Decarbonizing Buildings for All
Lowering carbon emissions from the buildings sector (which produces nearly 40 percent of US carbon emissions) is a crucial part of getting to a decarbonized economy. However, when we implement efficiency or renewable energy projects in buildings, the projects are often targeted to those who can afford new technologies. Which is why it was so refreshing to see a lot of emphasis on equitably decarbonizing the economy at the recent Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California.
The Getting to Zero Forum is a solutions-focused event dedicated to zero-energy and zero-carbon buildings. In the opening plenary, Kat Taylor, CEO of Beneficial State Bank, stated that we not only need climate action, we also need racial and gender equity and broad prosperity. And that, “every time we do a project in the built environment, we must align it with community benefits.” Many other sessions throughout the packed two-day forum followed suit.
While many sessions in the forum discussed the importance of electrifying buildings to help decarbonize the sector, the “Decarbonizing and Electrifying Multi-Family Housing” session focused on the importance of this for low-income communities. Nick Dirr, from the Association for Energy Affordability and Miya Kitahara, from StopWaste, talked about their work integrating decarbonization strategies into multifamily retrofit programs. “A lot of low-income families are in multifamily units,” Kitahara said, explaining why that is one of their focuses. “Communities that are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions.” Electrifying multifamily homes can provide these low-income families with cleaner air, healthier homes, and greater access to affordable clean energy, while helping California meet its climate goals. The Equitable Building Electrification Framework is a five-step process being piloted in California to do exactly that.
Hilary Noll, senior associate at Mithūn, an integrated design firm with offices in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, discussed five different multifamily affordable housing projects that her firm worked on in the San Francisco Bay area. They are each all-electric, net-zero energy ready, 100 percent affordable, and cost neutral. “We shouldn’t be talking about net zero energy. We should be talking about net zero carbon,” Noll said. “Designing for natural gas in new construction is designing for obsolescence.”
The projects all include energy efficiency measures, high insulation, passive design strategies, air source heat pumps, central hot water, and natural ventilation. Because of these strategies, they are able to use small electric-resistance wall heaters and eliminate all mechanical cooling in the residential units (common rooms and offices have energy efficient multi-split air conditioners).
One project, Casa Adelante, is a 127-unit, 9-story project for low-income families and youth transitioning out of the foster care system. With health one of their main priorities, they made the units all electric and added heat recovery units for enhanced ventilation. The project cost $400 per square foot, which is the average for multifamily housing in San Francisco.
Another project, the Maceo May Veterans apartments, will provide 105 affordable homes to formerly homeless veterans. Eliminating natural gas in the project is saving $242,000; money that they are putting toward energy-recovery ventilation for units, solar photovoltaics, and battery storage. The batteries will be charged with a 123 kW solar electric system and, in the event of an emergency, can provide lighting and power to the community room, cooling to data closets, ventilation, and refrigeration for essential medications. The project is expected to have an 8 percent savings in utility costs.
There are three main reasons for the developers to go net zero and all electric—simplifying the systems by avoiding gas, making resilient and future-proofing their investments, and cost. In fact, all five of the affordable multifamily housing projects described by Noll are either cost neutral or result in cost savings. But more importantly, they provide healthy and resilient spaces for people to live. “Yes, we want high-performing buildings,” explains Noll, “but they must be tied to measurable outcomes that benefit the residents.”
Lowering Emissions While Keeping (and Creating) Jobs
In 2018, more energy efficiency jobs were created than any other jobs in the energy sector, according to a US Energy and Employment report, and the majority of those jobs are working-class jobs in the construction industry. Unfortunately, some policies to lower emissions could have the opposite effect, such as policies on embodied energy. Many of our building products, such as concrete and steel, have high embodied energy, which means high carbon emissions. In fact, the embodied carbon of all building materials accounts for 28 percent of global building-sector emissions. While legislation to reduce embodied energy is important, we have to take into consideration the economic impacts on all sectors of society.
In a session on “Policies on Embodied Carbon,” Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club discussed the importance of the Buy Clean CA Act. California, a leader in energy efficiency, has many companies that have reduced emissions from their manufacturing processes. However, many of these companies were watching their jobs to go to places with weaker regulations. For example, the United Steelworkers were doing a lot to make steel manufacturing processes cleaner, but the companies they were working with were getting outbid by dirtier companies. Not wanting to push these industries out of the state and lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, an unlikely coalition of organizations came together to do something about it.
The BlueGreen Alliance, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers, the Alliance for American Manufacturing, other labor unions, and environmental organizations joined together to push for a new law in California requiring state agencies to consider the embodied carbon of industrial products when contracting for state-funded infrastructure projects. The act was signed into law in 2017, and environmental product declarations (similar to nutrition labels on food), which provide information on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the manufacturer created during production, will be required for certain materials such as steel and glass beginning January 2020.
California spends an average of $10 billion a year on publicly funded infrastructure, so this can have a huge impact. It will keep working class jobs in California by leveling the playing field for companies that have invested in efficiency programs while also encouraging dirty factories to cut their emissions if they want to successfully compete for California contracts. Furthermore, it can set an example that will carry to other states and nations.
Another session in the forum that touched on jobs was the Carbon Block Challenge put on by Stopwaste.org. In this game, participants were divided into teams and given roles of either residential developer, commercial developer, city council member, or planning and zoning official. Each team had to build out a city to reach its housing and job goals while keeping carbon emissions as low as possible. It really showed how every decision made during a building project affects jobs, and made people think about the impacts of their decisions.
The Getting to Zero Forum was an incredible event, not just to learn about what’s happening to lower emissions from the buildings sector, but also to help policymakers, building owners, design professionals, systems manufacturers, and others develop specific actions they can take to move toward a clean future. And the emphasis on equity reminded everyone that, as Hilary Noll said, “All communities and all people must benefit from this decarbonized economy.”
Header image courtesy Mithūn
Enter your comments in the box below:
(Please note that all blog entries and comments are subject to review prior to posting.)
While we will do our best to monitor all comments and blog posts for accuracy and relevancy, Home Energy is not responsible for content posted by our readers or third parties. Home Energy reserves the right to edit or remove comments or blog posts that do not meet our community guidelines.
Lowering carbon emissions from the buildings sector (which produces nearly 40 percent of US carbon emissions) is a crucial part of getting to a decarbonized economy. However, when we implement efficiency or renewable energy projects in buildings, the projects are often targeted to those who can afford new technologies. Which is why it was so refreshing to see a lot of emphasis on equitably decarbonizing the economy at the recent Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, ... [continue reading]
That’s a little over the top. But the point is, even though Home Energy will undergo the second name change in its history—it was called Energy Auditor and Retrofitter at its inception in 1984 and a few years later became Home Energy—it’s still the same magazine that many of you have come to know and trust. [continue reading]
The sustainability movement has swept across the construction industry. Green homebuilding has grown in favor because of its health benefits, energy savings and aesthetics. Therefore, it should be no surprise that retrofitting existing homes into sustainable properties can create even more value for clients. [continue reading]
In a time when climate change is becoming a familiar topic and living more sustainably is being sought out by demographics such as millennials, building managers are taking steps to become eco-friendly through building design, appliances and technology. By “future-proofing” an apartment complex, developers can maximize the building’s value in the face of changing times. Eco-friendly differentiators can set the building apart from competitors by encouraging the younger, more eco-conscious individuals ... [continue reading]
Real estate investors and housing developers must consistently stay aware of trends. Recently, that's meant knowing about sustainability trends. [continue reading]
The Building Performance Association Urges Congress to Advance Energy Efficiency in Buildings to Address the Climate Crisis, Create Jobs, and Improve the Lives of Americans [continue reading]
Most homeowners don't know what goes into the planning and construction of a house. And the rise of home improvement programs and DIY home renovation has lead some potential homeowners to make assumptions about what contractors do — and what it takes to build a home from the foundation up. However, most homeowners don't know the full story of how houses get built. [continue reading]
As the date approaches for the Getting to Zero Forum in Downtown Oakland, California October 9-11, this article, published mid-summer by Team Zero on a study called Zero Energy Residential Buildings gives the impression this show will carry some news of hope, positivity and generally good vibes 'midst the concern. If you're coming to the Forum, come find me and say hello. I'll be wearing a Press Badge in my cap!—Leslie [continue reading]
People are buying more electric cars than ever. According to the newsletter ARS Technica, in 2018 – the most-recent full year for which records are available – some 200,000 electric cars were sold in the United States. Tesla sold the most, accounting for about 10-percent of the total. [continue reading]
EERE Success Story — Reducing the Energy Burden for Elderly and Homes that Previously Could Not Receive Weatherization Services
Minnesota's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has made strides in reducing the energy burden and providing a healthier home environment for low-income households in the state. Between July 2017 and June 2018, the agency provided weatherization services for more than 2,000 homes across the state. The state's WAP is administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce which receives annual funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's (EERE) Weatherization ... [continue reading]