federal support, but a lot of the work happens regardless of what’s happening in Washington. So a lot of that progress has been made and continues to be made under the leadership of Mayor Kenney and the office of sustainability and a lot of the partners that they’ve brought on board.
So I, I think we have no choice but to remain optimistic and a lot of great things are still happening, and you know, federal administrations don’t last forever either. So I think we’ve got to be ready for when the federal government is ready to lead again. But in the meantime need to take things into our own hands. And a great example of that recently is Pennsylvania had been a laggard on adopting updated building codes for a long time. Building codes are not the most exciting thing to talk about at a party, but really important in terms of driving forward the performance of the built environment. Which is a huge contributor to climate, a human health, the economy, and because of a lot of partnerships in the nonprofit sector and leadership in Philadelphia city government, Pennsylvania was able to move forward to a much more advanced building code in Philadelphia is now actually a national leader in terms of adopting among the most up-to-date building codes anywhere in the country.
Julie Hancher: And that actually brings up a great point. So why are building so carbon intensive and what’s the highest parts that, you know, make the carbon footprints in each building?
Alex Dews: Buildings use a lot of energy. So I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that in Philadelphia, in any other city with some density buildings account for more than half and is as much as 75, 80 percent of the carbon emissions. And that’s because it takes a lot of energy to heat and cool them. And also over time, we’ve been plugging a lot more things in. So the plug loads in buildings have dramatically increased over the last 25 years. And even while things become more efficient, we’re just using a lot of energy in buildings. And so the great news is that a lot of that energy right now is not managed very well and is wasted. The EPA estimates about 30 percent of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. So there’s a big opportunity to reduce that. And typically it pays for itself, you know, the returns are, are there, you know, if you want to take on a project, it’s gonna pay back pretty quickly.
Alex Dews: And the benefits beyond economics tend to be that people are more comfortable and happier in the building as well. It just doesn’t tend to be a top priority in a lot of settings in the commercial building space. So that’s why we’re working to do outreach and education to that sector to help folks understand when the best times are to approach those kinds of projects. But yeah, buildings will remain one of the major contributors to climate change here in Philly and in big cities. But you know, again, the good news is it’s one of the places where we actually do have quite a bit of control and can make some serious headway in moving towards Philadelphia’s goal of reaching 80 percent carbon emissions reductions by 2050.
Julie Hancher: It’s funny too, because, you know, we think of these things, buildings, and energy use and it almost seems like it’s like the third party thing that can consume energy. But you were on our panel for Green Philly last June talking about energy. I think one of the most interesting takeaways and reminders is that it’s the people using the energy within the buildings, right?
Alex Dews: Ideally it is, but you know, sometimes when we’re leaving lights on overnight or HVAC systems on overnight with set points that are really out of line with where they should be. It’s not the people using the buildings. It’s just kind of, that’s where the waste is. But yeah, I mean it’s not to say that energy use in buildings is a bad thing. Obviously, it’s very necessary and important. And we do a lot of amazing things with the energy we use in buildings, but managing that better is something that, you know, there’s so much more opportunity through technology and just through basic understanding and that’s where things like energy benchmarking and disclosure come in to raise the level of awareness about this being something that’s not just a fixed cost and it is something that you have control over, but until you start measuring it, it’s really hard to understand those opportunities.
Julie Hancher: Definitely. So tell me about how Philadelphia came to join the 2030 district initiative.
Alex Dews: Yeah. So it really actually starts in Philadelphia with what I was mentioning before, the energy benchmarking and disclosure work that came out of the office of sustainability and the leadership of Councilwoman Reynolds Brown back in 2012, a bill was passed that requires all large buildings over 50,000 square feet, which is about the size of a Best Buy. If you’re looking at one story, obviously smaller if it’s multistory, but every building in Philly that’s that big or bigger has to report annually on energy and water use. And they get a report card on that. It’s kind of like a miles-per-gallon rating for buildings. So for a lot of folks that have never paid attention to their energy use or thought about opportunities to improve it, this is a really helpful educational piece to understand where they are relative to peers. And the value of the benchmark is to look at comparing a building with its peers with other like building.
Alex Dews: So if you’re a school building, you’re not getting compared to a shopping center or a high rise you’re getting compared to other school buildings and seeing how do you stack up. So 2013 was the first year of implementation for that. Five years in every year has had over a 90 percent compliance rate with that. And we’re talking about 3000 buildings in the city, about 300 million square feet of space, which is over a quarter of the space, the built space in the city. So that’s capturing a lot of the opportunity there. And a lot of education outreach, understanding of the opportunity has taken place as a result of that. But we at Green Building United, we’re thinking, what’s the next thing? Where do we need to go from there? Where do we start to translate some of that information into action and the 2030 district is something we’d been aware of for awhile.
Alex Dews: We knew our good friends out in Pittsburgh at the Green Building Alliance had been leading a district for a while and I believe it’s now about 20 cities around the country and in Canada that have used this model and basically the idea is exactly that, taking the information and turning it into action and rather than it being a mandate or legislation, it’s private sector led. It’s voluntary, and a lot of the leaders in the commercial real estate have their own internal commitments to climate to energy efficiency. So it. It’s a natural fit, but what’s great about it in each locality is it starts to build this community of practice among the ownership and the management of the buildings to look at how do you get the most out of your building? How do you operate it most efficiently and effectively, and how do you keep making a change?
Whether it’s a big renovation all at once or gradual improvements that are going to be to the benefit of the tenants, but also to the bottom line. So we launched our district back in October of last year. We’re right around 20 million square feet of space and this is against focused in center city, university city, where we have the biggest density of large buildings and those were the largest contributors to the climate issue and the biggest opportunity, so while we have other initiatives that are focused at the neighborhood level, at the residential level, this one really is looking at what’s the biggest lever, where’s the biggest opportunity? And when you’re thinking about a high rise that’s a million square feet, that’s thousands and thousands of houses worth of energy that we’re able to make a small change in that building and see a really massive reduction in carbon emissions. That cause climate change.
Julie Hancher: Yeah. When you talk about something like 20 million square feet, how do you even picture that? Or how could you try to, you know? Obviously, we’re on the podcast, so that people can’t just look at a drawing? They could look at our show notes…
Alex Dews: Yeah, so it’s, it’s a difficult thing to think about things at that scale. You know, we’re, we’re looking at close to a billion square feet of space in the city overall. Three hundred million square feet of benchmark space, 20 million square feet. You know, those numbers can start to lose meaning because what does that actually look like? To your point, I think the best way to think about it from my perspective is if you were in Philadelphia for example, and you have a vista of the, of the skyline, you want all those buildings that you can see from a distance. Those are the biggest opportunities. You want them to be committed to this initiative and you want to know that you know those with the biggest opportunity or making that commitment and are making the improvement because the reality is no matter how much solar wind, hydropower, we’re able to develop within Philadelphia, outside of it, you know, for our regional grid mix, unless the built environment, unless the buildings can continuously find ways to use less energy, we’re not going to ever build enough renewable energy to get us where we need to go.
Really exciting things happening with new construction projects. Whether that’s residential standards like Passive house or net zero ready with the Department of Energy. So the new construction buildings are, you know, achieving net zero or close to net zero. But for Philadelphia and a lot of older cities where most of the buildings that are going to be here in 50 years are already here. The opportunity is to look at improvements within the building and that’s technology and automation. But it’s also changing out some of the components of the buildings that are now, you know, aging out of their useful life cycle.
Julie Hancher: And when you’re talking about, I know it’s a private sector-led initiative, but how are buildings like City Hall trying to make differences in the government sector?
Alex Dews: Yeah. So while it is private sector led in the 2030 district, the city government was one of the first partners to sign on with some of their large buildings, so city hall and the other large office buildings. The Art Museum is actually one of the buildings that is an early adopter, the largest building in the district and then Septa has also signed on some of their buildings because they’ve got really impressive energy management systems in place. So it’s nice to have that leadership on the government side. But you know, the majority of what’s been added to the district so far has been privately owned building. So there are some university partners as well. But it’s been really great to see that you have on the one hand, some really large high rise buildings. Brandywine Realty Trust was one of the first to sign on their full downtown portfolio and that gives you a lot of really big and very sophisticated buildings.
But we’ve also got some partners like the Ronald McDonald House out in West Philadelphia, which was really actually one of the very first to sign up and they learned about this opportunity through the energy benchmarking and disclosure program. They found they had a lot of savings that they were able to plow back into their programming. And as a smaller nonprofit, you know, any amount of money that they can save on operations that can put back into the mission. They’re now in the process of doing a major expansion and, they have found religion, so to speak on sustainability and energy efficiency.
So it’s really inspiring to see that as an organization like that can be, you know, playing in the same space as some of the really large real estate companies that are, you know, have been doing this for 10, 15 years already.
And what’s exciting for me is when we get all those folks together with the utility companies and with the energy service providers and facilitate those conversations about what the challenges are, what makes a project work, what does somebody run into that they were able to solve creatively? That’s really the value I think, of convening something like a 2030 district.
Julie Hancher: Yeah, that’s obviously what Green Building United is all about, right? To unite all the buildings and the building owners?
Alex Dews: That’s the idea. Yeah. We like to play that convening role and we have really great partnerships with the utility companies and the businesses that can provide services, but also with government and the real estate community and I think that’s what it takes us to create that really a collaborative environment around solving this issue.
Brady Halligan: Based in Philadelphia, The GREEN Program is an award-winning experiential education program for emerging leaders in sustainable development and climate action with university accredited programs and locations like Iceland, Japan in Peru. The Green Program connects emerging talent with companies and organizations that are committed to advancing the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals. Check out the experiences and learn how to hire TGP alumni at thegreenprogram.com.
Julie Hancher: You talk about the challenges for the building owners and I know on the podcast we’re talking about how Philadelphia has some unique challenges, so what are some challenges that people might encounter here versus another city?
Alex Dews: Well, I think I’m not entirely unique to Philadelphia, but the age of the building stock is a challenge in a lot of cases. That said there are plenty of example of buildings, so right around the corner from where we’re recording, the Bourse building, which is right by the liberty bell is over a hundred years old and is an energy star building and that’s because of the commitment of the owner of that building to make continuous improvements. So I do want to make clear, you know, it is more challenging when you’re starting with an older building that wasn’t designed for efficiency, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and I think the returns are there. I think beyond that, you know, Philadelphia is not that much different than a lot of other markets in terms of what’s challenging about energy efficiency. One of the things that’s becoming more common in conversation in this space around sustainability and the built environment is this idea of the 3, 30, 300 rule and that is that in a building, in a large commercial building, you’re paying,
Alex Dews: these are rough averages. but you’re paying $3 a square foot on utility costs, $30 a square foot on rent and $300 a square foot on people. So if you can tie the health benefits and the happiness and the functionality of your employees to these kinds of improvements, that’s really where the focus has to be in. That goes back to your earlier comment about buildings being for people at the end of the day. A lot of these things, you can’t just look at it in isolation and think about what is the fanciest new technology that, you can put in your building, but how does that actually impact the people that are using it? And there are a lot of variety of uses. You know, there are some kinds of buildings that have really different needs when it comes to the operations than others do. And so understanding all the options available and then figuring out how to make it work. You know, a lot of these big buildings are really complex when it comes to how many tenants they have and the different needs of the tenants. Some of them being 24 hours a day, some of them heavy data center usage, it gets pretty complex, but the good thing is that there’s a really robust sector, professionals that are adopted helping to navigate what the right kind of project is and how to get it done.
Julie Hancher: And what would you say the biggest thing that Philadelphia needs to focus on in order to make our buildings more efficient?
Alex Dews: That’s the question we’re in the process of figuring out right now because for a long time and had been code and changing that baseline code is such a fundamental difference for us now because all of the above code standards like LEED.
For example, they become much more attainable for everybody wants the baseline code moves to where it is. It’s again, that’s a 30 percent jump in efficiency from where we are today and where we will be on October first when the new codes are implemented. So I guess the right answer to that question is that smooth implementation of the new codes is the biggest thing that we can do. I think beyond that, we’re always thinking about what are the right kinds of creative incentives, that we can encourage at the city level people to think more seriously and, and move more aggressively on some of the updates to the buildings that need to happen.
You know, they all need to happen at some point. But a great example is in a lot of cases a building owner will think about an efficiency project and go just for the low hanging fruit, which typically is going to be lighting. If you haven’t updated your lighting in the last five years, you’re going to find huge savings in doing that. What we want to encourage people to do is think holistically about what you can do in the building and not just do that single measure lighting update because if you can package a project where you’re looking at some envelope and some mechanical and some lighting upgrades and some indoor air quality improvements all at once.
It’s a much more robust, long-lasting project that’s going to have deeper savings and deeper carbon reductions. So the tricky thing though is you know, the quicker that payback, the more appealing the project is. So different financing mechanisms become important to understand and to make available and good news in Pennsylvania is there are a number of things that are more recently available, one being commercial pace, property assessed clean energy legislation that was passed last fall that will enable the municipalities and the city to do a new kind of lending that makes those kinds of projects more achievable and more attractive to commercial real estate owners.
Julie Hancher: And I hear talking about savings is an incentive to obviously implement some of these measures. But I was curious how, what are people usually get into this because of the cost perspective or whether they are doing it for the overall energy efficiency and the bigger picture of climate change or how that breaks down and say, you know, 50/50 or is it primarily driven by the cost?
Alex Dews: It’s driven by a couple of different things. So I think the most common thing you see is that people are considering a project when some of their equipment comes to the end of its useful life. So you’ve got to replace your HVAC equipment. How efficient can you go with it? It’s less common that people are proactively saying what can we do in our building, but know that we’ve got five years worth of benchmarking data and all of the big properties are able to compare each other to their peers. They can see, you know, if the building across the street that’s just like mine is 10 points higher on the energy star scale, what are they doing that we’re not? What can we figure out, how do we start to plan with our, our facilities planning over the longer term, for the right kinds of projects to sequence them the right way.
So we’re not doing something and undoing it a couple of years later. But it’s interesting. I think it’s also really shifted in the last decade in particular that it used to just be a cost consideration and now because of the way investors look at real estate portfolios and because of the reporting through platforms like grasp, there’s a lot more interest, and a lot more requirements around reporting, how a building performs what its carbon footprint is. So it’s, it is being driven on the mission side, I think maybe not quite to the same degree as the cost and the facilities management side, but it’s something that real estate investment trusts, in particular, are paying much closer attention to and that does help to close the gap. You know, when you’re thinking about doing a project, if there are the mission and the cost consideration, it’s going to be a lot easier to justify then if you’re just looking at one of those elements,
Julie Hancher: Well, you’ve been going through this process since October, you know, with the 2030 district. What lessons have you learned from other cities or how did you get help on, you know, maybe some best practices?
Alex Dews: Yeah. So the first thing there is that Philadelphia is a little bit unique because having an energy benchmarking policy in place first means that the building owners that would participate in something like the 2030 district are already doing a lot of the work that would be required. It’s just a matter of making that commitment. Whereas Pittsburgh, for example, does not or did not have an energy benchmarking policy in place, so they’re starting at 23rd. Yesterday meant that they had to get the benchmarking off the ground as well. So I think the great thing in Pennsylvania for us has been that we’ve been able to share a lot of nuts with them about getting the benchmarking policy off the ground for everybody and they’ve been able to help us a lot with understanding how they approach some of the outreach and education around the 2030 district.
Alex Dews: And then some of the more technical backend aspects of the reporting and data tracking. It’s been helpful to have Pittsburgh and then other cities that are in the network that have been doing this for some years. So we didn’t have to figure it all out on our own, but the components of the 2030 district energy obviously is the one that’s best known, but it also looks at water consumption in transportation, emissions tracking. And so just as an example, Seattle is pretty far along with how they’re doing the water conservation measures. We’ve learned a lot there and had a lot of collaborative conversation around how to do a stormwater metric in addition to a potable water metric because Philadelphia obviously that is our primary concern there is how do we do the right thing with stormwater management of water conservation is always going to be important too.
But can we blend something together that is a metric that’s more meaningful locally in Seattle is really looking at the same thing. So we’ve, we’ve worked closely with them on that. And then in Pittsburgh, they’re pretty far along with evaluating transportation. So we’ve looked at how they did some of their survey work on that and then also tried to lean on a lot of local partners just across the board, you know, convening these working groups around energy, water and transportation has been a huge part of what gets us excited about this is, you know, it’s not just the buildings people that are engaged in this now, but there are a lot of transportation advocates and water advocates who are at the table helping the real estate and the building’s folks understand their priorities and also how we can work together to advance these shared goals. So that’s been really exciting for us and we look forward to building on it.
Julie Hancher: That’s great. Pun intended with a building on it, right?
Alex Dews: I suppose so, yeah.
Julie Hancher: Well thank you for all that great information about how 2030 has come together and there are challenges in the success with the building codes. It’s actually time for our quick tip of the episode. So I was wondering if you could share one small change that helps fight climate change. So what’s an action that someone could take that’s listening to this episode today, who may not be that building owner?
Alex Dews: First I do have to do a quick shout out to Katie Bartolotta who is the leader on our 2030 district work. Um, she’s really the one who’s gotten it off the ground. So I don’t want anybody to get confused and think that I’m taking all the credit for it. But it is a team effort. We’ve got a lot of great partners on it. I just want to shout her out because of her leadership on that. The quick tip, easy one on a day like this especially, is that every degree that you turn your thermostat down a saves four to five percent on energy. So that adds up pretty quickly. If you can handle 78 degrees, for example. And as your set point and other, instead of 76 or 74, you’re going to really see some savings. And you’d be surprised in a lot of cases how quickly your body adjusts to a little bit of a different temperature. I know it’s, it’s always tempting to crank it all the way down to 68 and you think you’re going to get cooler faster, but it doesn’t work that way. So yeah, pay attention to those thermostats, um, try to program them. It’s not impossible. I know it can seem a little intimidating at first, but that program thermostat is really one of the best ways to save energy and stay comfortable in your house.
Julie Hancher: Great. Actually, I have one more question. I would make sure there. I know you mentioned the partners. Who are the key partners and stakeholders that have been helping with this initiative for the 2030 district?
Alex Dews: So the key partners on the real estate side have been some of the early adopters. So I mentioned before the city, Septa, Brandywine realty trust, Drexel University, they were really the first ones to get on board along with Ronald McDonald House. Yeah. So, and then we also have a number of industry partners who support the district, both supporting the needs of the building owners and also financially supporting the work of the district. And those are a Veolia, Tozer energy systems, graboyes built smart buildings of Wgl Energy, Edison energy in El Barrio energy, so we’re really lucky to have that support and then a number of community partners to, who are really supportive of the work that we’re doing at the utilities and also a number of other civic organization. So it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t work without that cross-sector partnership and it’s been really exciting to build. And you know, we want to catch Pittsburgh. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Julie Hancher: Awesome. And we’ll be talking to Pittsburgh very soon.
Thanks for tuning in to city rising. We hope this podcast helps you understand how climate change is presenting opportunities in our urban environments. Check the show notes for links from today’s podcast, follow city rising by hitting the subscribe button on ITunes, Spotify, Google, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you to our sound guru Mike Mehalick. This episode was produced and created by us, Julie Hancher, and Brady Halligan. Thanks to my co-host, Brady, for making this informative and fun. You can find out more on Green Philly blog.com, forward slash podcast. We want to hear from you, email us at contact@GreenPhillyblog.com, or find us and cool pictures on social media @GreenPhillyBlog. This podcast is brought to you thanks to funding from the climate and urban systems partnership. For more information, visit cost project.org.