Leading by Example: Sustainability in the Built Environment


For many US cities and states that are serious about leading by example in advancing the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, the built environment is a great place to start.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, approximately 20% of the nation’s real estate footprint is owned by state and local governments. This is quite significant because, according to the US Department of Energy, the buildings sector accounts for 76% of electricity consumption and 40% of all US primary energy consumption and associated GHG emissions. .

Understanding that building efficiency plays a critical role in the strategic approach to climate action, many cities and states have already made formal carbon reduction commitments. But among these often lofty goals, how do they actually fare? Many agencies, public and private, have good intentions about their net zero commitments, but making big changes requires not just promises (which everyone seems to be doing) but leading by example with tangible efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Having worked in the environmental sector for over 30 years, I applaud any organization that has the courage to honestly look at where it stands in terms of sustainability and then put a plan in place to improve its performance. It’s always heartwarming to see clients set ambitious goals – helping them achieve ambitious goals is why we come to work, and we all benefit if they succeed. On the other hand, some organizations set bold or incredibly long-term goals that they don’t have a clear plan of how to achieve, and stray dangerously into the realm of greenwashing. To encourage those who seek to improve and shine a light on those who promise too much, we need organizations that are willing to set standards through their actions and lead by example.

One of our clients does just that: the State of Maine and the Governor’s Office for Policy Innovation and the Future, with its aptly named Lead by Example program. An executive order requires its state agencies to lead by example through energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability measures including reducing emissions, promoting workplace health and sustainability, and building resilient infrastructure. Impressive by anyone’s measure.

As part of this program, the Cultural Building on Augusta’s West Campus is undergoing a major renovation that began in the spring of 2022. The 160,000 square foot building houses the Maine State Archives (MSA), Library of the State of Maine (MSL) and the State of Maine. Museum (MSM), including temperature-controlled archival storage space, museum exhibit galleries, public library and office space that has unique requirements for environmental control and lighting. Wood serves as the architect and engineer on this project providing energy efficient and sustainable solutions for the building envelope, HVAC and environmental systems. Built in 1967-69, the structure is undergoing the first major renovation of building systems since its construction.

Environmental and mechanical improvements will reduce energy consumption, improve indoor air quality, and improve humidity control for the health and comfort of the public and government employees, as well as better preservation historical artifacts and collections in the building. This is achieved by using highly efficient Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) technology, together with an air source heat pump and air conditioning system. The system’s distributed fan coils provide better zone control and allow simultaneous heating and cooling to meet the varying loads and cooling controls required throughout the building.

Outdoor ventilation air is preconditioned by recovering heat and humidity from building exhaust air using an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) and passing it through an air conditioning system. Dedicated Outside Air (DOAS). This DOAS provides dehumidification or heating as needed before supplying air through the VRF system to meet the unique needs of each zone. The project includes thermal upgrades to windows and walls to reduce the building’s heating and cooling loads, thereby reducing the energy and size requirements of mechanical systems, and will also replace lighting throughout the building with energy-efficient LEDs. .

The replacement mechanical system was selected using energy modeling and a 30-year life cycle cost analysis, demonstrating energy savings and reduced operational costs over time that have more than compensated for the initial CAPEX expenses. The result for our planet? A reduction in annual emissions estimated at 47.6 tonnes of CO2 and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. As my colleague Elizabeth Huckins, the chief architect of Wood at Work, puts it: “Here is a project that brings sustainability ambitions to life, for the benefit of us all. Not just a strategy and noble words, but a state government that keeps its climate promises.

So, what lessons can we draw from this project? As Elizabeth suggests, programs that deliver on their promises with real action make a real difference. As the State of Maine showed, it’s also essential to be honest about where you are on your journey and to produce credible and authentic communications with stakeholders so you can assess progress. and sharing learnings, starting with a determination to change.

The communities that depend most on our public infrastructure need more than elaborate and inspiring words. They need transparent and consistent messages, bold and tangible actions and a sense of trust. Have confidence in realistic sustainability goals, where we are on our journey and how we will achieve our goals. As we develop plans towards a net zero future, let us be inspired to take action by examining the successes and achievements of those who are making measurable progress on climate goals, leading by example in this critical journey towards durability.


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