Blog | Leading by example:
Sustainability in the built environment
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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, around 20% of the nation’s real estate footprint is owned by state and local government. This is pretty significant as, according to the US Dept of Energy, the buildings sector accounts for 76% of electricity use and 40% of all US primary energy use 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 commitments around reducing carbon emissions. But in amongst these often-lofty goals, how are they actually performing? Many agencies, both public and private, have good intentions regarding their net zero commitments, but making big changes requires not just promises (which everyone seems to be doing) but to lead by example with tangible efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Working in the environmental sector for over 30 years, I applaud any organization that has the guts to look honestly at where they are in terms of sustainability, and then put a plan in place to drive improved performance. It is always heartwarming to see clients set stretch goals – helping them achieve ambitious targets is why we come to work, and we all benefit if they are successful. On the flip side, some organizations set bold or incredibly long-term goals that they have no clear plan on how to achieve, and stray dangerously into the realm of greenwashing. To encourage those looking to improve, and put those over promisers under a spotlight, we need organizations that are willing to set standards by their actions and lead by example.

One of our clients is doing just this: the State of Maine and the Governor’s Office of 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 emissions reductions, promoting health and sustainability in the workplace, and building resilient infrastructure. Impressive by anyone’s measure.

Library Museum Archives Building

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

The environmental and mechanical upgrades will reduce energy consumption, improve indoor air quality, and improve humidity control for the health and comfort of the public and state employees, as well as better preserving historic artefacts and collections in the building. This is achieved using highly efficient Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) technology, with an air-source heat pump and air-conditioning system. The system’s distributed fan coil units provide better zone control and allows for simultaneous heating and cooling to address the different loads and climate controls required throughout the building.

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

The replacement mechanical system was selected through energy modeling and a 30-year life cycle cost analysis, demonstrating energy savings and reduced operational costs over time that more than offset the initial CAPEX outlay. The result for our planet? An estimated annual emissions reduction of 47.6 tons of CO2 and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. As my colleague Elizabeth Huckins, Wood’s lead architect on the job, puts it: “Here’s a project that puts sustainability ambitions into action, to the benefit of all of us. Not just a strategy and lofty words, but a state government delivering on its climate promises.”

So what lessons can be learned from this project? As Elizabeth suggests, programs that deliver on promises with real action, make a real difference. As the State of Maine has shown, it’s also critical to be honest about where you are in your journey and produce credible and authentic communications with stakeholders so you can gauge progress and share learnings, starting with a determination to change.

Communities that rely on our public infrastructure the most need more than elaborate, inspirational words. They need transparent, consistent messaging, bold, tangible action, and a sense of trust. Trust about realistic sustainability goals, where we are on our journey, and how we will achieve our objectives. As we build plans toward a net-zero future, let’s be inspired to take action by looking at the successes and achievements of those that are making measurable progress on climate goals, leading by example on this critical sustainability journey.

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