Biden administration offers opportunities for green building

Green building had its moment in the spotlight this summer when a presidential debate spent a few bizarre minutes on “tiny windows.”

As the Kendeda Building and the Bullitt Center demonstrate, it’s entirely possible to have high-performance green buildings with large windows to take advantage of natural daylight. Glazing aside, however, it was noteworthy that for the first time in a presidential election, climate change was central.

During the campaign, candidate Joe Biden called for “drastic action right now” to tackle climate change, with a “clean energy revolution” that results in net zero emissions for the United States by 2050. Although President Trump continued to downplay climate risks, the issue got at least some attention — unlike during the 2016 campaign when it was essentially ignored.

While key cabinet nominees have not yet been named, the president-elect has chosen John Kerry as his climate envoy, a sign that he intends to continue elevating the issue. And though Ernest Moniz is perceived as the favorite for Energy Secretary, Georgia Tech’s own Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is in the running as well. 

So, what will the new administration mean for green buildings? What priorities did the president-elect identify, and what opportunities do they present to advance regenerative design?

 To tease out answers, we turned to “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” released during the campaign. Calling for $2 trillion of investment, the plan’s priorities include infrastructure, the power sector, buildings, housing, innovation and environmental justice, all of which have relevance to green building.

Of course, the plan will need to be translated from an aspirational document to actual policy. Campaign promises aren’t always redeemed, and efforts to live up to some of them will no doubt face hurdles. But for those focused on green building, we wanted to understand the opportunities the plan raises.

On the building scale, the plan calls for “an historic investment in energy upgrades of homes, offices, warehouses, and public buildings.” Specifically, it describes energy efficiency retrofits and expanded weatherization in two million homes and four million commercial buildings. Potentially more transformational, if wonkier, the plan advocates “established building performance standards for existing buildings nationwide” supported by “new funding mechanisms.”

Today, America’s public school facilities get a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers, translating into $46 billion in deferred maintenance annually. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has set foot in a public school recently, which underpins the plan’s rationale for improving public school buildings, with resources weighted towards lower-income and rural districts. That investment is to focus first on health risks, such as indoor air quality and ensuring access to clean water. Next comes energy efficiency and climate-change resilience.

When it comes to innovation, the plan looks to a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate (ARPA-C) to develop “net zero buildings that are zero net cost, including through breakthroughs in smart materials, appliances, and systems management,” among a long list of priorities.

On infrastructure, much has been written about our crumbling roads and bridges. Yet buried in this section is a line highlighting a need to protect “our watersheds and clean water infrastructure from man-made and natural disasters by conserving and restoring wetlands and developing green infrastructure and natural solutions.” This calls to mind the bioswales used to capture stormwater outside the Kendeda Building. 

Of course, we live in challenging and cynical times. Just because there’s a plan doesn’t mean it will be implemented. Depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs in early January, the president-elect may face a Congress that is less enthusiastic about transforming the economy to battle climate change.

At the same time, federal agencies and the White House are likely to invoke executive authority to spur progress on green buildings, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure. These could range from toughening green standards for federal buildings to ending the tariff that President Trump placed on solar cells and modules.

“I think what we expect to see with a fairly high level of certainty would be the administration coming out with programs to decrease the emissions associated with buildings,” said Liz Beardsley, senior policy counsel at the U.S. Green Building Council. One reason she’s bullish? A recent article in The National Law Review notes “many of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification requirements will find their way into federal regulations.”

So, while the exact details are yet to be determined, the contours of President-Elect Biden’s plans are established. With them comes a big opportunity to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and promote healthy buildings, creating momentum for regenerative design.

PHOTO AT TOP: Candidate Biden campaigned with binders full of specific policy proposals on green building and climate change. Photo courtesy of Biden campaign.

Brad Kahn is communications consultant based in Seattle, Washington. His practice focuses on climate, forests and green building, with clients including the Forest Stewardship Council, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, International Living Future Institute, and Kendeda Fund. He has a Master’s degree in watershed systems and management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.