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Event Takeaways: What Will It Take? Operating Carbon-Free Buildings

Part of the What Will It Take leadership series

Recorded July 27, 2021

Click here to view the other panels from this series.

Print version of the content below is available here.


  • Jeremey Alcorn, Senior Sustainability Program Manager, GSA
  • Cara Carmichael, Principal, Carbon-Free Buildings, RMI
  • Krista Egger, Vice President, Enterprise Community Partners
  • Bing Liu, Senior Strategic Advisor, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Theresa Backhus, Associate Director, Building Innovation Hub, Host
  • Fernando Arias, Director of Sustainability, Clark Construction Group, Moderator

The Hub and Clark Construction Group recently hosted a conversation on the role building operations play in energy use and carbon emissions, the second event in the series, “What Will It Take? The Path to 2050 And Carbon-Free Buildings”. Theresa Backhus of the Building Innovation Hub set the stage explaining the need to think beyond compliance to leverage buildings as a tool for climate action, but that there is a challenge of segmentation within the building industry. Fernando Arias moderated a panel discussion that included audience questions. The robust and insightful discussion is worth watching in its entirety, but here are some of the key takeaways:

1. For our health and our climate, we need to scale up the number of efficient retrofits

Cara Carmichael cited a quote, “The person who manages your building has a bigger impact on your health than your doctor,” which is from Dr. Joseph Allen, Deputy Director of the Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety & Health. Given the importance of indoor air quality, and recent research showing the seriously negative (and costly) consequences of burning fuels indoors, she argues we need to electrify buildings. Jeremey Alcorn agreed and emphasized that buildings have a significant impact on scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions. Carmichael said that, in the United States, we currently retrofit only one percent of our buildings per year. To reach our climate action goals of a 1.5-degree future, we need to increase the retrofit rate 3-4 times and have those retrofits with near-zero carbon. Bing Liu reasoned that we already have many efficient and effective technologies, but the real estate industry is inherently cautious, and uptake has been slow. Krista Egger expressed that if the money isn’t available for a complete retrofit or a partial build-out to zero carbon standards, buildings can at least be made-ready for electrification or solar PV in the future. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition to create positive change, and Fernando Arias discussed with the group the importance of considering all opportunities and challenges in the context of partnerships and working through integrated solutions.


2. Building operations must consider equity, especially for affordable housing

Egger stated that housing affordability and racial equity issues are threat multipliers and that climate change means we are adding to an already high energy burden that falls disproportionately on communities of color. A recent University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study looked at several cities across the United States and found that in 97 of the cities they examined, people of color were exposed to temperatures two degrees higher than white residents. In DC, the median energy burden of black households is 70 percent higher than non-Hispanic white households. The challenge for affordable housing, and all housing, is ensuring buildings remain affordable to operate and resilient to shifting energy needs in rapid increase due to climate change.


3. Efficiency is an excellent financial investment when we look at it the right way

Egger pointed out that one major challenge when buildings are being developed is that the budgets for development and operations are separate, limiting opportunities to see the complete financial picture and the value of efficient and net-zero investments upfront. Liu confirmed that the right equipment technology is already available, but that there’s a misconception that it is always more expensive than business as usual. Carmichael emphasized that if we can right-time retrofits to building lifecycle activities, we can make them cost-effective. This includes opportunities during tenant turnover and at the end-of-life for major operating equipment.


4. We need to listen to others and frame problems in terms that resonate with their values

Liu offered that, as an engineer, she has been trained in technical details, but persuasive presentations mean focusing on why your audience should care about a particular concept. Alcorn agreed: he focuses on active listening, which is a skill set he uses in his day-to-day work, and even with family members who don’t understand the need for technologies such as solar panels or a microgrid, for example. In many cases, it’s helpful to show that there are financial savings and/or that there’s a significant risk reduction for people inside the building.


5. We need to get people excited about buildings to scale our workforce

Liu pointed out that new building performance laws are spurring demand for energy efficiency products and services that can help build a market for efficiency and resiliency-related services and incentivize contractors to strengthen their knowledge of relevant concepts. Alcorn argued that we need the equivalent of a Kennedy-era mobilization of Americans to join the building workforce. We need to get young people excited about buildings for them to see that they can make a good living working on them. Carmichael says we need to scale up the workforce just as much or more as we need to scale retrofits, and that we should orient people to carbon-related metrics. Arias further supported this by emphasizing the need to translate skills in the new carbon-free economy. He ultimately sees workforce development programs as a key to building wider capacity in the supply chain, which is essential to scale “decarbonization” retrofits. Additionally, programs could be offered where people already are, including online and in local community colleges and vocational schools. Building industry workforce development should, and can, be rooted in communities. Egger mentioned the excellent work that Emerald Cities Collaborative is doing to help communities of color benefit from this growing demand.

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