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Building a Greener Pittsburgh: Q & A with the Green Building Alliance

Green Building Alliance. the first nonprofit organization in the country to focus exclusively on the "greening of a region ?s commercial building sector."

Green Building Alliance. the first nonprofit organization in the country to focus exclusively on the “greening of a region ?s commercial building sector.”









Supported by funding from The Heinz Endowments in 1993, the Green Building Alliance (GBA) was the first nonprofit organization in the country to focus exclusively on the “greening of a region ?s commercial building sector.” Their stated goal is to: inspire the creation of healthy, high performing places for everyone through leadership that connects knowledge, transformative ideas, and collaborative action.

The GBA is an affiliate of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the federal organization that oversees LEED certifications. Currently, the GBA is heading the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a local group of building owners and managers, community partners, and local resource partners who are working collaboratively to make their buildings more high performing by taking the 2030 Challenge ? with goals to reduce their energy, water, and transportation emissions by 50% by the year 2030. Last week, I spoke with Anna Siefken, the Green Building Alliance’s Pittsburgh 2030 District Director.


cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgHow does the GBA spread their information ?

Siefken GBA, which has over 1200 individual members, holds about 150 events a year to help educate Pittsburgh and the region about the importance of healthy and high performing buildings ? but in fun ways, like green building tours from kayaks, or HVAC equipment tours with great rooftop views. Pittsburgh 2030 District, which is a strategic initiative of GBA, partners with more than 85 property partner organizations and almost 50 community and resource partners from universities and commercial skyscrapers to owners of single buildings to share best practices.

We serve as a resource by bringing people together. We inspire and equip our partners for dramatic progress. With 2030, we are finding that peer-to-peer collaboration is the most effective. For instance, a hotel or museum will present what they’ve done to become more energy efficient to a group of similar organizations. When one building owner presented a new elevator programming technology, many others at the partner meeting wanted to know the details so they could determine if a similar project would work for their organization. New technologies catch on quickly this way.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgWhat is the 2030 Challenge ?

Siefken — The 2030 Challenge was issued in the mid-2000s by Edward Mazria, an architect who determined that buildings use too much energy and could be doing more towards lessening the contributing factors to climate change. He set forth goals: to have all new buildings and developments to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030, and to have existing buildings reach a 50% reduction over a nationally determined baseline for similar building types.

As a way to address the challenge, cities across the country began establishing boundaries around commercial business centers, and these boundaries are called ?Districts. ? This basically means that new developments that are within the boundary ? or District ? won ?t contribute unnecessary greenhouse gases. The 2030 Districts are unique, voluntary public/private partnerships in designated urban areas across North America committed to this goal. The GBA launched the Pittsburgh 2030 District in Downtown on August 21, 2012 and expanded the District to include Oakland on August 28, 2014.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgHow many 2030 Districts are there now?

Siefken — The District Network started in 2011 in response to the 2030 Challenge and there are currently 10 cities that have established Districts, with many more ?emerging ? Districts in the works. In response to the set of standards released by Architecture 2030, Pittsburgh was the second city to get on board, and the third to come online.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgHow do these districts work exactly?

Siefken — It is entirely voluntary. After a District boundary was established, building owners were invited to sign a pledge to share building data and to contribute to best practices discussions for energy and water consumption and transportation-related emissions reductions. GBA serves a resource to these building owners and organizations in order to try to get them to the 50% reduction goal. Each building is different, ranging in age, occupants and use type. In fact, we have recently found and reported that buildings in Oakland are very different in how they use energy from those Downtown and have to be considered differently. Therefore, we measure each building according to its baseline, which was set by a Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). For instance, we will compare the baseline of a hospital to other hospitals with adjustments made for weather.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpg50% reduction in energy use seems like a lot. Is it really possible?

Siefken — Well, it is a lot, but it is completely achievable with existing technologies. The initiative sets a series of incremental goals that all of the participants can rally around. Some things a building owner can do right away, like changing out wasteful incandescent light bulbs. Others take some time to implement. We understand that mechanical systems will eventually need to be upgraded and what we do is educate building owners about additional things to consider when replacing these systems ? they can save time and money by purchasing more efficient units as their products need to be replaced.

As far as it being possible to achieve these kinds of energy reductions, we have some facilities that are already very close to their goals of reduction from their baseline. Some structures, like parking garages, are seeing quick paybacks on lighting retrofits that make immediate sense ? a parking garage owner can make back their money in a few years. We recently worked with one garage owner that has the potential to save $171,000 per year in energy savings across several garages as well as $23,000 in maintenance savings (from staff not needing to change so many light bulbs). That project will pay for itself very quickly. Buildings can run the same way while changing to more efficient systems, too. It is our goal to educate people to pick the right technology.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgIs the GBA involved in the Uptown Eco-Innovation District that is revolving around the new Bus Rapid Transit?

Siefken — We are engaged and interested in that conversation, but there are other groups that are managing that important initiative. The new Eco-Innovation District will be very important to the region, and has some complex issues to address from transit to land use. We are excited about the opportunities that the project brings to the region, especially with its proximity to both Oakland and Downtown.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgDoes Pittsburgh have to work extra hard to change its perception as the smoky city? Have we turned the corner?

Siefken — Becoming sustainable is certainly a long process, but at the Green Building Alliance, we are laser-focused on the future. Yes, it is true that the air quality in our region could be better, but that’s exactly why we are doing what we are doing. And there are a lot of positives to focus on, so much progress is underway.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgHow does Pittsburgh rank in terms of Green Cities ?

Siefken — Pittsburgh ranks very highly! We actually have more square footage committed to our 2030 District than any city in North America. Between Downtown and Oakland, we have over 65 million square feet who are undertaking the aggressive goals. That’s more than any other city ? but they are gaining momentum, too. The Rockefeller Foundation has recently named Pittsburgh as one of the ?100 Most Resilient Cities ? in the world. It is a testament that we can do whatever we put our minds to.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgHow does building green affect the older buildings in our city?

Siefken — At GBA, we love historic buildings. In fact, several of the older buildings are essentially designed to “Passivhaus” standards. They have thick walls, the massing is different from what you would see today. They got it right when they were designed all those years ago. Every building is unique and we embrace this uniqueness. We certainly don’t want all of our buildings to look the same. I love that the US Steel Tower is made of steel, that PPG is glass and Alcoa is made of aluminum. There are many cities that have simply removed older structures in favor of new ones, but we certainly value our buildings in Pittsburgh. They just renovated the Skinny Building! Does it matter that it ?s too thin to really use? No, it’s a cool thing and I’m glad that our city embraces character.

cropped-cropped-PoP_header_gold-11.jpgWhat are some things that an average Pittsburgher can do to be more eco-friendly, especially in ways that make economic sense?

Siefken — There are so many things you can do. The simple things, like turning off lights and fans when you leave a room, and changing out your light bulbs to more efficient ones! Other suggestions: use Energy Star appliances and electronics, change your HVAC filters regularly, caulk around windows and doors, use smart power strips and buy energy efficient TVs. It’s amazing the amount of energy that TVs can consume, and turn them off when you aren ?t actively watching.

There are lots of credible resources available, both locally and nationally. Check out GBA ?s resource pages and events calendar here. There are many organizations to get involved in around Pittsburgh. There are always events going on that are available for anyone who wants to know more.

Follow The Point of Pittsburgh on Twitter @thepointofpgh or like us on Facebook. Also follow me on Twitter @bsamson88

About Ben Samson (3 Articles)
Ben Samson has a keen interest in improving public transportation and architecture.
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