Green Building: Lessons from 2020

While 2020 was far from what was envisioned for the green building world, there are still reasons to remain hopeful for green building

By Ben Stapleton

The phrase 2020 used to be for perfect vision, but this year has been just about as distorted as they come. In the green building world, we were on track to make this the year of decarbonization, we envisioned a year of progress on electrification, transparency on building materials, and more. Well, needless to say, our clients, our thought leaders, and society overall has had to address other priorities and it is easy to view our hoped-for progress on green buildings this year as just another one of 2020’s tragedies. However, if we take a moment to have some perspective on the pandemic and its impact on the work we do, there are some reasons to be hopeful about what is yet to come.

People everywhere are much more aware of the condition of their environments, from airflow and ventilation to cleaning practices and entry technology, and the potential impact of the space they occupy on their health. Overall, we are seeing a focus on building technology and systems that we just haven’t seen in some time. Additionally, though I foresee that capital will be constrained in the real estate sector, especially in commercial office and retail, what we will see is an increased investment and use of innovative technologies in buildings to reduce long term operating costs through increased efficiency, demand response, and improved flexibility as buildings respond to changes in use and occupancy that they haven’t seen before. In support of these issues, our US Green Building Council-Los Angeles’ Net Zero Accelerator pilots and promotes technology to enable a net zero future, and our Healthy Building Alliance provides a framework and a commitment to make healthy spaces accessible for all.

People everywhere are much more aware of the condition of their environments, from airflow and ventilation to cleaning practices and entry technology, and the potential impact of the space they occupy on their health.

Secondly, we are living through a profound moment where we are debating and defining the future of work including workplace design, continued blurring of work life boundaries, and workday structure. I believe that even when we have a vaccine there will not be a return to normal; there will be a slow return to the future workplace, and that will include a permanent telecommuting shift of 20-30% of our professional workforce. This will mean changes to how companies manage their real estate portfolios, leaning to more of a hub and spoke model where traditional office space is used more for collaborative work and client facing interaction, but less for day-to-day workers. This means that while work might extend more into the home in a permanent way, perhaps we can use this as an opportunity for employers to take more responsibility for employer ‘work from home’ environments including energy use, indoor air quality, ergonomics, and waste. If managed correctly, we can also find ways to capture the reduced emissions and GHG benefits of decreased automotive use in the process.

Third, the increased focus on racial and social equity gives us an incredible opportunity to make sure these issues become permanent pillars of the sustainability movement. The societal challenges we dealt with this year speak to the importance of resilience and equity at the heart of the planning process, and the concept of sustainability is an elegant methodology to address both of these while improving the environment. We should lean into this further as the deeper we dig around environmental justice issues, we realize that the ongoing pollution, critical resource contamination, and lack of access to clean, green spaces are also racial justice issues and have been all along. The pandemic has highlighted the dramatic differences in personal health and the ability to withstand systematic shocks between the haves and havenots which climate change will only exacerbate further.

Take heart my friends, this year has been difficult for everyone and challenges sustainability in losing prioritization amongst a shifting landscape of societal needs. But like any challenge, this moment has likely better positioned us for long-term success if we use its lessons the right way, stop lamenting over what could have been, and start being hopeful for yet what could be, working even more collaboratively than we have before. This work will be needed to support our public partners facing dramatic budget shortfalls that will challenge their ability to make progress in the near-term and it will be needed to help our large corporations see the forest through the trees in long-term return on investment and brand equity as we help them make commitments to zero emissions across their portfolios. Let’s make 2021 synonymous with the year we took action together in spite of everything in this decade of climate change.

Ben Stapleton is the Executive Director of US Green Building Council-Los Angeles, visit usgbc-la.org.