Interview with UN's Scott Foster about global push to decarbonize buildings

November 07, 2019

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Scott Foster of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is a global lynchpin in the movement to decarbonize buildings. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak several times at North American Passive House Network conferences and at the Getting to Zero Forum. He’s working to harness the power of networks to drive exponential uptake of Passive House and other zero carbon buildings around the globe, so I was excited to have the chance to interview him for the Passive House Accelerator this week. I asked him about the UNECE’s Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings as well as the brand new Center for Excellence in Pittsburgh that he helped broker.

Zack: Can we start with a description of your role and work at UNECE?

Scott Foster: I’m the Director of the Sustainable Energy Division here at UNECE. That’s actually quite a loaded phrase all by itself, so I can explain and unpack that a bit. UNECE is the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. We are one of the five regional commissions in the UN system and our membership includes Canada and the United States. It includes Western, Central, and Eastern Europe; the former Soviet Union; Central Asia; as well as Israel and Turkey. 56 member states are part of our region. The other regions, then, would be Latin American and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia-Pacific. We collaborate together on a number of topics.

The other part of the unpacking is on the issue of sustainable energy, the program that I run. The word “sustainable” can be looked at in many different ways. Most people, when they hear I’m Director of Sustainable Energy, they say, “Well, you’re all into energy efficiency and renewables.” And that’s very true. We have a lot of work going on in that area, but the world is not only interested in climate change. Climate change is an existential threat. It’s ten past midnight on the Doomsday Clock, and we face serious issues. We have to act and we’re not doing nearly enough. There’s no question in that regard.

But for a lot of the rest of the world, it’s about putting food on the table, a roof over their heads, educating and clothing their children, so if you think in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, climate change is on the list, but it’s not number one. When we think about sustainable energy, a lot of it is about ensuring people have access to the energy they require for sustainable development, and that means we do work, as well, on issues such as electricity and gas and coal. In all cases, we’re trying to optimize the energy system to deliver on the 2030 agenda and on the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a bit of tall order, but that’s what we’re about.

Zack: Fantastic. I know you’ve been involved in developing the UNECE’s Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings. Can you describe those and why they’re important?

Scott: Sure. We have been working on these framework guidelines for quite some time. At the outset at ECE we were trying to develop building code standards for the ECE region, but if you think of how building codes work, what you need in Moscow with their weather and compare that to the weather you might have in Houston or Miami—there’s not a building code that would apply across the entire region. Go worldwide and it’s even more dramatic because of climatic differences—humidities, temperatures and the rest of it. So we took a step back and said, it’s not enough to think about building codes; let’s develop a set of principles. And we explored with a large stakeholder community the various principles that we would expect to see in building codes, and that’s why these are called Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards. The code itself in any given city or locale can vary, but we want them to be aligned with these principles.

These principles are important because they don’t go about on a component by component basis. They deal with the building as a complex system, and try to achieve, if you will, quality of life outcomes for the building occupants. So we have a strategic perspective as one whole set of the principles; we have the whole building management construction design side; and then we have the feedback loop of the building throughout its whole lifecycle. So if you look at the building framework guidelines for these energy efficiency standards, it covers a broad spectrum of perspectives.

I consider these guidelines to be extremely important. If you think about CO2 emissions, 40% of CO2 emissions globally come from the energy services that buildings require, and by energy services I would include, in fact, the CO2 content of the components that go into a building—we call that embedded carbon. So it’s not just the ongoing operations; it’s what you use to build the building. If we can get that done right, if we can achieve the objectives of the framework and the guidelines, we would be able to address a significant chunk of the challenge.

Even better, I happen to believe very much that climate is changing because of human activity. There are people who don’t, and are skeptical about climate change. I don’t’ understand them; I can’t explain them; but I can’t deny that they’re out there. The advantage of this is when you start talking about these guidelines and these buildings, it’s not just a climate issue. It’s about buildings, it’s about jobs, it’s about innovation, it’s about comfort, it’s about quality. So you actually have a unique agenda here that speaks to the entire political spectrum. You don’t have to pick sides, if I can say it like that.

Now, I think in terms of a four-circle Venn diagram when I think about the framework guidelines. If you go to the upper left circle of your Venn diagram, what we’re trying to do is get the building envelope done correctly. You’ve got to get the building designed properly, you’ve got to use the right materials, and you’ve got to get your construction techniques absolutely perfect. By the time you’ve got that done correctly, you’ve driven down your energy requirements in that building to very low levels, levels at which you can meet the remaining requirements with low or no carbon energy sources. That’s critically important, getting that building envelope right. We’ve been working with the Passive House community for a number of years, and they are very focused on that first part of the Venn diagram. In fact, I would say that they have been catalysts for this whole conversation.

But once I get that first Venn diagram circle done right, I move over to the upper right circle, and this is the systems. You’re going to have to have heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. You’ve got all of your plug loads. They’re all in that building somehow, maybe to a very reduced level. And you need to size them once you’ve got your envelope done correctly, but you’re still going to need some kind of a systems approach. Thinking about the challenges in those ways allows you to rise about the tension that has existed in the past between the systems people and the passive people. We bring them together in a convenient marriage.

So once I’ve got the systems in place, that are designed, sized, and ready to go based on what the envelope has delivered, I go to my bottom left in the Venn diagram. Where’s the energy going to come from that drives those systems? It’s going to be rooftop solar; it’s going to be maybe some storage in the basement; some kind of a down the road wind farm kind of connection. It’s possible to source it from low or no carbon energy sources because you’ve really reduced the energy use compartment significantly.

The final Venn diagram is bottom right—the final circle of that Venn diagram, bottom right—is ICT, information communications technology. As I said, your building is a complex system. It’s embedded in a community, which is in a city, which is in a national network, and if I can get those systems and information to be communicating seamlessly, suddenly I’m able to get a system optimization which brings the distributed generation, plus the energy use, plus the consumers, into the game in a way that makes a much more efficient set of outcomes.

Now the advantage of thinking about these four Venn diagram circles is I’m talking to four completely distinct communities of professionals that need to talk to each other, and as a result we’re able to get all noses under the tent, if I can say it like that, to try to get to an outcome that’s way beyond what we’ve imagined in the past. That’s why I think these framework guidelines are so important: because this an agenda that really matters, and I think we can get it right.

Zack: Well that seems like a good segue to the Centers of Excellence, and I know that a new one has just been announced in Pittsburgh. I was wondering if you could talk about the centers and the center in Pittsburgh and what role you see that center playing in this work.

Scott: I’d say it was a real pleasure to go to Pittsburgh to launch the Center of Excellence in Pittsburgh. The Green Building Alliance in Pittsburgh is a fantastic group of people. They’re passionate and they’re enthusiastic. A number of people came up to me and said, “Why did the UN choose Pittsburgh?” And my answer was, “The UN didn’t pick Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh actually picked itself.” Hard to say three times, but that’s the reality.

What you’ve got is a community that’s invested in this whole agenda. They believe it as a community. They’ve got political support from the local government, from the county government, from the state government, so you’ve got the kind of professional engagement and formal regulatory and policy engagement that allows great things to happen. They’ve got the physical infrastructure that they would require. They’ve got access to the professional community. They’ve got actually a long-standing track record of delivering on these kinds of projects and activities. So, in terms of why we’d pick Pittsburgh, it was actually kind of obvious.

We have been building momentum, building up speed and tempo. This is not a good program if we don’t get to scale and if we don’t get to penetration rapidly. The UN is probably the only organization on the planet that can go at scale at this level, and that’s why we’re getting such enthusiastic engagement from our partners.

In addition, Pittsburgh, unlike New York City—New York City was the first one out of the gate, Pittsburgh is number two; we’ve got Ireland and Vancouver coming down very quickly, in terms of formalizing their being part of the network—New York’s an enormous city and they will provide good examples for other cities that face similar challenges. Pittsburgh, in terms of its size and style, has more to offer more cities globally, so we’re like for like, horses for horses if you will, able to bring the lessons out of Pittsburgh to other places, more other places, than would otherwise be the case.

Now, we have developed, with the centers, criteria for who can become a Center of Excellence, so it’s not anyone who can just walk in the door. And again, this is the centers themselves who develop these criteria. They want to make sure that this network has the credibility that they think it requires. In addition, we’ve developed terms of reference. What are they supposed to deliver? They’re supposed to run training programs. They’re supposed to disseminate these guidelines. They’re supposed to spread the word. They’re supposed to participate in the network, so that they can compare notes…. The value of a network is getting a lot more members involved so that they can achieve more than they would be able to do on their own. I’m going to be able to draw on a Jenna Kramer from Pittsburg, a Tomas O’Leary from Ireland, a Sean Pander in Vancouver, a Richard Yancey in New York, and, as a result, have access to experts who can help me train in Latin America or in Africa or in Central Asia.

We have been building momentum, building up speed and tempo. This is not a good program if we don’t get to scale and if we don’t get to penetration rapidly. The UN is probably the only organization on the planet that can go at scale at this level, and that’s why we’re getting such enthusiastic engagement from our partners.

Zack: Right. I think this feeds into this next question, and that’s what do you see as the next critical steps in spurring this rapid, global market adoption of high-performance buildings?

Scott: Right now, we’re at a stage of growth where we’ve gone through the development of these criteria, we’ve got a template from our memoranda of understanding, we’ve got the terms of reference of what they’re to deliver. They are one third of our total high-performance buildings initiative. For the other two thirds, one is academia: Bringing over a collection of universities to rewrite the textbooks, to revamp their curricula, to get involved in adult training programs to complement what they do with students, but also with students to train next generation engineers and architects on how to do buildings right.

The third leg then would be a series of case studies. If somebody comes and talks to me about a building in New York City and I’m a farmer in Kazakhstan, there’s no connection. If I can have a full library of case studies that then show me the application of these principles to a relevant environment for me, it’s much more likely that I’ll pay attention and I’ll get involved.

So the next critical steps, to my view, are spreading the network rapidly. Once we’ve got these four on board, there’s another twelve. They’re in a waiting room, if you will, and they want to come in, and we want to go quickly from four to twenty, to one hundred, to one thousand. So get quickly engaged; we want to be very rapidly undertaking the training and the dissemination. Also, getting these workshops, getting everybody to do the workshops. One of my colleagues is running a workshop now in Armenia, where they’re gathering all of the local professionals, the people with the hammers in their hand and the nails, and they’re teaching them how to put up duct tape, how to do the electricity, how to do the plumbing. If we can get that information out there very fast and very wide, that will be critical.

So grow the network and expand the set of activities quickly; get the curricula and textbooks fixed. Those are the next critical steps to my view.

Zack: Fantastic. Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?

Scott: Well, the only thing I can say is…the UN is not the organization that’s going to make this change happen. What is going to make this change happen is happening in the field, on the terrain. I use to be a hydro-engineer, and we’d like to go out and kick dirt, as I like to say. It’s gotta be the folks out there making these buildings happen. So, if we can get a critical mass of professionals getting the information out, spreading them.

We are looking for strategic partners. We’ve got a number who are in discussions with us. Financial institutions who are interested in engaging with us. Architectural associates who are wanting to engage with us. It is necessary for the professional community to be invested not in the UN, but in this initiative of the UN, to own it and to take it to its natural outcome, and I think that’s critically important.

Zack: Excellent.

Scott: We visited with occupants of houses in Ireland that meet our guidelines—they satisfy the guidelines, and they were developed by a local contractor who is absolutely committed to this program—and we asked them what their experience was and what they thought, and they were ecstatic, just beyond delighted. You had a lower energy bill just because of the reduced energy requirements. There’s no chimney in the house, whereas Irish homes always have chimneys. As a result, there’s no particulates that get into the house, so when they do their laundry and they hang it up to dry, when it’s dry, it’s still clean. That’s an improvement. There’s homogenous temperature throughout the house. They’re a bit blue-collarish, so their attitudes might be yesterday attributes, but the man would always say, “Well, the little woman is happy because there’s no more drafts in the house,” and they put on a proper Irish accent when they say that. The kid is no longer sick with asthma or any of the mold issues because the heat recovery and ventilation systems are working perfectly. They just never have to deal with energy as a concern for them, so A+ across the board.

And that’s not even the good news.

What’s amazing to me is that this is for social housing or low-income housing, these homes, and there’s a long waiting list for them in Ireland. The people who are on that waiting list are calling up the authorities and saying, “Could you move us lower on that list, because I want one of those cool homes, not one of the standard low-income houses?” When people are saying that, you go, “This is a hallelujah moment.” This works for everybody. I find that to be a very compelling story.

Author

Zachary Semke
Zachary Semke
Zack Semke is Director of Passive House Accelerator, VP of Marketing with Zola Windows, and owner of Semke Studio, a marketing consultancy…

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