How to Make Buildings Better for Our Health and Well-Being
Welcome to The Sustainable City Podcast. This month, we look at sustainability, health, and wellness in buildings and real estate. Beyond a zero-carbon built environment, what other goals should we be aiming for in creating better, greener, more inclusive cities? And how do we get there? Our guests are Brad Jacobson, Principal at EHDD, a San Francisco-based architecture firm leading the way towards a carbon-neutral built environment, and Alaina Ladner, who heads the sustainability practice at JLL’s Project & Development Services in the West.
William Shutkin: Welcome to the Sustainable City show, a new podcast where we discuss bold ideas and innovations for green, equitable and climate-friendly cities with the people making them happen. For today’s show, we’re looking at sustainability, health, and wellness in buildings and real estate. Beyond a zero-carbon built environment, what other goals should we be aiming for in creating better, greener cities and how do we get there? To help us answer these questions, we have two outstanding guests. First is Brad Jacobson. Brad is an architect and principal at EHDD, a San Francisco-based architecture firm, which is leading the way toward a carbon-neutral built environment. Brad has led the design teams for a wide range of climate-conscious projects, including two AIA top-10 green buildings, the net-zero energy and LEED Platinum-certified headquarters for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Department of Global Ecology for the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.
He is currently leading the collaborative design-build delivery of a 330,000 square foot high-tech office campus targeting LEED Platinum and carbon-neutral performance. Our other guest is Alaina Ladner. Alaina leads the sustainability practice at Jones Lang LaSalle’s Project and Development Services unit in the West. With experience as a commercial architect, she brings a balanced perspective to the full cycle of commercial real estate and is a trusted sustainability advisor. Notable assignments include interior design and sustainability strategy for Boulder Commons developed by our own Andy Bush and Morgan Creek Ventures, a net-zero energy multi-tenant office development. And she’s currently assisting clients with sustainability program development and portfolio-wide net-zero carbon pathway evaluations. Let’s start our show.
Andy Bush: Great. Well, fortunately, I’ve been able to work with both Brad and Alaina over the last decade, and it’s been a pretty interesting experience. So, I’m excited to be able to do this on the show. And I think we’re going to come at it from kind of two different perspectives — one is: What’s the leading edge of the technical side of the sustainable world right now? And Brad, can you just give some initial thoughts on that first, and then shift to Alaina; and Alaina, come at it from a different angle which is: the people perspective or wellness perspective. And then we’ll intertwine that over the next hour or so.
Brad Jacobson: Great. Andy and Bill, thanks for inviting us, it’s to be here with you. So, I’d say there were a lot of fascinating materials coming online, especially around envelope, I think there’s a lot of great glass technology. Andy, you and I installed the triple element glazing at Boulder Commons, which is a great example that’s still making its way into the mainstream. So, that kind of glass in a very thin envelope of glass can really create great insulation and better comfort for people. There’s also a big emphasis these days on really understanding the carbon content of materials and finding ways to develop materials that are significantly lower carbon. Even on structural materials, that’s become a big emphasis. Concrete is probably the toughest nut to crack.
There are substitutions for cement and other aspects of the mix that are helping to really reduce the carbon, but there’s also research and development underway to think about how can we sequester carbon within concrete and really truly make it a carbon-neutral material. I think the other side is we’ve realized the limits of buildings themselves, and in terms of diminishing returns on energy efficiency, so really looking at carbon and performance from a bigger perspective. I think we’ll probably come back to that, but thinking about how we can tie into larger systems and renewable energy grids and energy storage? So, some of the equipment that we’re bringing into buildings like battery storage, for example, is some of the most innovative and impactful at this point.
Andy Bush: And Alaina, from the people side, the people who are in those buildings, think about that or talk about that a little bit from wellness to just enjoying the space that they’re part of.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. Thank you again for having me today. I find all of those things that Brad was just mentioning to be extremely fascinating. And my architect brain can dive right in, but I’m consistently reminded, like you said, Andy, that people are really the recipients of these buildings, and that there is often a disconnect in the public about how those technical sides of buildings impact our actual health, our wellbeing, the way we interact socially with our community, with our neighbors and the way we deliver it on equity within a greater construct. So, I think what’s interesting to me is how do we translate these technical solutions to be things that are meaningful to the occupiers and bolster their own health and productivity? But then how do we communicate them and break down the barriers between the architect and these technical designs, and to the habitable spaces that we’re looking to create?
And then how do they communicate with those users, so those users feel empowered to understand their environment better, they feel connected to places in a different kind of way? They can clue into why certain spaces make them feel better than other spaces, and help the occupants connect the dots between healthy real estate and the healthy outcomes or the alternatives of such.
Andy Bush: Yeah, I think a good example of kind of this confluence of technology and health is just looking at gas ranges in single-family homes or apartments, which is probably the least healthy thing that exists in any residential form, and induction ranges remove the vast majority of that. And we know that people don’t use the vents like they’re supposed to use them. So, it gets into social equity issues, the confluence of technology and creating healthier environments, right?
Alaina Ladner: That’s a really good example, and something that is very invisible in a lot of ways to the everyday person, right? And I think that we can achieve more with sustainability, the more that we can make things visible and the more we can bring them to light, and engage occupants in the journey to making more sustainable places.
William Shutkin: And Alaina and Brad, is that maybe one of the challenges in making our built environment and individual buildings more sustainable? Is this sort of challenge on the one hand of a user or occupier, Alaina and Brad, who really just wants a building to be comfortable, but otherwise not to have to care much about how the building’s operating? And on the other hand, the need for the user or occupier to actually understand that his or her use will affect that building’s energy performance or sustainability performance. So, on the one hand, I just want it to work like any kind of technology. I don’t necessarily need to know the ins and outs. On the other hand, it’s important that users be educated about how these technologies work, whether it’s operating a window or as Andy suggests a gas versus induction stove. How do you sort of see the squaring of that circle?
Brad Jacobson: It’s a great question. I think I want to add another layer to it which is, I think that there’s a growing awareness of the externalities, say, of energy use or carbon emissions. They’re hitting home, obviously where you guys are. You’re in Colorado, you’re feeling the Western wildfire smoke terribly as we are in California. So, when we’re thinking about health and wellness in buildings or outside of buildings, as designers, do we just focus on the individuals that are using the building? Do we focus on those people who are there day one or maybe year 10? Or to what extent are we actually looking at the impacts of the building on human health and wellness beyond, specifically those users? Or it circles back to them, because obviously the air quality, both from burning fossil fuels in the building, or from contributing to Western wildfires or climate change in general, those are starting to seem more immediate, I think to people and those impacts, but I don’t know. So, I’ll pause there. Alaina, I don’t know if you have your perspective.
Alaina Ladner: I agree that the sustainability kind of buzz topic is much more dinner table conversation now than it ever was before, because of these undeniable situations that we cannot ignore and are coming very close to home for a lot of folks. I think it’s really interesting the way that LEED created this surgence in environmental focus for our industry, and then the next fad to come was … And I don’t mean to call them fads, like they’re going to go away, but they certainly have ebbs and flows in their popularity. And so, with these wellness certifications, that’s a conversation I’m consistently having with clients when they say, “Should I go for a LEED or should I go for WELL?” I’m like, “Which one matters? What’s the market care about now?”
It’s a delicate balance to say … Of course, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, we are dealing with the results of climate change in a very real way, but shifting our attention purely to human health is also not the answer, because even in the middle of a global pandemic, the CDC will tell you that the greatest threat to human health is climate change, right? So, when we talk about kind of how do we bring everybody along with us so we can generate more change, I think a lot about how do we make sustainability more demonstrable to the public, and make that even more a part of the dinner table conversation in a more tactical and impactful way? And sometimes for me, that goes from, okay, well, the everyday person in a building sees recycling and they see sustainability, so how do we do the same thing that we’ve done with recycling with those triple pane windows, with the gas ranges? How do we do that in a way that is more meaningful than maybe just educational signage?
William Shutkin: Without totally geeking out.
Alaina Ladner: What role do we play to connect those dots?
Andy Bush: I also wonder whether we should focus our energies on education or focus our energies on experience, and that nobody gets too focused on the fact, at least now that Tesla is an electric car once you’re in it. It’s just a great car with a really good sound system and a really cool display that goes really fast, and you charge it and plug it in instead of stopping by the gas station. And there’s a part of me that thinks that buildings should be the same thing, right? They should be elegant, gorgeous, most of it should be hidden under the surface. And I’m not sure that everybody has to participate in it and buy in.
Brad Jacobson: Yeah. I think there’s a really interesting opportunity now for designers to leverage the consciousness of health and wellness during the pandemic, and the ties that has to indoor space or buildings now helping us stay away from offices, let’s say. We kind of need to flip the script now and think about how do we talk about the importance of buildings for health and wellness, and so they’re not dangerous places, they’re actually healthy places to be? I think the depth of health and wellness goes far beyond just some measurable things like air quality, which obviously important, but there’s psychological health, and emotional health, and those things are correlated with being in community, and being in a social environment.
So, I think there’s so many kind of multivalent aspects of health and wellness, and architecture and the value of it for people has been tested for thousands of years, and it’s kind of an opportunity now to … And a lot of that has been just the aesthetic, and kind of a motive response that people have to great space. So, I guess, what I’m saying is that we can get overly hung up on the metrics, but there’s actually the value of great architecture being both aesthetic and as a place for community is a key aspect of health and wellness that I think we can articulate perhaps moving forward.
William Shutkin: And Brad, would you say, and maybe this is a question for Alaina as well, is part of what this new generation of wellness-based or wellness-focused standards about is sort of getting to those less technical, less sort of engineering specific goals of the built environment to promote that psychological, mental, emotional health? And to the extent that is the case, where is sort of the sweet spot between a focus on energy performance engineering systems of sort of more traditional LEED variety, and the mental psychological health that a robust wellness set of standards are about? Is there a sweet spot? Do either of you see one as more important than the other these days or more popular, Alaina, as you were suggesting than the other? Can you give our audience a sense of how these two sort of work together — a LEED focus, a wellness focus — and where do they overlap?
Alaina Ladner: They definitely have some overlaps. Sometimes they have some conflicts where energy use needs to be deprioritized or reconsidered in a way to deliver for let’s say, increased air exchanges or something like that. But I don’t think they’re at odds with each other as much as they’re usually aligned with each other. I do think this question about how do you quantify the ROI on investing in health and wellbeing is one that we’re up against less often. I think that the pandemic has helped us with that. I think that the rise of ESG has helped us with that. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped us with how equity and all of these things impact our ability to be successful communities. So, to me, more is more, like I don’t think that we should put more effort in one to the other. I think it’s about making sure that we don’t lose sight of one in lieu of the other.
And that even if we can’t, I think it’s important that we consistently try to measure human health outcomes as proof points, and as ways to continue to optimize what it is that we are doing for health and wellbeing, but not make it dependent on doing it, right? Not make the determination of whether or not we’re going to invest in it based on how much data there is, but I think it really is important that we are looking at ways to quantify it.
Andy Bush: Yeah, I’d add a third perspective and they are a third kind of thing to look at, and that is productivity. And I think that’s something that business is starting to really think about. And when you look at what a cost to rent an office building, it might be 5 percent of your total cost as a business to operate, then 60 percent is your people or something. And we worked with CoreLogic and actually sat down with them and didn’t really sell sustainability or health and wellbeing, we sold productivity. And we said, “If you got 1 percent gain in productivity through reduced absenteeism, 1 percent through recruiting, and 1 percent by maintaining and retaining your employees longer, that’s a 3 percent improvement in productivity.” It’s just three simple pieces of their business that paid for most of their rent. And so, I think the health and wellness and the technical side and the access to light and air, all those things kind of blend together under that — will you get that 3 percent productivity growth? And I think that’s another piece for business that we’re starting to talk about.
Alaina Ladner: I like to think of that as another way of looking at resilience too, right? Resilience, we’re often focused on how are we going to keep the lights on, but I would argue that resilience is what’s the resilience of your workforce and are you taking care of them? Are you making them productive? When they go down, your business suffers as a result. So, I think we often think about resilience from that technical side, and we should think about that from the human side too.
Brad Jacobson: And I think the conversation that all businesses are having now is the hybrid work, work from home model, how productive is that? So, it’s interesting, Andy, what you were just referring to, I think is really good research and very logical and true, trying to think about how that overlays with … If we’re really trying to maximize productivity, integrating hybrid work, and as I was talking about before, really being precise about the value of place, the value architecture for why should we come back, especially in the workplace?
And I think that to me, this question that Bill’s posing, it’s kind of we have our left brain and our right brain, they work together, and it’s a similar thing. It’s like the technical execution of envelope, HVAC, that integrated design, I find it fascinating. I find it an art form, but it’s very technical. The architectural design opportunities, I think around wellness, around biophilia and that’s where the kind of juicy stuff is. And I think I don’t see them in conflict whatsoever, and I think that’s the challenge of really great design — to juggle a lot of stuff. So, there’s no reason to think about it as in conflict or as a trade-off in any way.
Andy Bush: Well, let’s keep going along that same line. I think offices weren’t designed to live in, and a lot of people almost lived in them, and homes weren’t really designed to work in. And we found that out over the course of the last year and a half. What is that kind of way that we make new homes and new offices, whether they’re new or retrofitted? How do they start to explore that new world order?
William Shutkin: Especially as you were suggesting earlier, Brad —
Brad Jacobson: Yeah.
William Shutkin: — if we’re getting more sophisticated about embodied carbon as a subset of embodied energy, a lot of that embodied carbon in a building is what it actually takes to not only get the materials there, but the people using that building, to the extent we’re talking about an office building. And if the work from home alternative could dramatically reduce the amount of carbon that building where its occupants represent, how do we then rebalance the system downtown Manhattan or San Francisco? What is that going to look like? So, just sort of thoughts on what this future of work and office and home looks like.
Brad Jacobson: You want to jump in Alaina or —
Alaina Ladner: Well, I might play the devil’s advocates of the productivity that we are all more productive at home, because people just keep working until they sleep at their computer. And so we’re more productive, but are we healthier? I don’t know.
Brad Jacobson: No.
Andy Bush: Working from home, it was live at work.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah, exactly.
Brad Jacobson: Yeah.
William Shutkin: Especially, Alaina, when you’ve got a newborn or an infant around.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah or two kids in 800 square feet in a city with no outdoor space. Yeah.
Andy Bush: I was just going to say, I would argue that over the last year and a half, what most of us have been doing is unsustainable, right?
Alaina Ladner: Yes. Yes.
Andy Bush: Not only are people just not likely to continue doing it, but it was … I don’t think it was actually more productive, but I also think it was definitely unhealthy. And the only reason people worked so hard from home is they couldn’t go outside and go do anything. So, this future hybrid got to be a little more interesting than what we’ve been doing the last year.
Brad Jacobson: Yeah. But I think Bill is absolutely right that it is another opportunity to, again, kind of widen the lens. And so, for example, not commuting one day a week, that’s a 20 percent emissions reduction, that’s huge. You try to do that through any other measure, and that would take a lot of investment, a lot of time to think about new land-use patterns or new transit options. So, that’s huge in itself. So, I think it is a good time to, again, look at what is the function of the workplace? I think that it does then tie back into embodied carbon when you look at things like the project I’m working on, that’s a big high-tech office.
The big change when we stopped, when we restarted is really an emphasis on flexible furniture systems, and the consciousness that we all have of the need for resilience, and when we’re investing in interiors to really … We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know what’s coming in a year or five years or whatever. And the more we can build in that resilience, it’s going to help people adjust, and it’s also going to help the interiors from being disposable, which is definitely one of the biggest factors in embodied carbon.
Andy Bush: We’re designing our new interiors right now, and one of the things we’re doing is trying to make it more residential-like, in the sense that we realize we’re kind of competing with home. And so, I’m interested in your perspectives on how will home change to maybe look more like an office, and vice versa?
William Shutkin: Especially, Alaina, given your interiors expertise, you’re so thoughtful about details and what goes where. What should some of these changes be in light of the impact of COVID going forward?
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. Well, I’m just thrilled that the re-imagining of our spaces is focused on the people … But the shift is all back to what do the people need and why will they come here? So, I think that that is worth the offset of the carbon emissions. I think that they are both important, and in some ways you make the sacrifice. It’s kind of like saying, “We’re not all going to go stop using airplanes, right? It’s important that we are connected as a world and that we can engage and go places and see other things, but do we need to take that flight for that meeting that could happen like this.” Right?
Let’s be more thoughtful, just like when we go to the workplace, I don’t need to go there every day just to check the box or punch the card, but I’m going to go there thoughtfully, and that carbon emissions of my going to the office are going to be thoughtful and considered as opposed to just business as usual. So, I’m delighted that we’re going to be more considerate about how we emit carbon in commuting hopefully, how we are going to remit our spaces and really keep them human-centric, and hopefully future-focused on flexibility and things like that.
And I think bringing kind of the residential to the office has been something that people have really responded to for a while now, and I think there’s kind of a balance, right? People still like to have some of the features of an office that they don’t have at home when they go there, and some of the things that you want to host a client or things that you wouldn’t necessarily have at home. So, I feel like it’s that combination of making people feel comfortable, but then having the professional and the tools that they need are that reason that drive them to come together.
Andy Bush: Yeah. I think trying to figure out what is efficiently done at home and what do you need for a home office space and combining that with what are the things that are really important for an office? What are the functions of the office that are essential? When you look at kind of leading-edge projects of either what companies are doing or things that you’re working in, what are the things that excite you and what are the components that you’re working on there? Maybe Brad, start first and then Alaina.
Brad Jacobson: Sure. I’m really excited about just the shift that’s happening in the consciousness that’s changing to going from focusing on energy to carbon. And when we do that, companies that are looking at the concept of 24/7 clean energy, and really digging a little deeper to think about the sources of their electricity, when that electricity is dirty versus clean and how that’s feeding into their building. So, for example, just last month, we opened the Sonoma Clean Power headquarters in Santa Rosa, and that project is a pilot study for something called the GridOptimal Initiative, USBC’s involved in that with New Buildings Institute. And basically we’re going to be running the building in a way where it’s getting a feed of information about the actual carbon content on the grid.
So, let’s say the obvious example is it’s the summer, it’s four o’clock, it’s really hot everywhere, all the air conditioning is pumping. The California grid will start firing up their dirtiest gas-powered plants that normally would stay off. So, you want to avoid energy use at that time. So, the lights are going to dim automatically 20 percent during those times. And obviously, the heat pump, hot water heater won’t turn on during those times, it’ll just store the energy, and other features too where there are batteries as well. So, I think projects like that. We’re also doing something similar on this large technology campus, supporting this corporate client’s larger organizational goal to get to carbon neutrality. And they recognize that they have to really think about what kind of energy is being used in their building. So, that’s to me, this really complicated and interesting technical frontier that’s being explored at different scales right now.
And Andy, I think one more comment on it, it fundamentally builds on the net-zero energy work that you and others have led, and that Boulder Common showed, because those projects figured out how do you do an all-electric building that’s low energy, all-electric building. And by the way, it has PVs to offset that energy. It turns out the most, I think impactful aspect of that was how do you do an efficient, all-electric building? And the energy supply, there’s a lot of more options for that now.
Andy Bush: And Alaina, what are you seeing out there kind of on the leading edge?
Alaina Ladner: Thank you for that, Brad. Actually, I thought one of the most interesting things about Boulder Commons was it was multi-tenant. So, I’m really interested in the collaboration of all the people that make this possible. And to me, the most exciting thing is the owners and the occupiers collaborating. So, I think in the past, it’s kind of been, “You do your thing. I do my thing, and we have our interests are a little bit separate.” And now, I’m talking to occupiers where we’re talking about their site selection and their leasing language, and how are they going to communicate what matters to them. Large occupiers who have a strong presence in the market, how can they leverage their position to communicate to building owners that this matters, and this is what they’re looking for? Simultaneously, I’m working with owners who have never been more excited to meet their tenants in the middle and say, “Well, wow, I would much rather invest in the efficiency or the health of my building than giving you more tenant improvement dollars,” let’s say.
So, I just find that to be like — where we’re going to accelerate this process is now that I’m seeing real collaborative efforts and with the rise of ESG and these investors and owners reporting on the performance publicly, the occupiers publicly reporting on their performance, it’s the partnership that we’ve been needing. And so, to that end, I’ve always had a strong interest in how do we scale sustainability and how do we bring it to everyone? Because I’ve always felt like healthy materials are not something that you should have to be able to call out by name, or even know what sustainability means to be worthy of them, right? So, in my work, I was always trying to figure out can we deliver this to everybody? How can we change our general specifications to improve on chemicals of concern or to improve on embodied carbon?
And I did a study on general specifications and looking at ubiquitous building materials like drywall and insulation and paint, and asked that question, “If I remove the chemicals of concern, and if I choose those products prescriptively with the [inaudible] of embodied carbon, have I impacted cost or schedule? And can we all just use those products so that we send a message to the market that this is what we value, and if it doesn’t cost anymore or take any longer to get that drywall, let’s specify that all day long and send a message to all the other folks who make drywall.” So, I’m keen to figure out … Which is why I’m working on with these owners and occupiers, because they’re all looking at how do we take this to scale? So, how do we look at general specifications? How do we look at leasing language? How do we look at facilities management operations, and create guidebooks that scale from one project or one building to portfolios of buildings, to communities to really bring that mainstream and drive market transformation that’s fired up.
William Shutkin: That’s amazing, Alaina. Represent, that’s so good. I love that. And there’s a lot of idealism, of course, in what you’re saying, but there’s also sort of nuts and bolts, supply and demand, which is the equity issue here, right? When we talk about WELL buildings and LEED Platinum buildings, we’re still generally talking about an elite class of buildings accessible only to the most affluent, be they commercial or residential buyers or tenants. As you say, clearly we need the volume, the scale to drive those costs down. Couple of questions. One, is it your sense now, as we move beyond boutique projects of which I would characterize Boulder Commons, Andy’s path-breaking project among others, are we moving away from really boutique toward a more sort of commercialized broad scale set of products in buildings, and therefore advancing a real equity agenda, access, affordability for all?
And Alaina and Brad, in terms of your clients, be they building-owners or occupiers, are you really, in fact seeing this sort of more collaborative spirit in working with other stakeholders to have the best built environment possible, or is that again, just sort of a functional lane of the sorts of folks you work with? Are you seeing a shift in the market where folks are generally more open to working with others, as opposed to, “Pay me the rent and get out of my face?”
Alaina Ladner: What do you say, Brad?
Brad Jacobson: The first part of your question, Bill, in terms of kind of equity or access to these types of buildings, which in our practice, we’re really trying to find an approach that’s scalable and affordable, because for obvious reasons, we’re not going to get to a kind of carbon-neutral society without it. This project I’m going to mention is not exactly a typical — it’s a unique project, but it’s for the … We’re doing the renovation of AIA’s national headquarters in DC, and we just started. And partly why were selected is that we had an approach to achieving their climate goals which is in support of their climate action plan that they could afford, because the original approach that they were going to pursue was about squeezing as much energy efficiency as possible into the project, and it was quite expensive just to replace all the mechanical systems and really focus on EUI, an energy use intensity reduction.
So, I think the idea that we have to really situate our buildings within the larger community, within the larger electricity grid and leverage these other systems, and find the sweet spot of how we invest in efficiency and not kind of overinvest in that — I think that’s becoming the path forward that’s going to allow kind of a wider set of building owners to access the kind of low carbon building. I think it’s really starting with electrification and then really trying to find ways to leverage other trends going on in society.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. I think those are really good points, Brad. And I think that projects like Boulder Commons, I like to say they lift the ceiling on what’s possible, but it’s important that we’re always looking at the floor and trying to bring that back up with this. And so, that’s where we’re back to that education point, Andy, like does education matter? And is that really, do we just deliver an amazing experience and hope that the user connects the dots, right? Or do we need to help them understand why this is actually better? Like a little bit of looking under the hood a little bit, because then I do think that awareness matters and that value in why things are better does matter, and it helps to accelerate what we’re trying to achieve here. So, I would argue that the educational component and making the public generally aware is a super important piece of this lifting the floor.
Andy Bush: No, I would agree, and I think that … I would say I’m a reformed net-zero person at some level in that I used to think that the building was the thing and we had to do a bunch of those. And where it really kind of broken the world into pieces right now for me is, and I think it gets into both how we design and build and how we educate people to it is for me about what do buildings consume in terms of energy? And we want to get them to where they consume as little as is practical, and then what can they practically produce on site? And it depends on where they are in the country and what grid they’re connected to, and what the grid is going to look like in 20 and 30 years in that location.
And then how do we manage them for people and optimize them for energy, kind of the three major components. And then I would say, everything we’re doing right now is saying, “How do we take…” I would never do another not all-electric building. It’s kind of — once we’ve done electric, we put gas lines in the first couple, just in case we don’t put gas lines in any of them any more, just in case. And now our question is, how do we make it scalable, replicable and reduce the cost on each project going forward, such that we’re working from kind of a leading-edge platform? We’ll probably get down into the medium size or the mean. I don’t know that we’ll be working on the lowest cost projects to bring them up, but I think what I’ve seen happen is by working kind of from an exploratory phase, and then kind of trying to commoditize that, it’s also crossing a curve that there’s enough volume in things like electric heating and cooling systems and others that their price is coming down along at the same time.
So, I think you’re right, it’s education. It’s kind of trying to make these more of a commodity strategy. And then what happens in the supply and demand of the world is that people want more of that, eventually its cost is going to come down just due to demand and local and regional suppliers and skilled labor that knows how to put it in now.
Brad Jacobson: Yeah. So, I think the big play is really demonstrating that the projects can be done cost-effectively can then influence codes. And that’s really the kind of end game if we’re talking about how to move the market and move replicability is if you have a project like the project I did in California, the Packard Foundation which dramatically influenced the California energy code, because we showed things that actually could work. So, 10 years later, the code was adopted and projects like Boulder Commons can have the same impact, I’m sure in Colorado. I think that’s where then you get the economy of scale, because once something is codified, of course, the manufacturers and the cost curves start aligning.
Alaina Ladner: It is a lot harder to put human health and wellbeing into the building code, for sure. And the government and those who make the building codes are much more invested in our grids, in our energy systems, water and waste and all of that. So, it is harder and it goes back to that qualitative piece, like how do you measure it? But it is harder to rely on the codes to look after your health and wellbeing. And so, I would say, to kind of carry on to Andy’s thought and yours is how do you share those lessons learned to the next developer that might consider it? And how do you accelerate the sharing of those lessons to make sure that the supply and demand can respond accordingly to these, to your lessons and make those multiply? An example of that I have is the same thing with that research project I did looking at ubiquitous materials is there was a great drywall brand out there that also had a component to it that it could absorb formaldehyde in the atmosphere.
So, it could absorb and actually clean the air to some extent, like take some toxins out of the air, particularly during off-gassing and store them within the drywall. And then it had low embodied carbon and had no chemicals of concern, awesome product. I tested it, it came in on time, at budget, and then the next time I went to go use it, that wasn’t available anymore. When I talked to the manufacturer, they said, “Yeah, it was a great product, but it wasn’t getting specified enough, and it had a separate machine or some process that it required that if it didn’t have the scale, we couldn’t make it anymore.” And I was like, “Well, this is the case of supply and demand not working the way that we need it to.”
So, my goal with that project was … Greenbuild didn’t happen last year, but the goal was to present it at Greenbuild and share all of those specs that that is not my secret sauce as a designer is to know the best drywall spec. That is the kind of information that we, as an industry should just be sharing. And I think sometimes, we need to find better avenues to share these things, because each architecture firm is working on their own little set of notes here on the side or their own Excel spreadsheet, and how do we scale that impact?
William Shutkin: Alaina, that goes to your collaboration ethic, right? And I’m noticing that among the four of us, you’re the only woman. So, perhaps we’ll see more women in the field —
Alaina Ladner: — That’s true.
William Shutkin: — and that as the leadership, collaboration will begin to overtake competition as the order of the day. But a couple of points, Brad, going back to your excellent point about code and policy as a great scaling mechanism, I say that as a lawyer, believing that there’s nothing better than writing something into law to get people to do it or not do it as the case may be. Let’s note that this very week, California is proposing the requirement that all new buildings have a solar component, right? So, as usual, California is sort of taking the lead, upping demand and thus supply, bringing costs down, so there is a real virtue to that move. Brad or Alaina, being both Californians, do you have thoughts on the latest from California in terms of promoting renewables in the built environment?
Brad Jacobson: Well, it’s also that the California Energy Commission, maybe the most impactful move on that is that they’re setting electric heat pumps as the baseline in the code. And so, everything has to be measured against that, which — completely flips on its head. It’s been almost impossible to do a kind of prescriptive code basis using electric heat pumps in the past. So, that’s a fundamental change that’s completely turning things on its head. Alaina, feel free to answer, but I’m really intrigued by the code question, because Alaina just mentioned how it’s harder to get kind of health and wellness into the code than some of these energy issues. What’s interesting is that the history of codes, in the beginning, building codes were there —
Alaina Ladner: — To protect us.
Brad Jacobson: … and wellness, that was it. That’s why it started. So, it just hit me when you said that. It is true and it’s perverse, because that’s the whole point of codes. So, I don’t know if there are any thoughts that you have Alaina. Sorry to … Not to be the interviewer here, but if there are things that we could potentially advocate to codify around wellness in codes?
William Shutkin: Sorry, Alaina, just to add to that question for you, Alaina, it’s what LEED tried to do essentially for energy codes and has done successfully, right? A market transformation measure in a certification system that eventually gets absorbed and adopted by public policy. Largely around energy, might we not see the same, Alaina around wellness standards with WELL certification and other similar certifications working largely through the private sector, but ultimately sort of percolating up to local and state codes?
Alaina Ladner: It depends on how you’re thinking about delivering wellness. There are design strategies that I don’t think the code can ever … Or it’s going to be a lot harder to integrate design strategies, active design, and daylighting and biophilia, those are going to be a harder and more qualitative. They’re harder to prescribe for the building code. And then there’s the other component that’s somewhat invisible which are those chemicals of concern and which are what we make … There’s like 100,000 chemicals out there in the world, and most of them have not been tested for their impact.
William Shutkin: And a chemical lobby. Yeah. Yeah.
Alaina Ladner: And we’re up against manufacturing and chemical lobby. So, I think the best thing that we can do is share amongst ourselves and try to use capitalism to our advantage to actually promote those healthier materials and the natural materials, and use more natural and less new generated manufactured products with all the latest … Sometimes just using that piece of wood was the better choice.
William Shutkin: Taking a page from the organics playbook in the food industry, totally.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. Yeah. If your grandma didn’t know what that building material was, maybe you want to think twice about using it.
William Shutkin: Yeah, exactly. Simple ingredients.
Andy Bush: I think I’ve become more optimistic lately in the sense of how much collaboration is going on, and it kind of gets to your point, Alaina, on the education, how do we educate each other in that there are people who are doing pilot projects that they’re trying to commoditize like we are. There are officials around the country really focusing on energy through code and other mechanisms to improve that. I think that the real focus on health, wellness and productivity is probably going to be driven by large companies that will demonstrate that that can work and it will be adopted by smaller companies.
And I’ve also talked a lot to institutional investors recently, and I used to think that they were going to be the last ones to be part of this game, but they’re going to become the kind of gorilla in the room pretty soon, because they’re starting to think about not only their ESG goals, but the normal lifetime of a loan and a building is somewhere between 12 and 15 years. And who wants to be the one holding the bag in the next cycle that has a fossil fuel-powered building. So, I think we’re at kind of an interesting confluence, but —
William Shutkin: And I agree.
Andy Bush: … I’m optimistic at this point in time.
William Shutkin: That’s saying something. That’s awesome.
Alaina Ladner: I say to investors, “You can focus right now on your green premium or tomorrow, we can talk about your brown discount.”
William Shutkin: Yeah. Yeah. Nice, nice.
Brad Jacobson: Oh, I like that. Yeah.
William Shutkin: Alaina, you’re chock-full of really good one-liners tonight or today. I love that. I want to just get to sort of related subject, but maybe take us in a slightly different direction. Because of what’s happening now, Brad, you referred to yet again wildfires in California, and the West Coast affecting us here in Colorado, to say nothing as the rest of the country. This is now essentially a perennial phenomenon, the science suggests so, our lived experience suggests so. COVID of course, ups the ante on the conversation about the relationship between indoor and outdoor space. Many of us, in fact, I think all of us in the last year have had this conversation on specific projects in light of COVID, how do we take better advantage of outdoor space? Well, of course, we can have that conversation and then we look out the window or go outside and it’s smoggy and hot.
This is a really sort of wicked challenge right now. So, I’d love to explore for a few minutes this sort of question of interior to exterior, outdoor to indoor, as we look at a hotter, smokier planet or at least, parts of the planet, and what the challenge will be for developers and designers and policymakers in terms of finding that again, that right balance between indoor and outdoor space, whether it’s a pandemic or wildfire? Is there a sweet spot? Is flexibility the watchword? So, it’s not just Brad, as you’re suggesting sort of flexible furniture systems for inside or perhaps even outside, but it’s flexible indoor, outdoor systems, more sliding doors and more outdoor space that can be made indoor, and more indoor that can be made outdoor, and a lot more filtration, I guess, sort of at the end of the day in and out. So, your thoughts on sort of indoor, outdoor and what the hotter, smokier world is going to require us to do to be both sustainable and healthy?
Brad Jacobson: It’s incredibly problematic. It can be solved with … The obvious answer money aside is flexibility, being able to shut everything down, have really good air filtration and then open things up when you can and be outside. It can add up from a cost perspective just to … Even one operable window adds cost versus a fixed window, right? Just on a base level, but we have to build in good air filtration into our building systems. We can’t rely on operable windows anymore and just a purely passive approach. That’s my perspective, and I think that from a biophilia standpoint and a functionality standpoint, finding ways to allow a fluidity between inside and outside in almost all climates is really a high value.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. It’s interesting they said that the house plant sales went through the roof during COVID, right? So, we all needed to bring the outside inside with us, because we were living in our homes enough. Interestingly, studies have shown that those folks in a hospital bed even with a picture of nature heal faster than those with none, right? So, I’m not suggesting we move to like wallpapers of the outside environment instead of actually going outside, but it does reiterate that value to our human — the ability to regenerate and thrive is connected to us being living creatures that inherently evolved outside, right? So, I think if anything … This isn’t really an answer to your question, but if anything, all of these situations just make us realize how precious nature actually is, and the outdoors actually are when you can’t access them, then that need and desire is even stronger than you had before.
And going back to what Andy said about, are the institutional investors the gorilla in the room? I think they are one of the gorillas in the room. And the other gorilla that I have my eye on is the next generation, because what to us feels like, “Oh, God, this is starting to happen every year,” is their lived reality, that is what they know the world to be. And they can hear from us that that’s not really what it used to be, and there’s an injustice there, right? And the other thing that I see the young folks doing … I’d like to think that I’m one, but I don’t think I have anymore is they connect all of these issues in a way that none of us ever did before.
So, the … intersectionality of these issues, how social justice, environmental justice, native people’s rights, all of these sort of interrelated issues, Black Lives Matter, I mentioned before, they all come down to issues that we’re talking about, and that historically capitalism has played a big role in perpetuating. So, that’s why I’m so keen to use capitalism to our advantage, and how do we communicate and how do we drive positive change that has also a triple bottom line positive result, right? So, those investors, I love that we have the two gorillas in the room are the institutional investors and the next generation who are going to push them to do better because that’s what we need.
William Shutkin: Alaina, do you see this happening in terms of our particular industry, whether it’s developers or designers in your case? Thinking back to planning and architecture schools, real estate programs, are we seeing, and I have my own perspective on this, a real shift generationally, and therefore in consciousness that will start showing up in a much bigger way at scale, say within the next decade or two so that every designer and every developer is already thinking in these collaborative, flexible, sustainable terms versus having to be persuaded and coaxed until the cows come home?
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. And they’re clued into it, and that’s why I say, how can we educate them to have those real solutions and really understand? They are keen to know and keen to apply those lessons. So, how do we, as the folks who have lived them and learned them, share them so they can use those as launching platforms to take them where we never dreamed they could? And I think that it’s inherently kind of who they are, right? So, let’s tap into that power.
Andy Bush: Yeah. I think one of the things that we all forget is kind of the power of generational change. And I think you can look back to see it as well as be optimistic looking forward about what’s going to happen. And I take an example like when Bill Ford became the president of Ford Motor Company, right? Their focus in terms of buildings and sustainability changed dramatically. He helped push them towards better materials than technology. And ultimately, I think you can probably link the new Ford lightning pickup truck back to him at some level. And they have 100,000 orders for something that hasn’t even been created yet. So, generational change, it’s huge, and —
William Shutkin: — Andy, he also hired Bill McDonough for the River Rouge’s factory to really experiment with cradle-to-cradle design for an automated factory.
Andy Bush: … Yeah. And it took a new generation in that business to adopt and to fully embrace that change. And I think that the development business is historically kind of a foggy business, right? But we need a new generation of people that kind of came into a world of, “Well, all-electric is probably the way to go and let’s start divesting, or renovating these fossil fuel-powered buildings.” And the generation after that is going to say, “We powered buildings with fossil fuel.”
William Shutkin: Yeah. So exciting. And there’s the time clock though, which is the particular urgency of the matter today, as many would describe it which is we can’t wait for generational change and the shift in DNA, we need to —
Andy Bush: Yeah. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
William Shutkin: … Yeah. Exactly, right?
Brad Jacobson: Yeah. I agree with everything and we can’t wait for the next generation to take charge. The four of us and others are making the buildings happen right now. So, one key area that really impacts today is embodied carbon, and I’m curious … And so, Alaina’s talking about harnessing capitalism, which I agree. This is an area that’s really thorny, because it doesn’t really impact the productivity of the worker. It doesn’t impact your energy costs. Creating the financial case for it is very hard, because it’s not codified and there are not incentives. So, as a developer, Andy or William, I’m curious from you guys, how do you … You guys are die-hard, so you’ll do it, but how do we quickly make embodied carbon something that can be mainstream? And reducing it can be something that is actually happening on a wide scale, because that’s the carbon that gets emitted up front, which is the thing we have to address more than anything.
Andy Bush: For me as someone who is often cautious of government solutions or policy solutions rather than private sector solutions, I think carbon is one of the areas that’s going to largely be driven top-down, I hope from federal policy and filter through states and local government. And I think whether it’s a pure carbon tax or some variance on that, I think that’s probably what’s necessary to make it happen as quickly as we need it to happen.
William Shutkin: Yeah. Even Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney apparently can agree that that’s probably the only way to go, Brad as a policy solution, tax on carbon to really target it, pinpoint it. Alaina, your thoughts?
Alaina Ladner: Well, I was wondering if Brad was going to ask Andy if he’s planning to redesign existing building stock to tap into all that embodied carbon —
Andy Bush: — I think —
Alaina Ladner: — and reimagine it, and show that example that our clients don’t need to look to build a new building, that they can take an old dog and literally give it all new tricks, right?
Alaina Ladner: And how do we transform that and … create amazing examples of like, “Wait, that was what?” And that, to me is exciting.
Andy Bush: Yeah. We’re doing it right now, and we’re converting a building from gas to electric. And you have to look at — we can’t just convert buildings to electric and have them consume three times as much energy as a good building. So, you’ve got to figure out a way to do the envelope incrementally, and you’ve got to figure out a way to do the heating and cooling system often incrementally, because you have tenants and they have leases and they have rights, and it’s …
I like to finish on high, but kind of the downer of our business right now is that all the new buildings are a lot of fun, they’re really interesting. They’re leading edge. They represent what, something like less than 1 percent of all buildings each year. So, what we do with the other 90-some percent, and how do we do those over this 15 or 20-year period? And I think you can’t just regulate it, because the unintended consequences could be so high, and people could delay. And so, I think really figuring out a good path to retrofits that maybe doesn’t let perfect get in the way of good in terms of achieving our goals for 2030 or 2050.
William Shutkin: It is so complicated. As Andy, you’ll recall, Brad was part of a conversation and a project, Alaina that the three of us were working on as recently as what, six or eight months ago, trying to convince a city — and I’ll leave names out — that saving an existing building was actually a more sustainable, greener alternative than the sustainable deconstruction of that same building. So, talk about a conundrum and a challenge of a very sophisticated, well-funded sustainable deconstruction strategy versus simply leaving, at least the building shell in place to be adaptably reused. In fact, Brad did some really nice sketches and massing studies. We ultimately were not successful in convincing said city that it was more cost-effective and more sustainable to keep the building than to sustainably deconstruct it. So, the retrofitting and re-engineering of existing building stock it turns out is really perhaps the most challenging assignment that we will have going forward.
Brad Jacobson: It’s urgent because we can’t afford it until we really get our research and development on things like low-carbon concrete really humming. And we just can’t really afford to be building new buildings with conventional structural materials. I know Andy’s been doing some work and I’ve been doing EHD is doing work on mass timber at some larger scales and that’s exciting. And actually I’m surprised to say, I think it actually has legs. I think it’s scalable and workable, but we need a lot more solutions like that for the new buildings. And I think we need to keep showing great examples. Again, it goes back to the kind of case study and exemplary projects and the value of that, just showing examples of fantastic, healthy, great environments for people that are in existing buildings that have been transformed. I think it’s really high priority.
Alaina Ladner: Yeah. And I think just before we talked about, “Are we asking too much of buildings? What are we expecting of them?” And I would say, we’re maybe not asking enough that like architects should not be thinking about … They should be thinking about the next 100, 200 years of that building, if not more really, because it should go through some reinventive cycles, right? And it should get reimagined and it shouldn’t just be discarded for the next thing that might be there for 30, 40 years, right? And so, the more examples that we can have to show that, and the more that developers and investors see that as a really valuable opportunity, and then kids go to architecture school and they’re like, “Oh, let’s do projects where we reimagine existing buildings instead of designing brand new ones. Let’s change the whole conversation,” because to your point, we’re not going to get out of this problem by building more buildings.
William Shutkin: And yet again, that sounds wonderful and compelling and we can think about Roman ruins and the viaducts and the great temples of the far east. But I think one of the big takeaways for me in this conversation is flexibility, right? The adaptability of the built environment, given the unpredictability of the kinds of changes and influences that these buildings will be subject to. So, can we have our cake and eat it too, which is designing and developing for legacy for long-term multi-generational durability, but also ensure that those same buildings down to the building material can be swapped out, can be changed and adapted as our technologies improve, as environmental conditions change, right? That to me seems to be a really interesting and nearly impossible design assignment.
Andy Bush: Well, to me, it’s the kind of endless design assignment, right? Is that we live in a world that’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, and we’ve got to get buildings to go that same direction and know that they’re in a continuous evolution and that things are designed to be changed and modified incrementally over time, time being hundreds of years. And I think for me, there’s also this, you could say, “Well, let’s not worry so much about the new leading-edge stuff,” but that also informs and is ultimately going to create many of the materials and strategies for the renovations. And we’re testing a new glass in one of our next phases, and we’ve got eight little 18-inch by 18-inch panels in, and it’s a film that instead of rejecting the sun, absorbs it and creates energy. So, you’ve got to put a film in our windows anyway, and we’re trying to reject heat. Here let’s capture it and turn it into energy instead of rejecting it.
Now, a typical solar panel’s 24 percent efficient, right? These are only 6 percent to 10 percent but they think they could get to maybe 12 percent efficiency in the next couple of years. And if you think about the fact that they cost half as much as a solar panel on every high rise in every city, we can do a solar study and decide which building should have solar windows in them. And now you can start thinking in scale and retrofit and producing energy is not just rooftop solar, and it’s not some of what we did early, which sometimes looks a little strange. The next version looks a little bit better as you’re doing solar walls, but when they’re solar windows, again, nobody even knows they’re there. They’re just, “Your windows produce energy.” And the next generation won’t remember windows that didn’t produce energy that’s. So, that’s where I’m pretty optimistic.
William Shutkin: Andy, that’s a great final thought or near-final thought. Folks, we’ve just got a couple of minutes as we wind down, I love that optimistic note. Alaina and Brad, other sort of notes of hope and promise?
Brad Jacobson: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I do think that the immediacy of climate impacts that people are feeling is tragic. And in some ways is our only hope right now, because we have to catalyze this moment, both the transformational moment that’s happened because of COVID and kind of shifting concepts of home and work. And there’s a lot of movement around that now, and this immediacy across the country and the world of issues of resilience. And so, I think this kind of podcast and people are really speaking up and making those connections, this is the moment.
William Shutkin: And great luck, we’ll be seeing you soon I hope on all sorts of fronts, but thanks for spending an hour or so with us today; we really enjoyed it.
Brad Jacobson: Thank you.
Alaina Ladner: Thank you for all the work you both do as well.
William Shutkin: Next time, Rushad Nanavatty and Ben Holland of the Urban Transformation team at the Rocky Mountain Institute join us to explore the connection between transportation and land use and how each affects our ability to achieve our climate goals.