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Equity, Health, and Climate Themes at the Forefront of Green Building Movement

A Greenbuild 2014 Recap
by Elena Goldstein

I’ve just returned from my fourth Greenbuild, the annual green building conference and expo hosted by the US Green Building Council. This year, the event was held in New Orleans, adding to the experience elements of culture, music, food, awesome weather, and—perhaps most importantly—a powerful demonstration of urban resiliency concepts. In the past, Greenbuild has always included sessions focusing on how the building community can prepare for our changing climate, but as we set up for a week in the city that is undeniably a poster child for this issue, it felt even more pressing. There was an overwhelming sense of approaching big picture issues, such as What can everyone involved in this industry do to better our local communities? and How can that add up to create the change we need for the planet?  Each session I attended drove home similar concepts of designing for our changing climate, driving social equity improvements, and creating a healthier built environment. Not surprisingly, these are the key concepts of the new LEED Version 4. I felt like I hit the jackpot on the sessions I attended this year! I sought out inspirational speakers that fueled my brain to stay pumped up about the work that we do at evolveEA and why it matters. Here are some highlights from the sessions I attended.

Measuring Sustainability’s Impact on Workplace Productivity

My colleagues from evolveEA, Christine and Anna lead a charrette entitled Powering Community: Engagement for High Performance Neighborhoods, which got rave reviews! Since I had participated in a practice run at the office, I attended a simultaneous session on workplace productivity. This is a topic that has interested me since I took a course about it in college. We need evidence and metrics demonstrating more than just how building green will save money over the life of the building. We need to prove how it saves employers money with their biggest assets, their employees. Bob Best and Simone Skopek from Jones Lang Lasalle along with Patrick Clover of Autodesk provided insight into how to measure both energy reduction and productivity gains through a program Autodesk used for their own offices. The gist of the talk was that it’s not always simple to optimize energy savings and occupant comfort, which directly relates to worker productivity. The team came up with a scoring method to figure out what made workers most happy and most productive and used surveys to redesign the Autodesk offices. The improvements can then be monetized and analyzed alongside salary data to come up with some staggering ROI numbers from increasing worker productivity. One important point to note was that energy savings due to decreased heating and cooling loads can be overturned if employees are uncomfortable and their productivity declines. Similarly, if employees are too distracted in a smaller open office, their outputs may falter. Very interesting and very logical—I love this stuff!

Master Speaker Katharine Hayhoe

My next session was a Master Speaker. The Master Speakers at Greenbuild are carefully chosen, and when you need a pick-me-up during the conference this is usually the place to find it. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist at Texas Tech. Her talk was mostly about the climate change facts that we already know—we should be in a cooling cycle and yet we are in a warming cycle, leading us to the fact that over 100% of our warming is human created. One fascinating line was that she didn’t know her husband was a climate skeptic until after she married him! Actually the most interesting thing she said was that she has read the work of climate skeptics and identified a trend. When asked to debunk the science, the deniers are very quick, within the same sentence or even same chapter of a book, to oppose and attack the solutions posed to fix the situation rather than opposing the actual science. To that I say, whoever has any ideas on how we can solve the most critical issue of our lifetime and all of the lifetimes to come—we’re all ears, let’s hear it!

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Inspiring Sustainable Communities and Change Through Storytelling

My favorite session was presented by our very own Green Building Alliance. My good friend Jenna Cramer, a fellow lover of the Moth story slams, started a sold-out Moth-style slam of her own at Greenbuild! The stories were passionate and heartwarming, truthful and relatable. There were stories of realizing when we are not treating our own selves “sustainably”, of speaking up for what you believe in, of how one little moment of each day can add up to create greater change, of overcoming self doubt, and the feelings we have about being at home. Stories were conveyed of changing your initial perception to get to the crux of a what a community really wants and needs, and an awesome story of walking into a room to see Brad Pitt sitting there telling you “he’s listening” to what has to happen to build up the Lower 9th Ward after Katrina. The power of these stories was invigorating and I really felt the connection between telling a story and using it to create change. Well played, GBA – we all loved it!

Opening Plenary: Paul Hawken

After Wednesday’s sessions we headed over to the Superdome for the Opening Plenary led by author Paul Hawken and finished with incredible performances of two bands I love: New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and the Alabama Shakes. I love Greenbuild for always including great live music in the conference and these were by far the best bands they’ve had yet! Paul Hawken publicly unveiled his new project “Drawdown” aimed at reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The project will produce a book in 2016 detailing the costs and benefits of various climate solutions. Paul and his team will seek out the truth on what will work to actually reduce greenhouse gases, not just stop them from increasing. It is a necessary and profound project that I can’t wait to follow in the years to come!

5 Ways Data Health Analysis Can Add Value to Green Design

Thursday morning I attended a fun and interactive session on how we can design buildings using health data analysis. Why aren’t health considerations as integral to the design process as code review? First, our speaker Adele Houghton of Biositu, debunked some popular myths about how health relates to building design. The data that has been recently collected has gotten much better and we are really seeing connections between human health and buildings. We know that healthy buildings mean healthy and non-toxic building products, but there are other aspects as well like designing to showcase the stairs, location nearest farmers markets, fitness centers, bike options, access to healthy food, and removing access to UNhealthy food (soda!). We broke into groups at our tables and did an exercise to come up with how we would design a school in an inner city neighborhood if we were optimizing to reduce heart disease. Our group decided that using the space as a means to educate the community on how to live a healthier lifestyle and including those programs in the curriculum were key. Staring with those at the vulnerable age of school students, is imperative to create the change needed to reduce health issues in these neighborhoods.

Designing Biophilic Cities for Public Health

Biophilia is a huge buzz word these days, and for good reason – my session about biophilia was fascinating! Biophilia put very simply is the idea that humans are drawn towards things in nature, and designing buildings that incorporate nature can have a great affect on occupant happiness, comfort, and productivity. One example mentioned was of a park in New York which is always filled with people even in the depths of winter EXCEPT when the running water feature is shut down. People find solace in running water because at our most human core we need running water for survival. It’s not about just seeing greenery out your window, it’s actually about how biodiverse the world outside your window is – how many different species you can see. One of our speakers, Bill Browning, went over his 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design with examples, and making the case that this concept should be consistently integrated into building design.

LEED V4 – Lessons learned

After that, I stopped into a session sharing the accounts of project teams who have done LEED V4 projects, and what they thought was the good, the bad, and the ugly of the whole process. In general, their words got me excited to find the right project team to do our first V4 project. I knew there would be issues with the LEED Online V4 interface, as they said there was, and I totally disagree with changing from credit abbreviations (SSc2) to only full credit names (Social equity within the community – a great new credit but what a mouthful! How are we going to shorthand those?) I imagine that this change resulted from an effort to keep the key concepts behind each credit at the forefront, but I’m just not sure that it’s practical since I use credit abbreviations on an hourly basis. Teams were happy to see more options for complying with each credit, although it was noted that the requirements are more stringent. There was also an overall appreciation for the reduced amount of documentation required to be uploaded.

Closing Plenary: David Brooks

The closing plenary was provided by David Brooks, who gave a thought provoking talk about our nation’s shifting values and how our “eulogy virtues” differ from our “resume virtues” – which virtues matter more? We know “eulogy virtues” are more important but we spend our lives focusing on the “resume virtues”. The talk was based around the values proposed in his latest book, The Social Animal. What a wonderful way to end this conference with humor and insight on the human mind.

NOLA Culture

After all was said and done, we had just enough time Friday night to check out the local music scene on Frenchmen Street and were very pleased with all that New Orleans had to offer. With a little research, I was able to seek out the vegetarian and organic food that I love! If you’re in New Orleans, get the “tachos” at 13, everything at the Green Goddess Café, kale salad and any sandwiches at Satsuma Café in the Bywater, amazing lunch and juice at Surrey’s in the Lower Garden District, and possibly the best happy hour ever with half price pizza and wine at Domenica. I enjoyed a run along St. Charles street as well as taking advantage of one of the many pedi-cabs that were cruising around the area. Oh and of course – the famous Café Du Monde! It’ll be tough to beat this year’s experience but I am already looking forward to Greenbuild in DC 2016!