Green Building Update: No Turning Back

When Richard Piacentini and the board of Phipps began planning for the conversion of the former public works garage into an exhibit staging center, there was no discussion of delivering the project in a manner other than to the most rigorous environmental standards. Rather than viewing the Center for Sustainable Landscapes as a one-off demonstration project, Phipps’ leadership behaved in a way that is consistent with how green building decisions are being made in 2015; that is, that yesterday’s achievement becomes tomorrow’s standard. In other words, you can’t unlearn what you’ve learned about reducing the environmental impact of your building.

no turning back

For certain, there are probably no environmental or sustainable living advocates who feel that the Phipps’ approach is the new normal. Talk to leaders of the International Living Future Institute or the Green Building Alliance or the American Institute of Architects, for that matter, and they will surely tell you a story about trying to convince an owner to do just a LEED-certified building. A more objective observer, however, can see that while there is still a daily battle about green building, the impact of thousands upon thousands of little victories has been to move the ball forward quite a way in the last decade.

Today, when it may seem like there is less groundbreaking development in green building, there is actually a lot going on below the surface. If the last decade is any indication, the many small breakthroughs that are being researched and implemented across all aspects of sustainable design and construction will make a huge impact on the built environment by 2030. Incremental improvements are making solar and alternative generation more viable again, including for commercial applications. Lessons learned from thousands of LEED-certified buildings are teaching architects and contractors how to effectively reduce the amount of energy and water used in buildings. And a focus on indoor environment is creating new standards for occupant health so that a building can function to actually improve the health of its users.

What’s most exciting for Western Pennsylvanians is that a confluence of factors is putting Pittsburgh back at center stage in sustainability. With abundant resources, Pittsburgh has the combination of talent, passionate user base and community commitment to be the model for regional resiliency. And that is the key to a green future.


By August 2015, there were more than 72,500 LEED-certified projects in 150 countries around the planet. Last year there were more square feet of real estate certified than in any year prior and 2015 is on track to exceed that total. Roughly half of the nonresidential buildings started in 2015 will be green, compared to two percent in 2005. Clearly, advocacy for green building has worked.

A survey of architects showed that a majority are now designing to LEED Silver standards, whether or not their clients required it. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have legislation which mandates LEED certification on public buildings or ties some level of reimbursement to certification.


The Tower at PNC Place aims to be the greenest building in the world.

But if you are wondering whether green building advocates have accomplished their mission, their answer would be a resounding no. Dr. Aurora Sharrard, vice president of innovation for the Green Building Alliance, laughs at the idea that LEED certification is a matter of habit.

“I think we take that for granted sometimes but there are still people who are very new to the green building conversation. We’ve had some conversations locally in the past year where we’ve had to ask developers to pursue LEED to the degree that I can’t remember in my tenure with GBA,” she explains. “We’ve had to take a step back with some people and say I’m going to have to ask you to pursue LEED certification because you’re a national developer and you’re building in Pittsburgh and this is what Pittsburghers expect. That’s just a weird place to be when there are all these other advancements well beyond LEED.”

Educating and promoting green building and sustainable living has been going on for the last 20 years but Sharrard’s comments suggest that the need is still there. Moreover, the dynamics of the energy industry and resources have been altered dramatically over the past few years by the exploration of shale gas and oil.

It may seem counter-intuitive but advocacy in the U.S. could be shifting to focus on the abundance of resources. The narrative about energy and the environment, especially since the oil crises of the 1970s, has been about the finite nature of natural resources but in 2015 America we find ourselves with an abundance of many of the resources that the rest of the globe needs. Advocates for sustainability don’t ignore the fact that 7.5 billion people on the planet are rapidly gobbling up natural resources but they also see the current abundant conditions in the U.S. as an enormous opportunity, an opportunity that lacks a strategy.

“What’s missing is a collective approach. We have an abundance of resources but we have no strategy for taking advantage of them,” says Chris Klehm, vice president of sustainability and director of business development for Jendoco Construction Corp. “We have an abundance of natural gas but we also have an abundance of water. We can’t make water and we can’t live without it. If you think that isn’t true ask anyone who lives in California. But we don’t have a strategy for using abundant water to our advantage or for the benefit of others.”

What’s missing is a collective approach. We have an abundance of resources but we have no strategy for taking advantage of them. – Chris Klehm

One of the key roles that advocacy organizations like the Green Building Alliance or the U.S. Green Building Council have played is to counteract the chaotic activity of the free market. It’s an enormous advantage for the U.S. that its economy allows for entrepreneurial activity. Much of the innovation that has advanced energy efficiency or environmental stewardship has been spawned in privately-funded research. The downside of that free market environment is that it promotes disorganization rather than harmonious growth. Our system rewards winning ideas but it rejects control. History has shown that centralized control – especially government control – has led to poor results and squelches innovation. Green building advocates have used the power of ideas to encourage better choices and have persuaded governments to offer incentives for those better choices.

Incentives have had an impact at the local and global levels. Incentives have also acted to organize or codify better choices that consumers, corporations and construction professionals can make so that the capitalist market can pursue the most effective choices. As green building has become more accepted, the role of advocacy is changing, as is the role of incentives. Now, incentives can turn into imperatives so that abundance does not lead to the kind of careless behavior of the past.

An energy policy that addresses resources like water or natural gas – and currently oil – could help direct strategy but the likelihood of a national policy in the political climate of 2015 is nil. Instead, what appears more possible is the leadership of advocacy and private industry collaborating at the regional level on what are perceived as national imperatives. Regional progress takes advantage of another abundant resource, intellectual capital. The regions with the most sustainable intelligence will produce the greatest progress. That’s good news for Pittsburgh.

Harnessing these various regional resources and talents can become a new imperative for advocacy groups. The evolution of green building advocacy may be very visible at the biggest such organization, the USGBC, over the next year. CEO and Cofounder Rick Federizzi has announced his plans to retire at the end of 2016, giving the world’s largest green building advocate an opportunity to reinvent itself or accelerate its growth.

“Organizations go through leadership changes all the time. Rick wasn’t the first CEO. Christine Ervin was. But he’s really built USGBC into an international powerhouse, to the point where he’s chairman of the World Green Building Council,” says Sharrard. “USGBC has given itself a long time to make the decision about replacing him. That person has a lot of challenges in front of them, really trying to reposition LEED and all of the other multiple green building certifications and rating systems that GBCI has acquired in the marketplace.”


If you think you have just about caught up to the latest versions and correct terminology for green building – LEED Green Associate not LEED AP – you should begin thinking in terms of a new certification standard that focuses on occupant health and wellness.

The WELL Building Standard® sets performance requirements in seven categories – air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind – that are relevant to occupant health in the built environment. WELL-Certified™ spaces are designed to improve the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns, and performance of its occupants. WELL certification is based on performance and requires a passing score in each of the seven categories of the WELL Building Standard. The certification process includes comprehensive project documentation and an onsite audit. WELL Certification is awarded at one of three levels: Silver, Gold and Platinum.

Manhattan-based developer Delos Living LLC created the WELL Building Standard as part of its development of residential properties. Based on medical research into the connection between buildings and the health of occupants, WELL is the only standard focused exclusively on occupant health. Delos took the science that suggested that buildings could be designed not to harm occupants and focused on designing spaces that promoted good health. WELL integrates more obvious targets like air and water quality, light and physical comfort with more arcane concepts like proper circadian rhythms, nourishment, immunity from disease, and of course, stress relief.

Delos Living completed its first residential Wellness Real Estate project, a prototype Wellness Loft in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, in June 2011. The WELL Building Standard was introduced in 2012. The company’s founders, Paul Scialla and Morad Fareed, created the WELL Building Institute and put together a team of advisors that applied health science and research to this new concept in design. Those advisors are an eclectic group of scientists and advocates, including former Congressman Dick Gephart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Deepak Chopra and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) CEO Rick Federizzi. Shortly after Delos added the latter to the advisory board, USGBC partnered with Delos to begin performing certification of WELL buildings, which will be carried out by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI).

At the 2014 Greenbuild, Scialla was enthusiastic about the partnership with GBCI, pointing out that the two standards could operate compatibly.

“LEED and WELL go hand-in-hand. They are very complementary,” Scialla observed. “It’s interesting how we’ve optimized this platform for LEED users. There’s no duplicate paperwork or registration process. We really feel that a LEED and WELL equation can address the whole picture for environmental and biological sustainability.”

WELL Building found an early adopter in the Pittsburgh region in Phipps’ Piacentini. From 2007 to 2012, Phipps planned and constructed the first Living Building Challenge facilities in Pennsylvania, its Center for Sustainable Landscapes. During the latter stages of the project, as WELL Building was being formed out of a commitment Scialla made at the Clinton Global Initiative, Phipps became aware of the new standard and saw the same synergies with Living Building that Scialla sees with LEED.

“The one area that we didn’t see covered that much was this idea of human health. We were really starting to come to the point where we saw human health and environmental health being truly connected. For so long we’ve talked about both as separate entities. Not a lot of people were talking about putting them together,” says Piacentini. “The Living Building Challenge struck me as having more human health aspects than any other green building standards but when we heard about the WELL building certification program a light bulb flashed on. Somebody is finally talking about how you make buildings healthy places to live, work and play. That really resonated with us.”

Phipps received the WELL Building certification last year, one of the first commercial buildings outside of New York to do so.

GBA’s Aurora Sharrard admits that she and her associates at the GBA have had little opportunity to get comfortable with WELL Building. Following a recent talk she gave to local professionals, she drew a parallel between the status of WELL Building and the early years of LEED certification.

“WELL today is what LEED was 15 years ago,” she says. “You should expect it to grow because it’s all about the occupants, exposing them to better workspaces and being happier at work and having better access to fitness and control over their spaces. But today it’s where LEED was. You’ll spend time convincing owners about why they should care.”

WELL today is what LEED was 15 years ago – Aurora Sharrard

One concept that is emerging about higher performance and healthier buildings is the demand for such workspaces from workers. Businesses are struggling to figure out how to attract and retain the so-called Millennial generation talent that appears to have expectations about work that are different from previous generations. In truth, surveys show that all workers have a better understanding of the relationship between health and their environment. Employers that invest in the health of their working environment are likely to have more success attracting and retaining talent of all types. That makes a building a business development tool.

“I think what the WELL Building Standard says is that it’s great about the green building itself, but how does it facilitate what goes on in it,” Sharrard notes. “How do those occupants feel? What are they doing? How are you making their lives better? I think all of these things are just natural evolutions of each other but it certainly gets complex from the certification standpoint.”

Like with LEED, certification of WELL Building Standards provides documentation of the owner’s efforts to make the building promote wellness. It’s worth remembering that WELL’s founders are real estate developers. Regardless of how altruistic their motives may be, it’s also true that their WELL Building-certified apartments are differentiated from their competitors’. It’s a case of doing WELL by doing good.


The Site Looking Towards Pittsburgh

The 168 acre Almono brownfield development in Hazelwood sits on the site of the former LTV steel plant.

A lot has happened in the last ten years that has impacted the industry surrounding green building. While advocacy has advanced awareness of sustainable design, going from pleading its case to pushing the envelope of what it means to be sustainable, global events and markets have changed the responses to how green building is put into place.

Just compare the price of fossil fuels – one of the main resources that green building has worked to conserve or eliminate – over the past decade. In 2005, oil was $50/barrel ($60 adjusted for inflation today), while natural gas was $12 to $14 per million cubic feet (MCF). In the intervening years, oil topped $140/barrel in 2008 and remained near $100/barrel until last summer. Oil now stands closer to $40/ barrel. At the same time, shale gas exploration created a glut of gas supply that has pushed prices consistently below $4/MCF (and often below $2.50) since 2009.

In a similar way, electricity generation has lurched from fuel-tofuel. The push to reduce or eliminate the emissions from power plants has made coal unfeasible, while making natural gas-fired plants the next big wave. Alternative sources of energy, like solar or wind power, have seen wide shifts in demand as tax credits and storage technology has ebbed and flowed. And ultimately, the status of the electrical grid has proven to be unreliable, regardless of how the electricity is generated.

That is a lot of uncertainty and change in ten years. What has emerged as an imperative for sustainable energy is resiliency. Given the lack of political will in Washington, DC to craft an objective and comprehensive energy policy, it has fallen to regions or cities to create policy and infrastructure that is resilient enough to withstand changes in markets and resources.

To help foster resiliency, the Rockefeller Foundation launched 100 Resilient Cities in December 2013, with the goal of “helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.” Starting with 32 cities, 100 Resilient Cities added 35 more in December 2014. Pittsburgh was one of those, joining six other cities from North America.

Resiliency will take form in dozens of ways. At the most practical level, resiliency will mean reinventing the infrastructure for energy, water and wastewater, and clean air. Some of the solutions will probably come from national or global efforts but the reality is that major improvements can and will take place at the local level.

“Resiliency isn’t about an individual activity. It’s about creating opportunities to profit during uncertain times,” notes Klehm.

For example, the use of renewable sources of energy has declined precipitously since the salad days of 2008, when oil prices created a global alarm about energy. Government subsidies and Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) were powerful incentives for building windmills, solar farms and manufacturing plants to supply them. Record oil prices also generated a dramatic increase in energy conservation measures. Increased energy efficiency combined with a deep global recession to quell demand for oil and energy by 2009 and the bottom dropped out of the alternative energy market. Since that time, however, the renewable energy industries have recovered and technology has created a place at the table again for solar and wind.

“The utility companies are starting to catch up. There is variability in sun and wind but utilities are using big batteries to store energy until there is demand,” says Alan Traugott, partner at CJL Engineering’s Pittsburgh office. “We’re seeing battery buildings with 30-, 50- or even 100-megawatt capacity. They are able to accept electricity from wind or solar and then distribute conditioned power later. It reduces frequency modulation errors and variability. CJL has a number of projects going around the country.”

Solar companies committed to growing the uses of alternative energy sources have continued to advance the technologies of solar power. Pittsburgh-based Scalo Solar has been installing a bi-facial solar panel that absorbs energy reflected off white roof surfaces, in addition to directly from the sun, to increase the energy generated. The company also invested in lobbying the Internal Revenue Service to issue a private letter that approves including the cost of the roof in a bi-facial solar installation, thereby increasing the tax subsidy and reducing the financial return-on-investment to three years or less.

“It’s an after-tax financial model as well as a technical model. Our clients are getting their money back faster and they get lower operating costs,” explains Jack Scalo, president and CEO of Scalo Solar and Burns & Scalo Roofing. “It’s a C-level sale. Commercial solar customers have to have capital and a tax appetite. They have to have profits to offset with tax subsidies.”

On Marin Cooke's roof, checking out her solar panels!

On Marin Cooke’s roof, checking out her solar panels!

It’s an after-tax financial model as well as a technical model. Our clients are getting their money back faster and they get lower operating costs. – Jack Scalo

Scalo is quick to point out that the opposite dynamics are true on the growing residential side of the solar business. He credits education and efforts like Solarize Allegheny with raising awareness about solar power.

“On the residential side – where I’m pleased to say I was wrong – we’ve sold about 12 deals [through June] and never once talked about return-on-investment and these people are spending at least $20,000,” he notes. “The interesting thing is we’re not putting them on high-net-worth homes. These projects are on middle-class homes.”

Large federal subsidies on the supply side failed to create the market for solar and the SREC market became a tax credit bubble that popped, making credits virtually worthless. But programs like Solarize Allegheny, which is funded by the Heinz Endowments, have created demand that has gradually increased during this decade. Those steady incremental gains and the advancement in technology have succeeded where big government money failed.

After high-profile bankruptcies like Solyndra’s (or even Flabeg’s in Pittsburgh), there is a now a quiet rebirth of solar manufacturing occurring in the U.S. The slowdown in demand after 2009 created something of a chicken-or-egg scenario, as the shutdown of polysilicon manufacturing limited the amount of photo-voltaic panels that could be made. Currently, however, Germanbased Wacker Chemie AG is building a $1 billion polysilicon plant outside Knoxville, TN to join Hemlock Semiconductor’s $1.2 billion investment in a similar plant in Clarksville, TN.

“My brother is actually the safety director for the Wacker plant in Tennessee,” Traugott says. “Apparently they have back orders out to 2018. The whole idea is that the U.S. is becoming a viable alternative energy market even though the costs have been driven down. It seems to me that there is a great quiet effort to find long-term clean renewable energy sources. I don’t think even nuclear is slowing down.”

It seems to me that there is a great quiet effort to find long-term clean renewable energy sources. – Alan Traugott

As the world’s largest consumer of energy, America has too often found itself limited by a dependence upon oil that exceeds its self-sufficiency. It is resiliency that will ensure Americans will have access to adequate energy regardless of what resources are in abundant supply. And the key to resiliency is to advance the opportunities for both increased resources and reduced demand.

The quiet growth of technology and discovery Alan Traugott mentions is happening across most fields related to energy, water and sustainability.

bioswale parking

Etna is using green infrastructure techniques, such as bioswales, to battle flooding.

There are sea changes going on in farming and food production that are responding to changes in demand for less toxic foods and locally-sourced foods. Natural methods of capture, absorption and treatment of stormwater and wastewater are being engineered and applied to reduce the size and cost of the treatment plants to provide adequate clean water. The concept of district energy – which espouses power generation and distribution at the sub-regional level – is becoming reality to reduce the reliance on the grid. Researchers are working to improve or bypass the grid on a variety of levels. Battery technology is advancing so rapidly that a high-performance backup battery may join the refrigerator or washer/dryer as an affordable appliance in every home. Product manufacturers are making incremental gains daily on the efficiency and life-cycle of everything from mouthwash to automobiles. 3-D printing may turn the entire manufacturing process upside down and radically reduce the energy consumed in making things. And for all the advances, new frontiers still exist.

“One area we haven’t done anything in is industrial. There are enormous amounts of waste heat that could be tapped. If we incented corporations to tap into that heat it could produce enormous savings,” speculates Traugott.

Another opportunity without a solution is the overloaded electrical infrastructure. The nation’s electric grid poses a major concern – one that is little understood by most of the population – to those in the electricity business. Woefully inadequate and inefficient, the grid isn’t up to serving the existing energy needs with full reliability and the demand for electricity isn’t declining. During the “polar vortex” in January 2014, Pennsylvanians were within hours of experiencing rolling brownouts because of insufficient capacity to generate or store electricity, as natural gas supplies were diverted from power generation to heating demand.

Dr. Gregory Reed is the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy in the Swanson School of Engineering. Reed is engaged and leading research into how to modernize the electrical grid, much of which is over 50 years old. The research is looking specifically at how high-voltage direct current (DC) can be used to replace outdated alternating current (AC) infrastructure or distribute electricity directly to users.

“Part of the solution is to look strategically at where we can justify going underground. We know that underground costs more but today we have technologies that make that more viable, like moving in more DC as opposed to AC and using power electronics controllers to help with the conversion from DC to AC,” Reed explains. “That would allow us to put more infrastructure underground, which increases resiliency and also increases the overall reliability and efficiency of the network.”

Reed’s work could have a multiplying impact if successful, since utilities can move six-to-eight times as much DC power as AC power.

The Right Place at the Right Time

In 2005, when Pittsburgh had the most LEED-certified space in the U.S., the ranking reflected more than a decade of environmental leadership. That leadership can be traced back to Rachel Carson but on a practical level, groups like IBACOS and the Green Building Alliance and educational resources like CMU’s Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace pushed Pittsburgh professionals to embrace green building. In the intervening years, as the rest of the world adopted sustainability, Pittsburgh’s relatively small size and stability limited the amount of projects that could become LEED-certified relative to bigger cities.

Within the community of those engaged in sustainable design and construction, Pittsburgh was still a place respected for its leadership but the buzz went elsewhere. Now, the buzz may be coming back. Many of the advances that are moving the cause of energy-efficient, high-performance, healthy buildings forward are originating in Pittsburgh.

Two of the leaders in advanced battery technology are in Southwestern PA. Aquion, located in New Stanton, and Axion, headquartered in New Castle, are using differing technologies to accomplish the same goal: providing long-term storage facilities that function well with many cycles, charge easily and hold a charge for extended periods, without the memory effect that diminishes consumer batteries.


Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto and County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald at the Pittsburgh 2030 District progress report event.

Pittsburgh’s 2030 District was the third such district in the U.S. and one of only 10 cities trying to get a 50 percent reduction in the usage of energy, water and transportation emissions by the year 2030. Initiated to cover Downtown and its fringes in the Lower Hill and North Shore, the 2030 District was expanded in 2014 to include Oakland. As of August 31, the 2030 District includes 436 buildings and 65.5 million square feet committed, with the goal of adding another 15 partners before the end of the year.

“What isn’t very well-publicized is that we have the largest 2030 District of the ten existing cities,” notes Sharrard. “People within the 2030 District network look to us in Pittsburgh to show how to be successful. That’s great. It’s a very tight network that doesn’t get a lot of national play.”

Pittsburgh’s selection as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities reflects Mayor Bill Peduto’s vision for Pittsburgh as a center for sustainable living. Many of the mayor’s agenda items have dealt with issue of sustainability, from bike lanes to Envision Downtown to his vision of Pittsburgh as the center for district energy. The epicenter of the Resilient Cities movement could well be the Lower Hill District. Mayor Peduto signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on July 17 that could open the door to a groundbreaking development in how power is distributed.

The DOE is interested in creating incentives for cities that can bring to bear public and private resources to reinvent the regional infrastructure so that the supply of power can be resilient enough to meet growing demand. One of those ways is through district energy plants.

New Jersey-based NRG Energy has proposed such a plant in the Lower Hill District near CONSOL Energy Center to serve as a steam plant for heating and cooling that will also generate electricity. UPMC proposed a similar plant along Forbes Avenue several years ago to serve as a power plant for UPMC Mercy Hospital. That project was going to cost nearly $50 million and included structured parking that would serve Mercy and some of the Uptown business district’s needs. The NRG project would be larger in scope, serving the needs of the institutional and commercial customers, as well as providing energy for the new development on the 28-acre Penguins site. To date, UPMC has signed a letter of intent and negotiations with other stakeholders are in progress.

NRG intends to have similar district energy facilities in Hazlewood for the Almono development, on the North Shore, in Oakland serving Pitt, CMU and UPMC, and there are talks with PACT about Downtown. If successful, each of these projects would take energy demand from the grid and supply it from within a few blocks. That kind of change will have repercussions globally.

For her part, Aurora Sharrard says she’s excited about what is brewing locally. She recently gave a presentation to a group of Foreign Service officials, where she was asked to recite the Pittsburgh green building story in ten minutes. Aside from the challenge of fitting it all in, she says the exercise gave her real perspective on how much was going on in the region.

“When you look at where we’re going, that’s where it gets exciting. You’ve got the Almono site; all the district energy discussions going on to serve Uptown, Oakland and the North Shore. You have the Resilient Cities and the P4 [People, Planet, Place and Performance] Summit in the city with the Heinz Endowments; and the Hillman Foundation funding Vision Downtown and a big regional transportation focus; that gives you a lot of excitement,” Sharrard says.

Everywhere you turn you see opportunities and wonder how we can do this better. I think we’re on the cusp of a whole bunch of great things.

Perhaps all of the possibilities for technology advancement and consciousness-raising won’t come to fruition in Pittsburgh. While it would be nice for civic pride to see Pittsburgh’s name atop “greenest” lists again, like back in 2005, it is probably more substantively important that owners, architects, contractors and leaders are pushing the envelope for the sake of the people living in the region. As Bill Peduto said in closing the P4 Summit in April, “Good enough is not good enough anymore.”

This article originally appeared in BreakingGround magazine.

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