Daring to Hope Again in 2019

Green building trends of 2019 have given homebuilding professionals hope for sustainability in the built environment

By BEN STAPLETON

If I take a step back, there have been a string of moments this fall that have been inspiring, bringing back this feeling in my chest I used to know so well.

No, it’s not just the hints of the season in the air or that I stopped at the infamous Philippe the Original in downtown Los Angeles for lunch recently. It’s that maybe, just maybe, we are starting to see some of the change we need in this world. We all know that doing anything is hard, takes longer than you think, and never quite works out the way you thought it would. The world and the climate will continue to change, and there will be consequences that we can’t even begin to imagine in our tiny human brains, but…something is happening.

Just look at the awareness on climate issues, including the global climate strikes, and that the mainstream media is actually talking about it on a regular basis. Multiple communities around the world have already moved to a place where climate change is a leading issue in people’s minds — right next to the economy and taxes. Could we have imagined that just a few years ago? Look at the leading companies around the world saying that the purpose of a corporation is no longer just maximizing shareholder returns. They may not do anything about it yet, but they’re talking about it publicly and we can hold them and their successors more accountable.

At our Quarterly Thought Leadership Event in September, we launched LA’s Building  Decarbonization Working Group with an amazing roundtable of fifteen local leaders talking about the challenges facing us to get to a future of carbon neutral, or dare I say, carbon positive buildings. Yes, there is a lot of work to do and we are dealing with complex, multi-layered issues around grid harmonization, repurposing of infrastructure, and getting people to actually care about something building-related and even kind of wonky. That being said, here in California we have a Renewable Portfolio Standard that should get us to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Title 24 updates in California going into effect next year call for solar on all new homes and an increased focus on thermal insulation, air filtration, and energy storage for all buildings. Sure, maybe this is just happening in California, but from past experience we know that what California does the rest of the world tends to follow and if all this green building policy can continue to support the fifth largest economy in the world, it can’t be all that bad, right?

The new sustainability plans for the City of LA and County of LA call for all new buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030 and existing buildings by 2045. Do we know fully how to get there yet? No. But that is our work. Good people will get paid to do all that work and the investments are coming in new, exciting, and finally more bankable, traditional ways. Here in our region, we have a defined purpose and a collective end game that now we can actually plan on how to get to. I hope to spend my career doing that and I hope you’ll join me.

Even building materials are part of the discussion right now and that’s pretty darn exciting for a middle aged green building nerd like me. We are creating transparency on the manufacturing supply chain and providing modeling tools and environmental product declarations to architects, engineers, and contractors so they can be more informed than ever on what the embodied carbon and environmental impacts are of the materials they are specifying. Those are only going to get easier to use and more accessible, and as market demand creates more awareness, manufacturers will hopefully respond by cleaning up that supply chain and we will innovate more local, regenerative materials to continue to build the world around us. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has even recently declared that great design and sustainable design are now the same thing.

This year at USGBC-LA we’ve started to dive deeper on unpacking the hidden issue of construction waste, which locally accounts for 40 percent of our waste stream and is mostly handled through non-transparent, loophole- ridden diversion policies. We’re working on an Indoor Air Quality marketing campaign that will hopefully create awareness around something most of us just don’t know about, but where technology is starting to get to a point where we can hopefully bring that awareness to realtime, addressing mechanical systems, off gassing, and materials in ways that weren’t previously possible. In early 2020 this will pave the way for us to launch a Healthy Building Challenge, creating a commitment that buildings can make to five simple principles around the health of the environments they provide and that we spend nearly 90 percent of our time in.

So you see, something is happening. And unfortunately, yes, there is more work to do than ever before. But, there are reasons to feel that old familiar feeling again. Somebody is going to support their families doing all that work. There are reasons to dare to hope and this optimism is needed now more than ever, because it’s just when we start to see a glimmer of light around the corner that we need to push that much harder to get there.

Ben Stapleton is the Executive Director of USGBC-LA. To learn more, visit usgbc-la.org.