Leading the Way to Zero

I was fortunate to receive a George Malek student scholarship through my fellowship with IBE to attend the New Building Institute’s and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Getting to Zero Forum last month in Pittsburgh. Having moved here from New Zealand less than a year ago, I didn’t know much about the city nor its history. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the momentum of the sustainability movement in Pittsburgh. I had the opportunity at the forum to present a poster on the carbon footprinting research I have been doing on Denver’s Sun Valley, a soon-to-be EcoDistrict. It became apparent that as a student in Colorado State University’s Master of Greenhouse Gas Management and Accounting program, I was attending the conference with a very different perspective than others who had come from professional careers in building and energy. As a budding climate change scientist, I am primarily concerned with quantifying human impacts within the built environment, more specifically those related to fossil fuel consumption for energy, construction, and transportation. Networking at the forum enabled me to take a step out of the usual scientific quantification realm and consider how policies and their active enforcement aid us in achieving emission reduction goals.


Pittsburgh has recently built a reputation as one of the nation’s major centers for technology, research and sustainability yet it was once a significant polluter due to its booming steel industry. In 1946 David L. Lawrence was appointed city mayor and in less than 6 years he had brought about a 90% reduction in smoke pollution through the strict enforcement of previously neglected smoke regulations. This was further enhanced by a post-war lull in steel demand, causing the closure of multiple steel mills and globalization of the steel industry.

The shift away from steel has led to an evolution in the city’s identity. Since the boom and decline of the steel industry, innovation has flourished, and there are now over 29 colleges and universities  in the city. Through increasing education and technology, facilities have shifted the focus from industrialization to sustainable living. Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has frequented lists of United States most liveable cities, and even appeared on international lists. The city is a sustainability hub with increasing energy efficiencies, renewable energy development, and sustainable buildings such as the Phipps Conservatory and the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. This made it a prime location to host the New Building’s Institute Getting to Zero Forum.


There were over 500 individual sustainability leaders in attendance at the forum. Whether they were professionals, contractors, policy makers, utility operators, or students, there was a significant potential for learning and networking. Between workshops, tours, educational sessions, and teatime mingling, there was ample intellect and optimism toward tackling our inherently unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels.

The forum’s three workshops covered a range of topics, including:

  1. Scaling zero energy projects by harnessing energy using alternative but soon-to-be mainstream methods
  2. Advancing city- and state-wide legislation on climate action
  3. Building interactions with the evolving grid model for electricity distribution into the future.

I attended the Advanced Jurisdictions workshop, where participants considered emission reductions in the context of building and energy codes. Here, I learned that we cannot have only building codes or only energy codes, as one cannot work without the other, and that a full impact analysis can be useful in determining where to focus our valuable resources. Duane Jonalin, an Energy Code and Conservation Advisor for Washington State Seattle Council, delivered a strong message: without people to drive change and push their vision, there will be no change. Jonalin discussed the concept of implementing a climate damage fee, where the social cost of carbon would be used to determine an appropriate tax to prepare us for the value which society will eventually need to pay for the negative impacts of climate change to both our infrastructure and human health. This exemplifies the outside-the-box sort of solution we should be considering to achieve the emission reductions necessary in the built environment.


A climate damage fee would be a stretch code, the nature of which Jonalin likened to a caterpillar in full stretch. Stretch codes are alternative policies designed to achieve greater emission reductions than if everything were to continue to operate under business as usual. This type of policy is typically resisted at first when its necessary adjustments are more difficult. Gradually, however, this policy becomes the norm; the last of the caterpillar’s legs catch up. If the caterpillar were never to stretch forward, it would never progress forward. In other words, if we are not to push the limits with stretch codes and policies, the limits of our capacity to reduce energy- and construction-related emissions in the built environment will never change. These types of policies are often considered overly progressive, or even reckless, but there is a long way to go before we reach zero. Without progressive policies that test the boundaries of what we know, reducing the impact of the built environment on climate change will not happen. In other words, human emissions won’t reduce themselves.

Dave Epley, of the Green Building Institution within the Washington DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), highlighted that without an enforcement program “it’s like joining the gym and never turning up.” This goes to say that despite our best efforts at developing a suitable stretch code, without sufficient enforcement, it would be pointless. The DCRA’s green building program has a Green and Energy Compliance System that aids planners and developers to ensure building compliance at various stages of a project, whether it is during pre-construction, construction or occupancy.


One of IBE’s own, Brian Dunbar, had the opportunity to share his expertise on how efficient design and comprehensive planning pave the way to achieving low-carbon energy goals. Brian served on a panel that included the City of Fort Collins’ John Phelan, MKK’s Tom Hootman, and Stantec’s Dominic Weilminster. This team shared a case study of the City of Fort Collins’ Utilities Administration Building (UAB), demonstrating how a city can walk its talk by exemplifying how one building can drive ambitious community climate goals. The project team used an integrative process to design UAB to support the City’s bold Climate Action Plan, provide district-scale net positive energy, and support healthy, productive occupants. The project was the first city building (and fourth building of any type) in the world to achieve LEED v4 Platinum certification, earning every single LEED Energy point. Fort Collins, albeit small, was honored with the C40 Cities 2017 Cities4Action award for its aggressive climate action plan. The city aims to have reduced emissions from 2005 levels by 20% by 2020, 80% by 2030, and to be carbon neutral by 2050. Progress for how the city is tracking was officially released in April 2018, and having achieved a 17% emission reduction on 2005 levels despite the continuing population growth, the city is well on its way to hitting its 2020 target. Fort Collins is working on increasing efficiencies, not only in the energy sector but across the board to reduce the city’s emissions, with proven success at a 17% reduction already.

Energy efficiency is good for everyone; using only what you need when you need it means that more than just money is saved due to the resulting reduction in carbon emissions from decreased energy consumption. Reduced emissions are good for everyone through decreased climate change impacts. A colleague recently said to me, “you’ve got to eat your efficiency vegetables before you can have your renewable desert.” The greatest reductions can be achieved through simply preventing waste.


The New Buildings Institute and Rocky Mountain Institute chose a city with a rich history, an excellent backdrop for learning about sustainability and innovation, as this year’s Getting to Zero Forum. The level of outside-the-box thinking at the Getting to Zero workshops and the general can-do atmosphere at the forum was astounding. Over the course of the conference, the message was built that each and every one of us should be looking at how we can stretch policy and codes, like a caterpillar does to progress forward, to push the boundaries of emission reductions. In my personal opinion, something like the climate damage fee that Duane proposes should be seriously considered.


We must continually push to improve the energy efficiency within our built environment; this was a recurring theme of the conference. There is a necessity and opportunities to incorporate this into all phases of a building’s lifetime through a comprehensive plan and clear communication. While renewable energy sources are crucial in reducing human-generated emissions in the built environment, using renewable energy excessively is still unsustainable. Once the efficiency vegetables have been eaten, only then should we look toward achieving emission reductions from renewable energy alone—or eating dessert, so to speak.