2020 used to be a phrase for perfect vision, but this year has been just about as distorted as they come. In the green building world, we were on track to make this the year of decarbonization, we envisioned a year of progress on electrification, transparency on building materials, and more. Well, needless to say, our clients, our thought leaders, and society overall has had to address other priorities and it is easy to view our hoped-for progress on green buildings this year as just another one of 2020’s tragedies. However, if we take a moment to have some perspective on the pandemic and its impact on the work we do, there are some reasons to be hopeful about what is yet to come. 

First of all, people everywhere are much more aware of the condition of their environments, from airflow and ventilation to cleaning practices and entry technology, and the potential impact of the space they occupy on their health. Overall, we are seeing a focus on building technology and systems that we just haven’t seen in some time. Additionally, though I foresee that capital will be constrained in the real estate sector–especially in commercial office and retail–what we will see is an increased investment and use of innovative technologies in buildings to reduce long term operating costs through increased efficiency, demand response, and improved flexibility as buildings respond to changes in use and occupancy that they haven’t seen before. In support of these issues, our Net Zero Accelerator pilots and promotes technology to enable a net zero future, and our Healthy Building Alliance provides a framework and a commitment to make healthy spaces accessible for all. 

Secondly, we are living through a profound moment where we are debating and defining the future of work including workplace design, continued blurring of work life boundaries, and workday structure. I believe that even when we have a vaccine there will not be a return to ‘normal’; there will be a slow return to the future workplace, and that will include a permanent telecommuting shift of 20-30% of our professional workforce. This will mean changes to how companies manage their real estate portfolios, becoming more of a hub and spoke model where traditional office space is used more for collaborative work and client facing interaction, but less for day-to-day workers. This means that while work might extend more into the home in a permanent way, perhaps we can use this as an opportunity for employers to take more responsibility for employer ‘work from home’ environments including energy use, indoor air quality, ergonomics, and waste. If managed correctly, we can also find ways to capture the reduced emissions and GHG benefits of decreased automotive use in the process. We are working on several white papers now on the post-COVID impacts of telecommuting on the environment, and impacts to our wastestream with a particular focus on single use plastics, and how to use carbon offsets more effectively to drive local projects like urban reforestation, soil remediation, and bundled retrofits. 

Third, the increased focus on racial and social equity gives us an incredible opportunity to make sure these issues become permanent pillars of the sustainability movement. The societal challenges we dealt with this year speak to the importance of resilience and equity at the heart of the planning process, and the concept of sustainability is an elegant principle to address both of these while improving the environment. We should lean into this further as the deeper we dig around environmental justice issues, we realize that the ongoing pollution, critical resource contamination, and lack of access to clean, green spaces are also racial justice issues and have been all along. 

The pandemic has highlighted the dramatic differences in personal health and the ability to withstand systematic shocks between the haves and havenots, which climate change will only exacerbate further. We need to close this gap through education and engagement, shifts to diversify how we develop our workforce of the future, bringing context and community awareness to sustainability as a way to increase long-term wage growth and career opportunities while improving the world around us. We are working towards this through our Green Schools initiative, our digital Talent Portal, and our Green Building Corps, allowing unemployed or underemployed people to gain experience, build relationships, and better position themselves for future employment

So take heart my friends, this year has been difficult for everyone and it has challenged sustainability with losing prioritization amongst a shifting landscape of pressing societal needs. But like any challenge, this moment has likely better positioned us for long-term success if we use its lessons the right way, stop lamenting over what could have been, and start being hopeful for yet what could be, working even more collaboratively than we have before. This work will be needed to support our public partners facing dramatic budget shortfalls that will challenge their ability to make progress in the near-term, and it will be needed to help our large corporations see the forest through the trees in long-term return on investment and brand equity as we help them make commitments to zero emissions across their portfolios. 

So take advantage of this time around the holidays as we likely quarantine in a more serious way, pick up the phone, send that email, text, whatever it is you crazy kids do these days, and connect with someone to plan, collaborate, and inspire for the year ahead. Let’s make 2021 synonymous with the year we took action together in spite of everything in this decade of climate change. 

Image: Ben in his virtual box. Image courtesy of ‘Zoom screenshot’.

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