A Tale of Two Northeast Regional Events

Recently, I attended two regional events; the first a full-day symposium in Albany, New York titled Adapting Buildings for Climate Change and the second, our own 2018 NEEP Summit by the Sea in Middletown, RI. The two events shared primary messages. The Symposium featured over a dozen resiliency professionals and academics from New York and beyond gathered to address the question: How do we prepare our buildings for the future of climate impacts? The Summit “highlighted leading examples of advanced efficiency as a key pathway to building a low-carbon future.”

A key message from both events included the importance of community-led equity initiatives as a lens to addressing systemic racism, environmental justice, resiliency, and carbon reduction. Furthermore, both events highlighted the challenge of retrofitting the majority of existing buildings to address carbon reduction as the leading factor in a changing climate.

Different Sides of the Coin

The Albany presenters offered a message directed toward local government and communities of all types, where the NEEP Summit resonated more within the realm of state regulators and the multinational commercial, industrial manufacturing sector. Between the two events, the ultimate imperative of addressing climate change was addressed from the bottom up and top down, which is what’s needed to tackle what the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC) published last week described as a “global climate emergency.”

Where the two events diverged is in the scope of the issues. The Summit stayed primarily within the energy boundary, while the Symposium scaled the imperative for resilience in not just buildings and energy but in all consequences (urbanization, water, and food scarcity, health) attributable to the built environment for communities and people at all scales and locations, static and non-static. 

Building codes received several verbal jabs and an occasional surprise hook during the Symposium. The plain truth is that codes remain reactive to the last storm or the latest failure and do not take a proactive long-term view to a rapidly changing climate. A climate which we can no longer assume will remain stable means we most likely will see more frequent and stronger storms and increased temperatures during each three-year code development cycle. 

Winning Gold

Codes and standards have great potential to increase energy efficiency; this idea was demonstrated at the NEEP Summit. An infamous feature of the NEEP Summit is the NEEP EElympics, which is a fun and interactive session featuring four-minute rapid-fire presentations from Summit attendees and exhibitors, judged by the audience and a panel of "official judges.” This year, Kevin Rose from National Grid concisely laid out his reasoning as to why and how codes are the most cost-effective and wide-ranging solution to address carbon and energy efficiency issues in new and existing buildings. Surprising most everyone, Kevin earned gold. Kevin’s points resonated with both the audience and judges and drew another parallel between the two events.

A Gold Medal Example

A striking presentation topic at the Symposium concerned community adaptation utilizing the specific example of Onagawa, Japan. Onagawa was devastated by the great Sendai earthquake and tidal wave in 2011. The town is being rebuilt and raised to create a resilient, earthquake and tidal wave resistant, walkable city. The plan is not without criticism as the sea won’t be as accessible, industry will be at the shoreline, and residences will be located further inland. Forests are being clear-cut to make space, and mountaintops leveled or filled. However, the plan will provide housing for a larger population than previously lived on the site and will also assure both passive and active survivability in the event of another inevitable earthquake or tidal wave.

In light of the new IPCC climate report, some are calling for a Marshall Plan type of initiative to address climate change. The rebuilding of Onagawa is only possible because the Japanese Parliament made it so. We see other such government-mandated initiatives around the world (e.g., the Netherlands, Shanghai) to address energy efficiency and resiliency related to climate change and sea level rise. Dominica plans to be the world’s first climate resilient nation. While in the U.S. resiliency initiatives tend to be municipally financed (e.g., Miami, Boston, Newark) which is a trend that needs to shift if we are to meet the shocks and stressors expressed in the ICPP report, which are anticipated to befall us within the next 10-15 years. 

Resilience, Carbon Reduction, and Affordability

From attending the two events, a few issues became clear: resiliency is not sustainability and resiliency isn’t necessarily low carbon, an important issue we need to address. Affordability of housing is driven by value and, though resiliency increases cost, it also accelerates value. Strategic electrification, the Summit’s main subject, is a fundamental social and economic paradigm shift that relies heavily on the persistence of resilient and sustainable systems.  Systems of which we will need to balance known and unknown factors for communities.  We will need to be patient and creative in the face of timing that doesn’t allow for slow or methodical incremental change. We need to up our game to educate and find new methods to contextualize old and new challenges and solutions. The cost in dollars and time of not investing in resilience and strategic electrification of buildings and transportation is not imaginable as we head towards four degrees centigrade of warming.

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