Thanks so much to Pete Jefferson from BranchPattern for talking with Green Building Alliance’s Leslie Montgomery, Vice President of Education, about coming trends in the green building industry. Below, we share the full, extended version of the interview, which can also be found on GBA’s YouTube Channel as an episode of Green Building Bites.
About Pete Jefferson
Pete Jefferson is a Principal at BranchPattern, and he has over 20 years of experience in helping his clients deliver healthy and high-performance buildings through design, commissioning, and building performance monitoring. Using his background in mechanical engineering, Pete brings a whole systems perspective to his projects, identifying where climate, architecture, and systems must work harmoniously for the best outcomes. Pete does work throughout the country, so GBA asked him about his insights on coming trends in the green building industry and his tips for what stakeholders should be focusing on now.
GBA’s Interview with Pete
Leslie: Pete, you’re one of my favorite people to come to for the coming trends in the new year, and this is a different year than all the rest, but we still really look for your advice in terms of what you think people should be paying attention to right now and what those trends are that you’re seeing through your work. I know you do work all over the country, and I’d just love to know: what are some trends that you’ve spotted in the green building industry that you think people should take note of?
Pete: Sure, yeah, I’m always happy to talk about trends and what we see coming down the pike and maybe what we’re working on already.
Pete’s Trend #1: Health in Buildings
I think the first one might be obvious, but a little more nuanced in the way we’re seeing it, and that’s just basically health in buildings. Obviously with the pandemic, everybody is talking about what essentially has proven out, and that is our existing buildings aren’t all that safe for us. So there has been no shortage of ideas on how to make buildings safer for COVID, but hopefully we’re reaching a point where there is a light at the end of the tunnel. As we’re starting new projects right now, we’re already starting to look beyond COVID. We’re trying to take what we’ve learned and apply that forward, but also recognize that this has been the dominant thing in all of our lives for about a year now. So even the general public has an increasing awareness about building health.
We see it from teachers bringing CO2 monitors to their classrooms to general office workers wanting to know what is being done to make their building safer. I don’t think that’s going to go away when people return to the office. COVID might be in our rearview mirror soon, hopefully, but people are going to care, and there’s so much data that has been brought to the surface that shows just how not great our existing buildings are. I think that is going to change things quite a bit.
Leslie: That’s great to hear. We’ve been wondering if this added focus on health is something that’s short term or something that might last beyond the current situation? It sounds like people are starting to really focus on it beyond just its implications for COVID, and it will probably be one of those longer-term trends.
Pete: Yeah, some of the things that were done to help with COVID actually do just make the building safer even in a non-COVID world. Influenza is a real issue normally – it’s just become a second-tier priority for us now. A lot of the things that are being done in terms of mitigation strategies to make buildings safer, I think those will continue. We are seeing more people going back in and reassessing their existing building systems, which is great, they needed to do that. And as a side note there is usually an energy benefit to doing that too, so it’s sort of a double win, and we like that.
We are seeing a lot more deployment of indoor air quality monitors too. In fact so much so that there’s a shortage out there right now, so we are actually kind of struggling to get some of those into projects. I could not imagine a year and a half ago that we would have a shortage of IAQ monitors – if anything, they were getting value engineered out of projects. Now everybody wants them in their projects, so that’s a great sign.
I think the last thing relating to health in buildings is that people will want some sort of third-party validation. We’re seeing an uptick too in certification programs: we’re getting more requests for WELL performance testing, and Fitwel has become increasingly popular. I really like RESET as a standard too, because it is hyper-focused on air quality, so that’s one that we’re seeing applied more quickly and with increased frequency too.
Leslie: Awesome, thank you for that insight. Any other trends that you want to mention?
Pete’s Trend #2: Environmental, Social, and Governance Reporting
Pete: Sure, I think another one that we’re seeing an uptick on is ESG reporting. A lot of people have probably never heard of ESG reporting – I probably hadn’t heard of ESG reporting somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago. This is Environmental, Social, and Governance reporting. What we mostly focus on at BranchPattern is the E in ESG. Just to put it in context, about 86 percent of companies on the S&P 500 do some form of ESG reporting. If you go to any of those company websites and look for resources for investors and shareholders, there’s almost always some form of ESG report on there. A lot of these companies, especially after the U.S. left the Paris Climate Accord, decided to take it on themselves and really step up to the challenge of meeting some of those goals.
So, you’ve got a lot of companies out there that made carbon neutrality statements and those are goals they’re working towards now. They have to measure how they’re doing now and how they get there. Greenhouse gas reporting is the primary feature of the Environmental part of the ESG report, and more and more companies are doing that – and the biggest part of their portfolios typically is their buildings and transportation. That’s the first thing they start to measure that’s called Scope 1 reporting. Most of those 86 percent of companies are doing at least that Scope 1 reporting. Once they know how much their buildings and transportation are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, hopefully they then want to do something about those impacts, so then they start to set reduction goals. Increasingly we’re working with big organizations to look at entire portfolios – not just a single building – and look at how they can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions across the world.
I think it’s exciting to see more organizations do that reporting and step up to the plate. They’re not being required by code to do that, in fact one of our clients came to us to ask about how they would go about doing that type of reporting because the request is actually coming from some of their investors. I know we even have internally some investment accounts at BranchPattern that are completely divested from fossil fuels and more geared towards sustainability companies and programs. Especially those types of funds are asking the organizations they work with to provide their ESG reports so that they can include that information in their reports too.
Leslie: That’s fascinating. That’s a great trend to hear about that the market is moving in that direction. Thank you. Are there any other trends that you’re noticing in the industry right now?
Pete’s Trend #3: Embodied Carbon
Pete: Yeah, I think embodied carbon. That’s the big one that a lot of people are talking about right now. And it’s really exciting to see how rapidly that conversation has advanced to where we’re piloting projects right now that are studying the embodied carbon aspects of the material use in buildings. Organizations like Architecture 2030 have actually started to require embodied carbon reporting as part of the program. That’s one trend that if you’re not talking about embodied carbon in your projects now, you probably will be in the very near future. It’s increasingly part of programs like Architecture 2030, and new versions of LEED have credits or pilot credits for that too.
Organizations themselves are actually setting embodied carbon goals as well. When we started down this path of trying to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to buildings, we were mostly focused on operational carbon. When we talked about the fact that 40% of CO2 emissions are due to buildings and we need to address that, what we kind of left out of that conversation for a couple decades was that about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions are just the materials that go into the buildings. We’ve made great strides in the operational carbon, now we need to step up the plate and really start to tackle the embodied carbon too.
Leslie: That’s a great trend to point out. Thank you so much Pete. In addition to the trends that you’re noticing around the country, what is something that you specifically think people should be focused on as they pursue healthy and high-performance building projects?
Pete’s Tip for Projects
Pete: I think there’s something kind of fundamental that we can all do a better job on, and AIA does a really nice job of capturing it. It’s their Framework for Design Excellence. All of those projects that we submit once a year for design awards, AIA has actually adopted this framework that’s got 10 principles in it, and captures things like resource use, energy and water, but it also includes things like equity and health. It’s a really nice framework, and I feel like even in the projects we work on, we have to kind of bring it up as it’s being overlooked a lot by the design community. It’s an asset or a resource that’s already there for us. I would encourage designers to take a harder look at that and start to incorporate those principles earlier in the project. Don’t just wait until you’re ready to submit an award and look backwards and try to see how your project actually fulfilled those goals. I think projects would perform better with this goal in mind. It might lead you to some new and innovative ideas about how you might address that if you take a look at those things earlier on. Again – it’s the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, check it out.
Leslie: That is a great tip, thank you Pete. And finally, we would love to hear about any exciting, high performance building projects you’re working on right now.
Pete’s Project to Watch
Pete: The one that comes to mind is a project with ZGF Architects. We’re actually doing two with them. We’re working on the Immune Transplant and Therapy center at University of Pittsburgh with them, which is a historic building renovation. But the one I’m really excited about, maybe even more so, is the Penn State Physics Building at State College. That is a renovation of the Osmond Lab, so an existing building there, but also a new building addition to it as well. What I think is really cool about that is that it is a pretty significant project. It includes a pretty major renovation of the existing Osmond Laboratory which is where the atom was first seen. It has that historical significance.
Aside from some ambitious energy goals which are kind of baked into Penn State’s high performance building guidelines already, this is an opportunity for us to dig deeper into this carbon issue. We’re looking at the existing Osmond Lab and again it’s this historic building. There was a lot of resource expenditure to construct that building, so we’re doing some analysis of the embodied carbon of the existing building and the embodied carbon of a new building. Of course, if we can renovate more of the existing building and do so in a way that allows us to construct a smaller new building, that’s avoided carbon that would go into the construction of it. That is something that I think is really kind of interesting at a baseline standpoint to look at old versus new.
But then even in the new building, we’re starting to dive deeper into some of these embodied carbon assessments too, so looking at the material choices in it, the FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) that will go into it too. We’re trying to get a better handle on what we can study and quantify from an embodied carbon standpoint. There are loads of new tools out there too, to calculate the embodied carbon. We’re playing around and piloting some of those on it as well.
That’s the one that I think of as kind of my most interesting project right now. It’s definitely taking up a bunch of time, but I think it’s going to be a really exceptional project at the end.