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Decarbonizing Buildings for All

A California conference looks at extending the benefits of new technologies to low-income communities

Casa Adelante, a 127-unit multifamily project in San Francisco is 162,000 square feet and all-electric. Construction costs of $400 per square foot were about average for the city. Photo courtesy of Mithūn.

Lowering carbon emissions from the buildings sector (which produces nearly 40% of U.S. carbon emissions) is a crucial part of getting to a decarbonized economy. However, when we implement efficiency or renewable energy projects in buildings, the projects are often targeted to those who can afford new technologies, which is why it was so refreshing to see a lot of emphasis on equitably decarbonizing the economy at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California, last month.

The Getting to Zero Forum is a solutions-focused event dedicated to zero-energy and zero-carbon buildings. In the opening plenary, Kat Taylor, CEO of Beneficial State Bank, stated that we not only need climate action, we also need racial and gender equity and broad prosperity. And that, “every time we do a project in the built environment, we must align it with community benefits.” Many other sessions throughout the packed two-day forum followed suit.

Low-income electrification

While many sessions in the forum discussed the importance of electrifying buildings to help decarbonize the sector, the “Decarbonizing and Electrifying Multi-Family Housing” session focused on the importance of this for low-income communities. Nick Dirr, from the Association for Energy Affordability and Miya Kitahara, from StopWaste, talked about their work integrating decarbonization strategies into multifamily retrofit programs.

“A lot of low-income families are in multifamily units,” Kitahara said, explaining why that is one of their focuses. “Communities that are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions.” Electrifying multifamily homes can provide these low-income families with cleaner air, healthier homes, and greater access to affordable clean energy, while helping California meet its climate goals. The Equitable Building Electrification Framework is a five-step process being piloted in California to do exactly that.

Hilary Noll, senior associate at Mithūn, an integrated design firm with offices in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, discussed five different multifamily affordable housing projects that her firm worked on in the San Francisco Bay area. They are each all-electric, net-zero energy ready, 100% affordable, and cost neutral. “We shouldn’t be talking about net zero energy. We should be talking about net zero carbon,” Noll said. “Designing for natural gas in new construction is designing for obsolescence.”

The projects all include energy efficiency measures, high insulation, passive design strategies, air source heat pumps, central hot water, and natural ventilation. Because of these strategies, they are able to use small electric-resistance wall heaters and eliminate all mechanical cooling in the residential units (common rooms and offices have energy efficient multisplit air conditioners).

One project, Casa Adelante, is a 127-unit, 9-story project for low-income families and youth transitioning out of the foster care system. With health one of their main priorities, they made the units all electric and added heat recovery units for enhanced ventilation. The project cost $400 per square foot, which is the average for multifamily housing in San Francisco.

Another project, the Maceo May Veterans apartments, will provide 105 affordable homes to formerly homeless veterans. Eliminating natural gas in the project is saving $242,000. That’s money they are putting toward energy-recovery ventilation, solar photovoltaics, and battery storage. The batteries will be charged with a 123 kW solar electric system and, in the event of an emergency, can provide lighting and power to the community room, cooling to data closets, ventilation, and refrigeration for essential medications. The project is expected to have an 8% savings in utility costs.

There are three main reasons for the developers to go net zero and all electric—simplifying the systems by avoiding gas, making resilient and future-proofing their investments, and cost. In fact, all five of the affordable multifamily housing projects described by Noll are either cost neutral or result in cost savings. But more importantly, they provide healthy and resilient spaces for people to live. “Yes, we want high-performing buildings,” explains Noll, “but they must be tied to measurable outcomes that benefit the residents.”

Lowering emissions while keeping jobs

In 2018, more jobs were created in energy efficiency than any other job category in the energy sector, according to a U.S. Energy and Employment report. The majority of those jobs are working-class jobs in the construction industry. Unfortunately, some policies to lower emissions could have the opposite effect, such as policies on embodied energy. Many of our building products, such as concrete and steel, have high embodied energy, which means high carbon emissions. In fact, the embodied carbon of all building materials accounts for 28% of global building-sector emissions. While legislation to reduce embodied energy is important, we have to take into consideration the economic impacts on all sectors of society.

In a session on “Policies on Embodied Carbon,” Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club discussed the importance of the Buy Clean CA Act. California, a leader in energy efficiency, has many companies that have reduced emissions from their manufacturing processes. However, many of these companies were watching their jobs go to places with weaker regulations.

For example, the United Steelworkers were doing a lot to make steel manufacturing processes cleaner, but the companies they were working with were getting outbid by dirtier companies. Not wanting to push these industries out of the state and lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, an unlikely coalition of organizations came together to do something about it.

The BlueGreen Alliance, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers, the Alliance for American Manufacturing, other labor unions, and environmental organizations joined together to push for a new law in California requiring state agencies to consider the embodied carbon of industrial products when contracting for state-funded infrastructure projects.

The act was signed into law in 2017, and environmental product declarations (similar to nutrition labels on food), which provide information on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the manufacturer created during production, will be required for certain materials such as steel and glass beginning January 2020.

California spends an average of $10 billion a year on publicly funded infrastructure, so this can have a huge impact. It will keep working class jobs in California by leveling the playing field for companies that have invested in efficiency programs while also encouraging dirty factories to cut their emissions if they want to successfully compete for California contracts. Furthermore, it can set an example that will carry to other states and nations.

Another session in the forum that touched on jobs was the Carbon Block Challenge put on by In this game, participants were divided into teams and given roles of either residential developer, commercial developer, city council member, or planning and zoning official. Each team had to build out a city to reach its housing and job goals while keeping carbon emissions as low as possible. It really showed how every decision made during a building project affects jobs, and made people think about the impacts of their decisions.

The Getting to Zero Forum was an incredible event, not just to learn about what’s happening to lower emissions from the buildings sector, but also to help policymakers, building owners, design professionals, systems manufacturers, and others develop specific actions they can take to move toward a clean future. And the emphasis on equity reminded everyone that, as Hilary Noll said, “All communities and all people must benefit from this decarbonized economy.”

Laurie Stone is senior writer/editor at the Rocky Mountain Institute. ©2019 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI Outlet.


  1. JDavidR | | #1

    Do these projects include outlets for EV charging?

  2. VitalikPetrenko | | #2

    It's nice to hear that someone still pays attention to people who live below average or even at the poverty level, but they are also people and deserve attention. After reading Vacation Rental Pros reviews I realize that there are still good people who want to help the low income community

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