Unbeknownst to many, Texas is leading the charge in the nation’s green building movement. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) named Texas one of the Top 10 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) States for 2016—recognizing its strides in sustainable design, construction, and transformation.
The impetus for making those strides is layered, and includes a strong economic component. According to USGBC’s 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study, LEED construction is expected to support 244,000 jobs in Texas and impact the state’s Gross Domestic Product by $21.39 billion by 2018. But there are other factors driving the movement, too.
Sustainability advocates, research institutes, academics, and architects in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock, and Dallas are banding together in diverse unions to work with city officials to build “green” into the infrastructure (and mentalities) of their urban communities—an approach that makes both business and social good sense.
Awake in Austin
Perched on the banks of the Colorado River, the City of Austin is brimming with natural beauty, and its dynamic trails and parks system allows residents to experience it up close. Much of the population appreciates the importance of preserving natural resources. That, coupled with it being home to the University of Texas—a major research institution—as well as many high-tech companies, make it one of the state’s most progressive cities. “We have a very well-informed citizenry about environmental issues, and we tend to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says Austin Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens. “We were one of the early cities to come up with strict development standards to protect water quality.” She notes, too, that the city has looked for a long time at how to best leverage green development.
Athens manages the Climate Protection Program and related actions to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint and make it more resilient to the effects of climate change. The program outlines hundreds of actions designed to meet department goals, which include the implementation of 28 green building plans. “Most of our footprint, like other major metropolitan cities, is energy use—primarily by buildings. We have been a leader in municipal actions since 2007, when the City Council first adopted a climate protection resolution,” says Athens, adding that they continue to update their goals. (They have seen a 58 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions since making the resolution.)
Austin’s climate resiliency programming is gaining traction. The Office of Sustainability has been leading an effort with multiple city departments and public agencies to look at means of preparing for events like Hurricane Harvey. Given the large numbers of “climate refugees” the City takes in during such natural disasters, one idea is to integrate a rooftop solar program into emergency evacuation facilities, so that backup power will be available when and where it’s needed most.
The integration of renewable sources of energy is a hot-button topic in much of Texas, but Austin fully embraces the tactic. In August 2017, the City’s utility provider, Austin Energy, announced the acquisition of an additional 200 megawatts of wind power through a power purchase agreement. They also recently adopted a goal to be 65 percent renewable by 2027. (They are at roughly 35 percent now.) “We have been making significant strides to green our energy production portfolio, including [major] investments in wind and solar,” says Athens, noting their robust incentive program for rooftop solar. Additionally, they aim to generate carbon-neutral power by 2030 and are looking for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In terms of green building, the City has a LEED certification capital project policy, which designates LEED Silver as the standard. It also has a green building program of its own, Austin Energy Green Building, as well as LEED. “It was the first green building rating program in the world that we know of,” notes Athens. It continues today in addition to LEED, so both types of certification are found throughout the city. To date, over 14,000 single-family homes have been certified under the Austin Energy Green Building program.
Austin Energy Green Building is currently capturing 25 percent of the market for new permits for single-family homes; 23,000 multi-family buildings capture 35 percent of that market for new construction; and 25 million square feet of commercial projects have been rated, capturing 60 percent of that market.
“I really see green building as part of our resiliency strategy,” says Athens. “The more we can have buildings that are increasingly self-sufficient—moving toward net-zero energy, net-zero water, and growing food, that is all a part of how we are approaching resilience.”
Above and beyond a focus on buildings, Austin is also addressing the need for economic resilience.
More than 200 members strong, Austin Green Business Leaders is comprised of businesses that support sustainability—on multiple fronts, including its profitability. “That group is a robust peer network of companies sharing strategies. A lot of them are involved because they recognize it will make their business stronger—it can help their bottom line, and there is a marketing cache that goes along with it,” explains Lucia.