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Beyond Green Building

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In part one of CP's interview with Rebecca Flora, the outgoing head of Pittsburgh's Green Building Alliance (GBA) recounted how far green building has come in her 11 years there (see the story at www.pghcitypaper.com).

This week, Flora explores why we must go beyond new "green building" for a wider vision of environmental sustainability.

In January, Flora, 49, starts work as senior vice president for research and education at the U.S. Green Building Council, in Washington, D.C. She spoke with CP at the GBA's headquarters, a greenly renovated former warehouse on the South Side.

 

What does your new job entail?
If we look at getting beyond buildings to sustainable communities, and the [national work] on climate change, it all comes back to the need to build capacity, to educate. [For example,] you can talk about green jobs, building a workforce, to the subcontractors.

One of the things near and dear to my heart is the partnerships we've established with K-12 educators and with higher-education educators. [When we] help those folks that are working on curriculums at that level -- that means we truly can transform behavior and habits within a generation.

And then the research side: the variety of data that we can develop, in terms of the health benefits, the economic benefits, the environmental benefits.

I'm also seeing a huge audience growing on the public-policy side, particularly with the shift in politics. Not only the Obama administration, but also in the states -- green jobs, the full array of climate change, [are] something that they are really now turning their attention to.

Why isn't "green building" enough?
Quite frankly the new frontier -- the area [where] Pittsburgh has the opportunity to be a leader -- is around the whole area of existing buildings. This is why we did this [GBA] office the way we did. We need more of that.

I think our region, if we really get behind that piece, we have huge green-job opportunities. We have so much opportunity to retrofit, to optimize ... buildings, [plus opportunities for] service contractors, in manufacturing of building-control systems -- a whole array of manufacturing and tradespeople.

Is that a public-works program?
I'm excited about the legislation that was passed last summer [a state bill funding clean-energy and efficiency projects]. If that money stays intact and makes its way to the streets, it's a huge opportunity for incentives and financial support. I think there is going to be a need for a major public investment. We're gonna need big guns to be willing to say, "Yeah, we see a really great strategy for our region here," and not just talk about it. How do you create a much more comprehensive green plan?

What's happened in Pittsburgh?
So far the only thing we have on the books [is a 2007 city law permitting development to be denser if it's certified green]: more square footage, more income, which helps balance out the additional upfront cost. It was a really simple, no-cost one that took five years to get through city council. That's also partly why I'm burned out!

Do green requirements hinder economic growth?
It's the cost to society when we [build on] a greenfield site that's not being factored in [now]. Everybody looks at "How many jobs have you created?" but they're not looking at the debit side: What's it cost you in terms of infrastructure?

What about containing sprawl, like Portland's "growth boundary"?
I've always been less inclined to overly regulate and more inclined to incentivize good behavior. If we were just willing to [say], "Look, you can do your sprawl development; here's the guidelines you're going to have to follow. And we're not gonna provide all this public support to extend all these new water and sewer lines out there. You're gonna have to pay your fair share of what that added cost is to the public. But if you want to go over here on this existing site, where a lot of those things are already in place, we're gonna help you."

What about measuring economic success differently -- like counting ecological and social impacts along with traditional profits?
That's the discussion now. That's where my work at GBC will be, to help that discussion evolve.

How do we start creating a new economic model that says, "Gee, if I have a better air-quality filtration system in my building, and my employees get sick 10 percent less, how does that factor into my decision-making?"

The thing that people are still gonna struggle with for a while is the [sustainability] issue. And this is where climate change especially is going to start figuring in, because we're going to start realizing, "What's the value of maintaining Schenley Park?" ...

Every time we're allowed to cut down forest, and not pay the [financial] cost of that, we're taking that capital and taking that inheritance away from [future generations]. If we keep taking away at the rate we're taking away, literally in two generations there will be nothing left.

What does all this mean internationally?
I was in Shanghai in September, and China is exploding. I had a lot of really good discussions after [my talk], and a lot of my focus was, "Don't follow the U.S. model [of sprawl]. You'll self-destruct."

The big trend now is these megacities, and most of them are in developing countries. When you think of the impact of the industrial revolution, and multiplying it by a hundred ... We're the role model. We can't ignore that we have a responsibility with that. Following the American model is the worst thing they can do.

Rebecca Flora is headed for Washington, D.C.
  • Rebecca Flora is headed for Washington, D.C.

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