Buro happold (bh) is an international engineering and advisory firm that began in the United Kingdom 45 years ago and now has offices in over 25 cities and 12 countries. It has a full-stack decarbonization capability that spans its global practice, working top-down in policy; environmental, social, and governance (ESG); planning; and economics, as well as bottom-up in systems engineering, operational optimization, and commissioning. Through its accumulated experience and lessons learned across a diverse array of subjects, the BH team offers a few thoughts on the decarbonization opportunity awaiting the land use industry.

A return to density can maximize the positive impact of shared infrastructure.

The imperative to commit to density is clear. Shared infrastructure—from mobility to thermal energy—is critical in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, power generation, industrial production, heating, and more. In Massachusetts, BH is continuing to work with HEET—the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a nonprofit climate solutions incubator—on development of district thermal energy systems and their feasibility across socioeconomic opportunities and challenges. Utility companies Eversource and National Grid are currently implementing pilot programs in two city neighborhoods, Framingham and Lowell, to evaluate the performance of networked geothermal systems, providing fossil fuel–free thermal energy to customers in environmental justice communities—those composed predominantly of persons of color or persons below the poverty line and subjected to a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards.

The reuse of existing buildings can significantly limit new emissions in the critical near term.

In most cases, the reuse of existing buildings can result in a significant amount of avoided greenhouse gas emissions compared with reductions provided through construction of new buildings. Embodied carbon emissions—those created from material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and end of life—are generated before the building is occupied and do not change until renovations take place.

Reinvestment with purpose can attract tenants who prioritize climate action and healthy spaces.

In many cases, capital cost or a simple capital expenditures/operational expenses return on investment is used to evaluate options and make decisions. BH believes that a more integrated and multivariate framework would also incorporate lifetime cost implications, as well as carbon reductions, benefits for health and well-being, and other variables that support a holistic understanding of strategies like electric heating and hot water, heat recovery, induction cooking, and tenant preferences and other tenant imperatives.

BH’s work with Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT), and the Empire State Building itself, is tracking the trust’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon across its portfolio by 2035 and at the Empire State Building by 2030. For that initiative, we are leading the development of the “Empire Building Playbook: An Owner’s Guide to Low Carbon Retrofits,” a document that has also informed the U.S. General Services Administration’s recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in federal buildings.

Key takeaways from our work with ESRT include:

  • It is critical to right-size equipment through close coordination with tenants to avoid oversizing.
    Detailed and whole-building retro-commissioning helps identify opportunities for automation and optimization, additional data collection, performance of fault detection, and other parameters, all of which contribute to efficient operations and therefore carbon reduction.
  • Project teams need to understand the capital planning lifecycle to support decarbonization plans that avoid like-for-like replacement where superior options are available.
  • Envelope improvements to reduce heating loads can be challenging yet necessary, and piloting newer technologies and solutions as early as possible is beneficial.
  • If the transition to electric heating is done correctly, peak electricity demand is still in the summer for the Empire State Building (and most building types, as we found in our all-electric feasibility study), and avoiding peak demand in winter is critical for life safety.

Given the ample supply of buildings to return to, reuse, and reinvest in—and lower their emissions—I don’t know how many new buildings the world needs. However, I do know the information needed to answer that question is readily available, and I hope answering it is at the top of your next agenda.

JULIE JANISKI is a partner at Buro Happold, a global engineering and advisory firm, and a sustainability practice leader.