Forward Thinking

By Jeff Harder

ADVANCE offers low-cost strategies with high-impact results when greening our communities.

Associate director of the USGBC Illinois Chapter Katie Kalunzy works with ADVANCE volunteers. Photo: Marc PoKempner

In between changing out light bulbs and installing photovoltaic arrays, sustainability runs along an entire spectrum. And maybe, says Ryan Snow, a member of the U. S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Community Advancement Team, an organization needs a little guidance to move from recycling program to lighting retrofit to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-(LEED) certified building. “Maybe they have an interest in sustainability, but they need to have a few wins along the way to say, ‘There’s something here—there’s value to this,’” says Snow.

Tangible progress and integrated sustainability underpin ADVANCE, a new platform focused on audiences that stand to benefit from the same practices that LEED-certified building science professionals have long understood. By engaging with partners, tapping into volunteers’ expertise, and hashing out low-cost strategies to deliver high-impact results, ADVANCE furthers USGBC’s grand ambitions of green buildings for all within a generation by bringing sustainability down to a scale suited to the places we value.

Participants in January’s day long PLAN Builder workshop in Minnesota.

With USGBC’s ongoing transformation of its volunteer strategy, individuals and affiliated organization can now make even greater strides in greening their communities. There is a new demographic for USGBC to address beyond the traditional builders, architects, and engineers—that includes faith leaders, community activists, and career-building millennials. “We’ve been talking with folks in these organizations for a while, and we’ve found that they look to USGBC and LEED with a lot of reverence when it comes to green building, but they’re working in a very different space and haven’t found USGBC to be approachable,” says Snow.

In response, the Community Advancement Team created ADVANCE, a framework focused on educational and cultural institutions, neighborhood and homeowners associations, community-service nonprofits, faith-based facilities, and affordable, senior, and independent housing. It’s built around four phases: START, PLAN, FOCUS, and LEAD. The START phase centers on making connections with local groups, and starting a conversation that contextualizes sustainability to a community’s needs and values. Next, the PLAN phase involves convening at high-energy launch events, evaluating assets, then crafting specific goals and strategies to achieve them during the PLAN Builder workshop. During the FOCUS phase, those strategies are put into practice to achieve practical results. And LEAD, the final phase, ensures these entities receive recognition for their sustainability successes through LEED, ENERGY STAR, and other industry certifications.

It’s a path designed to adapt to a regional, national, and global scale, and ADVANCE provides partners with tools, from workshops to reference guides to mobile apps, to meet partners’ needs. Along the way, ADVANCE taps into the revamped USGBC volunteer network and provides specific, time-bound roles for all interested professionals. Shane Gring, a community developer at USGBC, says, “ADVANCE provides opportunities for emerging professionals and students to gain critical sustainability project experience, while also creating an outlet for experienced professionals to serve, establish leadership, and support the development of new markets.” And while a new incarnation of the platform will be released later this year, last winter, a handful of USGBC chapters answered the call to test out the program and help their partners meet a broad set of sustainability goals. The results have already begun to resonate.

Whether restoring foreclosed properties through its Dynamic Green Homes program, showing business owners how to incorporate sustainability into their workplace cultures, or making healthy learning spaces into living lessons in environmental stewardship as part of the Green Schools Coalition initiative, USGBC’s Minnesota chapter has long been reaching beyond green building’s usual suspects to bring sustainability into new domains. “We’ve really been focusing on how to grow our organization beyond architects, engineers, and the rest of the audience that USGBC and LEED started with, and we’ve looked for projects based around community engagement,” says Sheri Brezinka, executive director of USGBC Minnesota. “Being an alpha pilot for the ADVANCE platform was a natural fit.”


District 191 works hard to save money and protect the environment through programs such as the “Battle of the Buildings” competition that encourages students to lower energy use, reduce waste, and conserve water.

As part of its community outreach, the Minnesota chapter already had an ADVANCE partner in mind: four buildings in ISD 191, a Minnesota school district covering the municipalities of Burnsville, Eagan, and Savage. The district has a long-standing interest in sustainability, and last year they hired Taylor Hays for a newly created green schools liaison position. The district is continually looking for ways to reduce operating costs through green building practices, Hays says, especially since those savings trickle down into the classroom. “All of the money that we save on operations goes back into our general fund,” she says. “Doing everything to save energy is the right thing to do, but we can also pay another teacher’s salary or buy new textbooks with that money.”

At January’s day long PLAN Builder workshop—where the Minnesota chapter’s network of experts met with the district’s head of facilities, lead custodians from a handful of schools, product manufacturers, and representatives from local utility companies at the district’s offices—reducing operations costs at four of ISD 191’s buildings was the main target. Using LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED EB: O&M) criteria as a guide, the groups set goals and brainstormed different sustainability strategies that could be applied within the district.

Today, Hays says ISD 191 aims to reduce energy usage by 10 percent by June 2016, and it’s exploring ways to make each building’s water and energy consumption data available throughout the district, harnessing the spirit of competition to drive down energy use. (“You know the building that uses the most energy is probably going to be motivated to make some changes,” Brezinka says with a laugh.) Additionally, the PLAN Builder workshop also enlightened the district about rebates from utility companies to help defray the costs of an upcoming recommissioning of several of its buildings.

In light of this success, USGBC Minnesota already has more ADVANCE partnerships in the cards, targeted at a second school district, a neighborhood association, and a house of worship. Besides suiting a variety of communities, the ADVANCE framework converts sustainability from a vague concept into an actionable plan. “There’s a big chasm between being interested in having a sustainable place to live, work, or go to school, and knowing how to create that,” Brezinka says. “ADVANCE puts it into a step-by-step model, and brings all of these ideas together to create something that’s implementable—and you don’t have to be a LEED AP to see how the pieces fit together.”


Katie Kaluzny, associate director of the USGBC Illinois chapter. Photo: Marc PoKempner

On the surface, it was an unlikely pairing: ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager and Jock Jams. But considering the setting—the ENERGY STAR Benchmarking Jam, an ADVANCE event in which volunteers from the USGBC Illinois chapter and other organizations helped the Chicago Housing Authority vet energy performance data from a portfolio of its senior housing facilities—a soundtrack of kitschy 1990s dance anthems made sense. “Data can be pretty nerdy,” says Katie Kaluzny, associate director of the USGBC Illinois chapter. “That made everything a little more fun.”

Sustainability has been a priority through Chicago’s last two mayoral administrations, and in 2013 the city passed the Chicago Energy Benchmarking and Transparency Ordinance. The initiative calls for roughly 3,000 of the city’s largest buildings—commercial, municipal, and residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet—to gather and report quality energy performance data phased in from 2014 to 2016. Additionally, the ordinance requires properties to verify energy data with a professional every three years. “It impacts one percent of Chicago’s buildings, but it accounts for 20 percent of the city’s building energy use,” Kaluzny says.

Since the launch of the ordinance, the USGBC Illinois chapter has been heavily involved in training and education efforts to get buildings in the city up to speed. With help from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the local American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) chapter, USGBC Illinois put into place a pro bono data verification program to link building science professionals with community nonprofits, faith-based groups, and affordable housing developments working to meet the guidelines of the ordinance. And when USGBC’s Community Advancement Team approached Kaluzny looking for ADVANCE pilot candidates, the chapter had begun talking with the Chicago Housing Authority about volunteering its expertise to verify data for a portfolio of 39 senior living facilities in the city.

“It was a win-win: we had some buildings where we needed some oversight, and they had a bunch of volunteers who had expertise but needed some more experience to feel comfortable with the process,” says Ellen Sargent, director of sustainability initiatives for the Chicago Housing Authority.

So in February, a mix of junior and senior volunteers from USGBC and ASHRAE convened with Sargent, capital improvement staff, and asset managers. “Basically,” says Sargent, “every table in the room had experts on what the buildings needed to do, and every table had experts on the energy efficiency side of things.” For the first part of the day, the volunteers from USGBC and ASHRAE pored over performance data, confirming and correcting each piece of information while simultaneously gaining greater insights into the demands on the buildings themselves from their housing authority peers. Later in the day, the conversation went beyond the numbers: Volunteers learned more about the particulars of the housing authority’s portfolio, then brainstormed a variety of ways to weave sustainability into the facilities, from using green building materials, to implementing water and energy-saving strategies, to figuring out how to work sustainability into the lifestyles of their tenants. “Energy is one piece of the sustainability puzzle, but we thought, what are the different opportunities we could look at across the portfolio?” Kaluzny says. For example, after the workshop’s attendees learned that plenty of seniors rode their bikes or used buses to get around and connect with the city outside their home, the snowball of ideas included exploring ways to encourage safe cycling and provide improved access to public transportation.

For the Chicago Housing Authority, the partnership that played out over the day had immediate benefits. Beyond having stronger metrics, the agency learned that many of the buildings in the portfolio meet or are close to meeting ENERGY STAR certification for existing multifamily housing. In the future, volunteers could help put those strategies into action to achieve that certification, which is also a prerequisite for the housing authority’s ambitions of reaching LEED EB: O&M certification.

All in all, Kaluzny says, ADVANCE went beyond the city’s benchmarking guidelines to get everyone on both sides of the partnership more invested in success. “In every place, the outcomes from ADVANCE will be different, but the goal is the same: provide some tools to reach out to communities that need assistance, and produce meaningful results.”