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What Greenbuild 2017 Signals for the Future of the Green Building Movement 

Partners HealthCare's new LEED Gold campus. Image © Gensler

This post is part of a series in which we look at the critical role that the architecture and design play in global efforts to address climate change. For more on the research behind it, take a look at our Impact by Design report.

The past year has been an emotional roller-coaster ride for the broader global movement for climate action. On the one hand, good news has come in the form of projections from Morgan Stanley that renewable energy has reached a tipping point and will soon be the world’s cheapest energy source. Additional positive signs included the International Energy Agency’s findings that global emissions have remained stable during the past three years of economic growth, and the U.K., France, India and China have all announced plans to ban the sale of internal-combustion engine vehicles between 2030 and 2040. On the flip side the U.S. has announced that it intends to withdraw from Paris Agreement in 2020.

In the midst of all of these conflicting signals, the 15th Greenbuild Conference and Expo took place this month in Boston, where the broader sustainable design community attempted to grapple with the way forward. The green building industry receives a lot less attention from the media than developments like the launch of the Tesla Semi, but it is arguably one of the most impactful parts of the broader climate action movement today. Nevertheless, we know that cities are the future of the broader climate action movement, and cities are having the greatest impact today in helping to curb global emissions. We also know that architects and designers have the most capacity to re-think, re-create and revolutionize cities, which is where our work is most concentrated.

Based on what I took from this year’s Greenbuild, the positive environmental impact created by the broader sustainable design community is poised to grow in the years to come. The themes this year were ALL IN and it’s all about the people—both of which are meant to reinforce the sense of commitment and optimism needed to confront climate change, and reaffirm that this global green movement is literally saving lives. Our momentum is unstoppable—this means every project, every day, starting with you and me.

Bill Clinton’s Keynote Address at Greenbuild 2017. Image courtesy of USGBC.

I attended Greenbuild when it was in Boston in 2008, and it is interesting to see how far we have come in those nine years. The evolving role of technology and big data was notable in many of the sessions. The number of websites, databases, and online tools have exploded, and each are trying for the tri-partite holy grail of reliability, scalability and user-friendliness. Smart cities, health and wellness, materials transparency, and transportation are being transformed by easy access to free data.

Newer concepts like LEED for Cities and Communities, which aims to collect and aggregate a massive amount of data from cities, indicate what the future may hold for the broader industry. Boston and Cambridge have already achieved certification under this new rating system, and more cities seem destined to follow in the coming years.

Another thread in the conference was Net Zero energy, water and waste. Nine years ago, we heard about Net Zero goals and intentions. Now we are seeing the built projects and the data—though still with some nagging asterisks that will hopefully disappear as data fidelity and transparency improve. At Gensler, our Impact by Design research has led to significantly better data collection and retention methods, and we hope this will help catalyze similar commitments across the industry.

If we are successful it will be fascinating to see what the landscape will be like in another nine years as machine learning and artificial intelligence transform the industry. We have already seen how complex computation design is ushering in a new era of dynamic shapes that save on carbon intensive building materials, but we are just scratching the surface when it comes to the design of ecodistricts, the internet of things and energy sharing in high density urban areas. There may be revolutionary energy sharing infrastructure coming in the years ahead that we cannot even conceive of today.

These conversations leave me encouraged about the future. Gensler’s research indicates that municipal energy efficiency standards and code improvements have had the greatest impact on the sustainable improvement of our global project portfolio over the past several years, and we can continue to make progress whichever way political winds blow. As Gensler Co-CEO Diane Hoskins has said many times, our path forward requires an optimistic point of view. We’re making progress, and our movement is building… not slowing down.

Jim Stanislaski, AIA, LEED AP, will go to great lengths to help teams create a more sustainable and resilient world through the power of design. As a member of Climate Ready Boston and the Massachusetts AIA Board, Jim works with legislators, designers and environmental advocacy groups to improve building performance. Contact him at jim_stanislaski@gensler.com.