Episode 33 – What is Sustainability? – Interview with Jonathan from Jacobs

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In this episode, we will discuss sustainability in the built environment. We are here today with Alyssa Holland of CaraGreen and Jonathan Weiss from Jacobs.

ALYSSA: Hi, this is Build Green Live Green, and this is Alyssa and we are here today with Jonathan Weiss from Jacobs. So, Jonathan, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at your firm and then we'll kind of ask you some further questions from there.

JONATHAN: That sounds great. Thanks Alyssa. I am an architect by training. I've been working in a firm that does commercial buildings for about 25 years or so. And even when I was starting out, it was really at the beginning of the green building movement that started in the 90s in this iteration of green building, and I really found the buildings I felt were successful were the ones that really addressed the realities of where they were built and were responsive to their own environment. So that became more and more of an interest to me over time. And I’ve been lucky enough to, in that time, grow into doing more and more sustainable design work as part of my practice, and about 10 or 12 years ago, I started the role of being director of sustainability for buildings here.

ALYSSA: Awesome. So, kind of jumping off of that, what do you think is the biggest factor of sustainability when it comes to buildings? Is it energy performance? Is it how occupants physically use the space? Is it materials? What's your opinion on that?

JONATHAN: Well, it's, I think it's a little of all of those. I have, I think in the end it really is a combination of the energy and carbon impacts of our buildings, which is a really big part of climate change and it's the most urgent part of what we do, I think. But it's also tied in largely to the experience that people have in buildings, you know, people spend more than 90% of their time inside buildings of one sort or another, and so, it's really important that our buildings help people feel better, live better, be healthier and happier, more productive. So, it's really has to be a combination of both of those aspects.

ALYSSA: I see that you are a LEED AP, WELL AP and Fitwel accredited. Are you seeing those become more and more popular as we move towards this kind of sustainability and health and wellbeing?

JONATHAN: Yeah, it really has been probably in the last two or three years, WELL Building Standard and Fitwel have really grown in terms of how important they seem in the industry. The LEED rating system really started out, I guess in the early 2000’s is when the system started out in. And that really grew pretty quickly, but it's been in the last few years that more of these systems that focus on health and wellbeing, and become more important to people as they realize what our buildings are doing to us, what we're doing inside our buildings.

ALYSSA: Awesome. Yeah, we love to see that kind of stuff. So, at Jacobs you guys do some kind of larger-scale projects. Are you guys strictly focused on sustainability or do you think that that's something that you could improve on and that you see kind of tracking for the future?

JONATHAN: Yeah, I mean we are, I don't know if you're that familiar with us- we're a large multinational company. We do a little of everything and sustainability is important, but there is absolutely a lot of room for us to grow into doing more and more sustainable design work in more of our projects. You know, our company is much bigger than buildings, so I'm focused on the buildings side of things, but we also do infrastructure, railway and transportation and all sorts of other types of projects all around the world. And so, part of our goal has been trying to find sustainable connections between what we do in buildings and what our other groups are doing in other sectors.

ALYSSA: Yeah, for sure. So, kind of looking at how to make that better, what do you think the biggest challenges are?

JONATHAN: The biggest challenges I think are that the construction industry is very risk averse. It's an industry that's really built around doing things in a proven way, and so, when we find new ways to do things, a more sustainable way to look at things or different materials, it takes a lot to convince the industry to take on new materials or new processes or new systems just because there's so much “business as usual” experience. So that's one of the things we see ourselves having a really good role in trying to bring sustainable solutions to our clients. But it is a, I think industry wide, it's a challenge because it's set up to be, you know, doing things the way they've been done before so when we try to innovate, we have to convince ourselves and our clients and our construction partners to do things a little bit differently.

ALYSSA: Yeah, we see that a lot at Cara green trying to introduce new materials and you have people that just want to stick with the “same old, same old” because they know how to work with it. It's familiar. Yeah, that's definitely an industry wide issue that hopefully will start changing in the future.

JONATHAN: Yeah, I do know how it goes. I really think that there is cautious optimism that there are a lot of people doing a lot of exciting things and it may be the urgency of more and more people understanding the environmental needs of the planet and of all of our clients that we're seeing more movement in that way. But it is a consistent challenge. We don't want to do things, you know, if we build in a brand-new way that seems really innovative and then it doesn't last very long, it's not ultimately a sustainable solution. So, we have to make sure we're cautious but still pushing the envelope.

ALYSSA: Exactly. So, you mentioned sustainable and that word can kind of go different ways. What do you think is the definition of it and the context of the built environment, whether its buildings, infrastructure, railways, things like that? 

JONATHAN: Well it's, that is a really tough question. 

ALYSSA: It is, yes. Sorry.

JONATHAN: I think the really the, you know, the classic answer of sustainable is to build in a way that, so that future generations can continue to build in that same way. But I think it's going beyond that. I think we're to get more and more answers where not just that our projects will be less bad for the environment. In some ways we can find solutions that are more restorative or more positive. If we can build net zero or net positive buildings that generate more energy than they use. Or if we can build materials that will last and then can be repurposed into new materials, you know, and its sort of closed loop type of cycles so we're not just destroying less of the environment. That's really, I think the hope of the future.

ALYSSA: Agreed. Yeah. We just recently released a podcast on circular buildings. So, going into like what that means with the closed loop systems, materials that can be reused again and not just tossed away to a landfill so you don't have to demolish the whole building, but you can take it apart piece by piece and rebuild somewhere else if needed. So yeah, that's a really big trend that we're seeing as well. In regard to materials, do you do much with materials in your position?

JONATHAN: I do. I mean, I have to say that in my role as the director, I do a lot more of sort of reaching out to and guiding our teams. You know, we have, we have architects, we have interior designers, we have landscape architects and civil engineers and mechanical engineers all working to design projects. And so, in my role, I get to find things, suggest things reach out, but I have to suggest sustainable materials with a little bit of a light touch because I don't want to trample on the creativity of our design teams, and I want to enable them to make good selections. So, I try to stay on top of as much as I can with sustainable materials. And then we have teams of people who do a little bit more specialization in that aspect. So, you know, in my experience before I focused solely on sustainable design, I was a project architect and I worked on designing and specifying materials and building them or you know, working as the architect as they were being built by construction teams. And so, I really have an eye towards both what are the new materials that are out there and then how will that work through that whole cycle of how they get used, how will they actually get installed, can they be maintained and replaced over time. So, it's sort of a long view of how materials would be used.

ALYSSA: So really looking at that whole life cycle, not just the material itself. 

JONATHAN: Yep, exactly.

ALYSSA: Kind of leading off of that, what documents and labels do you guys require for materials or for different projects? So, if you're doing a LEED project for example, or even just a building that's not really following any set standard, are there some labels and documents that you guys require?

JONATHAN: We do, and it really does vary from project to project. And you know we have tried to come up with some standards that we do on all projects, but our project types are so varied that it really ends up being very project specific. We do, for our LEED projects really focus on Environmental Product Declarations, which are sort of a third-party certification of life impacts of those products. And we also look at Health Product Declarations or Cradle to Cradle certifications that look less at life cycle impacts and more chemical components in the health impacts of those materials on the people who are going to be using it, either the construction teams or the people who are going to occupy and work in our spaces once we're done. So, it's really a combination of those two. There really is a huge catalog of different types of certifications and it does require, we have a couple of folks who are really deep in the weeds on knowing every single alphabet soup of each of the different materials. But we try to stay on top of that and make sure that we've met those requirements for as many of our projects as we can. And a lot of them for the materials that are inside the building really are about air quality. How are those materials going to impact the people that are in those spaces and the people who are building with those materials and the people who are deconstructing them at the end of their useful life in this space. So really there's a lot of health impacts associated with those.

ALYSSA: Awesome, great response. So, you touched on interior materials a little bit at the end there. Is there any trends that you're seeing with exterior your materials? I know you've mentioned that you guys have a landscape architecture division. Do they make any type of those material decisions? Are there any considerations that you've been seeing? Any trends in that kind of realm of things?

JONATHAN: There is. I think there's a lot of, and it does sort of vary depending on where in the country or where in the world we're building. There does seem to be, there is a renewed focus on natural materials, materials that have sort of natural patterns to it, natural feel to it, and that may just be an aesthetic, some wood and stone and there's some terracotta that's being used. The other thing that I think is coming that we're not that focused on yet, but we are starting to look into is carbon impacts of materials. So are there ways we can replace high carbon footprint materials both inside the building and outside the building with lower carbon alternatives, whether that's repurposed materials or more, you know, more natural materials using wood in some cases for structural systems instead of concrete or other things like that. That's a, I’ll say that's something that I feel like is coming. It's a big part of how we're going to try to address carbon impacts in climate change, but it's something we have to, as an industry get up to speed on very quickly.

ALYSSA: Yeah, exactly. I believe you hit that nail right on the head. So just going back and talking about material selection and those kinds of documents and standards that go along with them, do you guys use any database? Do you just kind of keep tabs? I know you said some people kind of keep everything in track at your firm, but is there any sort of database, any sort of library that you guys use?

JONATHAN: We have a couple of different electronic tools that we use, and I don't know if you want me to talk about them in particular. There's some proprietary tools that we subscribe to. We also use some industry standard websites. We haven't found one tool that does everything, but I guess I would say the tool that does the most of everything is a collaborative database called Mindful Materials and I'm not sure if you're familiar with that, but it was started by a consortium of different design firms to try to track a number of different requirements for VOCs for materials, for the Health Product Declarations that I mentioned before, and Cradle to Cradle certifications. And instead of having each design team work with their product reps to ask for this information, they put together a consortium of design teams that contribute information to the database, and then as a consortium, they reach out to manufacturers to help populate those databases. So, if there were only one tool, that would be the one that I would use, but unfortunately like all databases, it's not yet completely full, so we need to do that along with some other tools. The UL has a database called Spot that has a lot of different categorizations of the life cycle analysis, Environmental Product Declaration documents for different materials. And then there's other ones. And I think one of the things that's interesting is there's some tools that are commercially available that are really useful and there's some tools that are free, sort of collaborative tools that are also really useful. And of course, the wonderful thing would be if they all were worked together, but that's I think coming up in the future. 

ALYSSA: Yeah. Dreaming big. 

JONATHAN: Yeah, exactly.

ALYSSA: Awesome. And do any of those go into the carbon footprint that you were talking about?

JONATHAN: They don't yet go into the carbon footprint. There is a new tool being developed I think by Microsoft called EC3, which is going to include the carbon footprint aspect of materials, but carbon calculation is a whole other type of evaluation. My guess is that once that becomes more robust, that'll start to feed into those databases, but I don't think it's there yet. That's sort of an emerging requirement that we're all seeing.

ALYSSA: Yup. Hopefully that gets pushed along sooner rather than later with the state of our climate as it is.

JONATHAN: Yeah, it really is. And you know, one of the things that's interesting is for a long time we really focused on operational carbon, which is the energy we use as the main portion of carbon. But one of the things that the Architecture 2030 group has recently been publicizing is this idea that the operational carbon is going to build starting from now until 2050 but the embodied carbon of our materials that hits the environment now when we start using those materials, so, we need to start, we can't put off embodied carbon until later because we don't have later. It's almost 2020 now and it's getting closer to 2030 and 2050 a lot sooner. When we started talking about carbon neutrality by 2030, we thought 2030 was a long way off, but it's really not very far now.

ALYSSA: Yep. So, I'm not sure if he would know the answer to this, but kind of looking outside of the scope of your firm, do you see that those kinds of considerations are taking hold elsewhere?

JONATHAN: I think they are. One of the things that I'm lucky enough to do as part of are, our firm is a member of something called the Large Firm Round Table, which is a group of the largest architecture engineering firms in the US and so I’ve been involved in the sustainability group there for a number of years. So, I know that many of our colleagues at other large firms are focusing on many of the same things. As an industry there are a lot of architecture firms that are not yet as focused on it but a lot of the leaders in those larger firms are making an impact. And so, I think that it is definitely something that is up and coming beyond the walls of our firm. You know, the American Institute of Architects, which is our professional organization just this year, put out a commitment to climate change as central and urgent or part of what architecture is as a profession. And I think that was a really big step to say it's not just something we do for our clients if they're interested, but it's sort of an integral part of what good architecture is. So that's, I think that's a good indicator that at least at the industry level, people are aware of it as being, as urgent as it is, and it's not just a few of us or some of us at some other firms, but a lot of the largest firms around the country. That's, that's a really big part of what we do.

ALYSSA: Yeah, that's great to hear. Do you think that some of the others are kind of holding back and not really jumping into that sustainability space? Is it just the mindset that we talked about before or do you think some of it is cost considerations or purely lack of availability of those energy sources or materials or things like that?

JONATHAN: Yeah, I think it's, I think it goes back to the challenge of the profession is that we work for our clients and in our clients. Some of our clients are there with us in pushing for sustainability. Some of our clients are not there yet. All of our clients are limited by budgets. And so, doing things in a new and different way, although it doesn't have to cost any more, it raises that risk of doing something in an unknown way. If you've built the same type of building over and over for many years, you have a little more control over knowing what that will take. So, it may be sort of the uncertainty principle there in other folks in the industry. And I guess I would say with all of us in the industry, you know, we're doing the best we can with sustainability, we have plenty of room to improve also. So, I don't want to sort of set this out as we're doing it right. And all those other firms are sitting on the sideline. I think everyone is hopefully working towards doing more of what they can to, to progress in the industry. 

ALYSSA: For sure. Yeah, we're definitely seeing more of that mindset. It's just kind of taking that first plunge.

JONATHAN: Yeah, that's right. That's right. It is a challenge. You know, we feel like, for a lot of time I think the industry had a sense for many that, “okay, we'll do that if the client asks for it.” And I think we're starting to see more and more firms saying “no sustainability is part of how we do things” and we need to make sure, you know, one of the many things that we do, you know, doing, doing a good design, doing a code compliant design, doing legally appropriate things, the client sort of asks for that implicitly. And I think we're saying sustainability, even if they're not specifically saying, “I want this certification,” or “I want that particular tool.” A sustainable building is part of what we owe them as part of our work.

ALYSSA: Awesome. Awesome. Well thank you so much for being on here with us. It was great talking with you and hearing your views on stuff. 

JONATHAN: Thanks very much for the chance. 

ALYSSA: Yeah. So, this is Alyssa from CaraGreen and Jonathan from Jacobs. Thanks guys. 

JONATHAN: Thank you.