How do we make the built environment part of a net-zero world?


As part of Climate Week, Skanska – along with the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group and Track 0 – hosted an event at our Empire State Building flagship office in New York City. Some 75 leaders  in government, sustainability and design – from the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister to the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change – came together to discuss the future of the urban environment and how we can move toward a net-zero world. This occurred the day after hundreds of world leaders gathered at the United Nations for the 2014 Climate Summit.

Harry Verhaar, Philips Lighting’s head of global public and government affairs, set the tone for the discussion at our office when he said, “We are past the tipping point.” A net -zero future is within sight and within reach. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion. 

Beth Heider, Skanska USA’s chief sustainability officer, spoke on the green transformation of the Empire State Building – and why that matters. When Skanska moved its flagship U.S. office to that skyscraper, we decided that the space should attain LEED Platinum certification. Our goal was to “walk the walk,” demonstrating that by retrofitting our offices to this higher green building standard, we would not only be lessening our environmental footprint but also recouping our investment and even saving money over our 15-year lease.

This green retrofit will reduce our electrical bill by $683,200 over the lease (a 57 percent cost reduction), reduce our carbon footprint by nearly 80 tons per year, and diminish sick leave by 15 percent. This decision paved the way for the Empire State Building’s owner to retrofit the entire building, and has demonstrated that green building can have major cost savings over a structure’s lifecycle and can greatly improve the health and well-being of its occupants. As Heider stated, our office retrofit shows that, “We have an opportunity, through individual spaces, aggregated together, to make a difference.”

Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, a non-profit dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, built on Heider’s presentation. He said that we’ve reached a seminal moment in history, in which, by promoting green building practices, we can “set out the agenda for built spaces for the next 100 years.” According to Mazria, 900 billion square feet will be added to the world’s existing building stock in the next decades. That’s equivalent to building a new New York City every five days. Fifty-three percent of that building will happen in China, the U.S. and Canada. With so much building poised to happen soon, now is the time to set the standards needed to make sure that it is done in a green and carbon-friendly way. Since Architecture 360 called for carbon neutral standards in 2006, there has been steady adoption from AEC professional groups, the federal government, states and cities. Thanks to this effort, “We’ve added 20 billion square feet of building stock, and we’ve saved over $4 trillion in energy costs.” As Mazria stated, “Design to better standards, we can save even more.” Architecture 2030 has laid out a Roadmap to Zero Emissions, which has been adopted by 124 global organizations and such cities as New York. Mazria’s paradigm shift is well underway.

Heider and Ferguson 1

Beth Heider, Skanska USA chief sustainability officer, and George Ferguson, mayor of the City of Bristol, UK, meet before the event.

George Ferguson, an architect and mayor of the city of Bristol, UK, offered some boots on the ground insight as to how roadmaps to zero emissions are being enacted around the world. Under Ferguson’s leadership, Bristol has been named a 2015 European Green Capital – this award recognizes cities that are making efforts to improve the urban environment and move towards healthier and sustainable living. Ferguson addressed the ways that city leaders – the doers as he called them – can push net-zero forward. He emphasized the need to act quickly, to make the roadmap digestible and fun, and to achieve quick wins that demonstrate the green building is not only good for the environment, but also more affordable.

Amory Lovins, chief scientist and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit aiming to foster efficient and sustainable use of resources, echoed both Ferguson’s and Heider’s statements about the return on investment for net zero. In Denver, the retrofit of the historic Byron Rogers Federal Building has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in energy costs – making it one of the most energy efficient buildings in that city. As impressive as that may be, Lovins noted that it is only half as efficient as the next-generation of office buildings in the pipeline, demonstrating just how rapidly green building and the integrated design process is improving. As Lovins stated, more and more people are recognizing that “It’s easier to build things right than fix things later.” This ethos is “spreading quickly. It makes sense and saves money.”

To close, moderator Nicolette Bartlett of The Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group invited the panel to share a final thought on Climate Week with the group. Here’s what they said:

“Partnership is the new leadership. We need to come together.” – Beth Heider, Skanska

 “Cities are where the change will happen.” – George Ferguson, The City of Bristol, UK

 “Everything is going to turn all right in the end, if it’s not alright now it’s not the end yet.” – Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute (paraphrasing John Lennon)

  “There’s a transformation on the way. When our daughter got her first bike, we made her wear a helmet. This was before everyone wore helmets and it was a struggle to get her to put it on. Then, as all the kids started wearing helmets, suddenly our daughter wouldn’t be caught without one. That’s what’s happening now with buildings. It’s going to be bad to build bad buildings.”   Ed Mazria, Architecture 2030

Skanska USA

Skanska USA

Skanska USA is one of the largest, most financially sound construction and development companies in the U.S., serving a broad range of clients in the public and private sectors, including those in transportation, power, industrial, water/wastewater, healthcare, life science, education, sports & entertainment, data centers, government, aviation and commercial industries.

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