As Executive Director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, Jill Kowalski has seen a sea change take place in the building industry in recent years. Green building practices now seem to be the expectation, not the exception. The way buildings are planned, designed, built and operated is quickly changing, and we asked Kowalski to help us understand why.
Keystone Edge: So, green building practices of the kind your organization advocates seem to be quite popular these days…
Jill Kowalski: It’s really interesting, we kind of find ourselves in the middle of a perfect storm. Between the conversations about climate change and now the economy, green buildings just make a whole lot of sense. They always have made sense; they’re just getting a lot more press these days because they’re about creating healthier environments, more energy efficient environments. And buildings are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions when you take into consideration the gases created by clearing the land, trucking the materials, building the building itself and then the operation of the building for its life. So they have really become a focus of part of the solution for climate change, and also as way for people to save money. It’s a win-win, because what’s good for the pocket is good for the environment.
KE: How has your job, and the mission of the DVGBC, changed in the last 7 or 8 years?
JK: It’s changed drastically. When we were founded in 2001, it was really about promoting sustainable design practices, making people aware of another way of doing things. And we were willing to talk to anybody that would listen, and just looking for visionaries or people who were looking to do things differently. In the past two years, people are now chasing us down because there is such a demand for education. It’s kind of like the market gets it now so we don’t really need to promote it anymore. People get it, now they want to know how to do it. So our role has now become more of an active education body, trying to meet the demand for education and get it done. So it’s been a very significant, fundamental shift.
KE: How much is the building industry really adapting or changing to reflect that shift? And what is the incentive for construction companies to use green or efficient building practices?
JK: Well, like any trend, you have the leaders, who do it on their own and see it coming, and then you have the early adopters and then the people who jump on later and follow the mainstream. I think whether you’re a contractor or a developer, from where we stand today, if you are not educated on green building, you’re losing business. Period. Because design professionals and building owners are now writing into the building specifications that buildings have to meet certain requirements–whether it’s a third party certification like the LEED rating system, or just meeting certain performance targets. And if the contractor can’t deliver on that or prove that they have a tract record, they will not get the business. It used to be a niche; it used to be something you could promote as a differentiator. Now, it’s just like a skill set that’s required.
KE: Has it surprised you how quickly this shift took place? Did you see this coming?
JK: I was director of sustainability for a large architecture firm here in Philadelphia, and when I started, they did projects in all different sectors: schools, hospitals–a cross-section of work. And when I started, there was a handful of request for proposals that would come in with some kind of mention of green design being required in a project, or a third-party certification. And when I left that job, four years later, the president of the company told me that every request for proposal that they were seeing referred to green building in some form. It didn’t necessarily mean the client completely understood it, but they had heard it enough to know that they wanted to talk more about it. Also, when the LEED rating system hit the market, it was the first third-party certification out there, and incentives were being offered–tax incentive or lower mortgage rates or whatever–that were requiring that third party certification. Once that system was on the street and started gaining momentum and gaining popularity, that’s when the conversation went to a whole new level. You had cities adopting the LEED rating system, which was then forcing the design community, the contractors, everyone who wasn’t on board to get on board. You had the federal government requiring LEED certification for their buildings, and once that happened it was like the train left the station and everyone’s been in catch-up mode since then; the incentives motivated people who maybe weren’t as interested before.
KE: Do you suppose there might come a day when incentives are no longer needed because it’s just a matter of fact that energy efficient buildings cost less?
JK: Yeah, there are many fundamental shifts happening right now but the way a majority still thinks is, ‘build it on budget, I’ll worry about paying for how I operate it later.’ But [the cost of] operating a building is astronomical compared the cost of actually building it. It’s a mindset, it’s an accounting disconnect from my perspective. Now, with sustainability and lifecycle analysis, which is looking at the long-term cost of the building, that conversation is changing.
KE: How does the Delaware Valley stack up, as a region, compared to other places? What opportunities does this trend represent for the region, and are we taking advantage of them?
JK: I think Philadelphia is very well positioned to be a leader, certainly with our new mayor–he gets it. I think there has always been a very rich pool of local leadership, which is why Philadelphia is the home of the first [LEED] platinum building down at the Navy Yard, the Comcast Center–the tallest LEED-certified building. We don’t have a lot of projects but the ones that we have are the highest in their class. So, I want to increase our numbers, which means getting more people on board, but the examples we have are some of the best in the country… Philadelphia also views sustainability as an economic development strategy, so they are really looking at it as a much bigger picture, which I think is completely appropriate.