How Two U.S. States Are Growing and Gaining in Sustainability

How Two U.S. States Are Growing and Gaining in Sustainability


Winter 2020 | Written by Calvin Hennick

No one person or institution has the power to steer an entire state toward a sustainable future.

When it comes to green buildings, there are too many moving pieces for any single group—no matter how motivated—to significantly move the needle without help from others. Laws and regulations will have a limited impact if a state lacks a corps of dedicated and knowledgeable design and construction professionals who can find innovative ways to implement them. Sustainability consultants can’t help companies reduce waste and improve energy efficiency unless their clients are motivated to make changes, and businesses need green building professionals and government actors to help them turn their passion into action.

After one city or industry chalks up a success, others are inspired, leading to larger gains, until an entire state has a critical mass of public and private stakeholders dedicated to sustainability leadership.

That’s the story taking shape in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. After years of hard work by countless advocates, owners, developers, public servants, consultants and others, both states have leapt up the list of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) leaders over the past year. According to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) annual top 10 States for LEED list, Minnesota placed at number 8 in 2019, while Pennsylvania placed at number 15—Minnesota was number 13 in 2018, and Pennsylvania was number 18.

Neither state has a simple story to tell, because neither can point to a single industry, regulatory change or even moment in time that helped it become a leader in green building—and neither got where it is overnight.

Above, left and center: Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Above, right: Michael Walsh is deputy secretary for administration of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and co-chair of its sustainability initiatives.

Creating Coalitions

The story of sustainability in Minnesota sports stadiums doesn’t start and stop with Carla Inderrieden. She’s been in her role as sustainability coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for four years, and the state’s professional baseball and hockey teams were taking leadership roles in sustainable design and operations for years before that.

However, the sports and events community in Minnesota didn’t come together to share sustainable practices and push one another forward until after Inderrieden began getting doors slammed in her face.

Inderrieden came into her role at a time when work was being completed on U.S. Bank Stadium (the current home of the Minnesota Vikings football team), which opened in 2016. Preparations were already under way for the stadium’s first Super Bowl in February 2018, and Inderrieden was tasked with making sure that the nation’s premier sporting event—and the events around the stadium—were run in a sustainable manner.

“We were not going to accept a big hot mess of a wasteful Super Bowl,” Inderrieden says. “I really demanded a lot.”

If it seems strange that Inderrieden, a worker for a state pollution control agency, was able to exercise authority over the highest-level managers in charge of operating one of the state’s highest-profile facilities, housing a beloved local sports team whose quarterback is earning a guaranteed $84 million over three years—it seemed strange to those managers, too.

They weren’t interested in even meeting with Inderrieden at first, and she says she was met with literal closed doors when she first tried to set up meetings to discuss ways to make the stadium, and the Super Bowl, more sustainable. Although the stadium was built with a sustainable design and received LEED certification in 2017, Inderrieden says, there weren’t plans at the time to enforce sustainable practices in the facility’s operations.

“They were completely terrified, I think, of what I was asking of them,” Inderrieden says.

The pollution control agency is in charge of enforcing the state’s commercial recycling law, which prohibits commercial buildings from sending recyclable materials to landfills. Inderrieden was able to take that relatively small regulatory foothold and leverage it into wider sustainability initiatives at the stadium, which is owned by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, a state agency that contracts out operations to a private company.

Through persistence (or, as she calls it, “bugging” people), Inderrieden was able to convince the stadium’s management company to hire someone to fill a sustainability role, and then Inderrieden herself trained that person to the level of her own agency’s expectations.

The stadium successfully operated a “zero waste” Super Bowl (with 91% of waste diverted from landfills), diverted nearly 2 million pounds of recyclables and nearly 1 million pounds of compost material in its first three years of operations, and used renewable energy credits to power the stadium 100% with wind energy. In August 2019, U.S. Bank Stadium became the first professional sports stadium to earn LEED Platinum designation using the Arc performance platform.

The operations manager who initially rebuffed Inderrieden’s calls for sustainability programs? “He’s a huge supporter,” she says.

Inderrieden built on this success by connecting sustainability leaders from the state’s sports arenas and large events, as well as bringing new people from those sectors into the fold. The result is the Minnesota Sustainable Sports and Events Coalition, which brings these leaders together for sessions where they share best practices—and where Inderrieden can “bug” all of them at the same time with her expectations.

The group has pushed to improve sustainability at large events through simple practices, such as eliminating trash cans at individual vendor booths at conventions and prohibiting promotional items with excess packaging.

“Getting everyone together in a room energizes them to compete with each other and learn from each other,” Inderrieden says. “There’s been a huge shift. Some took some convincing, and others were committed early on, but in either case, I feel that we are on a very positive trajectory. The landscape today is that we’re all talking about it, which wasn’t happening before. People are asking to be in this group.”

Setting an Example

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) manages 121 state parks and 2.2 million acres of forest, which receive 40 million visits a year. With 2,200 employees and 4,800 buildings, the department makes a sizable impact by adopting sustainable practices in its facilities.

“We’re a big operation,” notes Michael A. Walsh, deputy secretary for administration of the department and co-chair of its sustainability initiatives. “We use a lot of electricity, and we buy a lot of stuff throughout the year, and we serve a lot of people. And we’re thinking about doing everything we do in a way that reduces our carbon footprint and is more responsible.”

But perhaps even more important, the millions of visitors the parks receive make them living billboards, constantly advertising for sustainable practices. People visit the parks and see solar arrays, electric vehicle charging stations and signage about green wastewater treatment systems and graywater irrigation methods. Then, they go back to their homes, where they may be inspired to improve their own practices. As visitors to the parks encounter these sustainable features in beautiful natural settings, they may be reminded of what is at stake.

“Our focus is to not only save money for the taxpayer, but to demonstrate to the public that we’re helping to reduce our carbon footprint, to reduce our energy consumption, and to tell that story to our visitors, so they can think about the kinds of things they can do in their own homes or businesses to protect our environment, and save money and natural resources,” Walsh says. “We have a unique opportunity to help visitors understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and in turn, what they can do.”

The DCNR has 16 existing LEED-certified facilities, with one more in construction and another three in the design phase. At Presque Isle State Park—the most visited location in the state parks system, with beaches along the Lake Erie shore—the LEED Silver Tom Ridge Environmental Center stands as a living textbook for visitors interested in learning more about how a sustainable building operates.

The building has a solar array in front and a parking lot that incorporates recycled pavement from a former drive-in movie theater that once stood on the site. The LEED Gold visitor center at Ohiopyle State Park, which offers some of the best whitewater rafting on the East Coast, has a green wastewater treatment center, along with abundant and visible signage explaining how the system works.

Above, left: The Ohiopyle State Park visitor center is designed to be environmentally responsible and blend with the natural landscape. The upper level of the building houses an ecological wastewater treatment system that cleans and recycles the wastewater generated by the building. Above, right: Bald Eagle State Park’s Nature Inn features low-flow plumbing fixtures, dual-flush toilets, and a visible 2,400-gallon rainwater harvesting system. The site design and rainwater harvesting contribute to the project’s goal of achieving zero stormwater runoff.

Bald Eagle State Park is home to the 16-room Nature Inn, a LEED Gold building that was featured in USA Today as one of the top eco-friendly hotels in the country. The inn has a rainwater capture system, a green roof, a geothermal HVAC system and individual meters in each room so that guests can monitor their own energy consumption during their stays.

Also, by the end of 2020, the department will have 43 electric vehicle charging stations in parks across the state. “You often find them in urban areas, but our parks are in some of the most remote areas in the state,” Walsh says. “So, we’re building out a grid that helps people not have to worry about the range anxiety of getting home. While they’re out in the parks recharging their spirits, their cars can be in the lots recharging their batteries.”

While the parks’ LEED facilities are an important part of their sustainability efforts, officials are trying to implement green design features wherever they can, notes Jarod West, architectural consultant for the department’s Bureau of Facility Design and Construction. “A lot of it is not glamorous,” West says. “We’re looking at sewage treatment plants and taking them to [achieve] net zero through solar power. It’s not something people are going to want to visit when they get to a state park, but it’s something we’re pursuing.”

“There are a lot of things we’re incorporating, not just into buildings seeking certification, but we’re incorporating greener practices into all our infrastructure and practices, whether it’s LED fixtures, or solar power, or low-flow plumbing,” West adds. “Those things are standard when we start developing each building project. And we’re focusing on things people can do themselves, showing that it’s affordable, that it has a quick payback, and it’s something you can do on your own.”

A push from policy

The department’s focus on sustainability is powered in part by state policy. In 2017, the DCNR adopted a policy of using “green and sustainable techniques for all new and renovated building, infrastructure, and site projects where logical, feasible, and economically responsible.”

Then, in January 2019, Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order laying out a number of sustainability goals for agencies across the state. The goals included reducing the state government’s overall energy consumption by 3% per year, and by 21% by 2025, compared to 2017 levels; replacing 25% of the state passenger car fleet with battery electric and plug-in electric hybrid cars by 2024; and procuring renewable energy to offset at least 40% of the state’s annual electricity use.

The executive order also requires new state-owned and leased buildings, as well as major renovations, to meet high-performance building standards. While the regulation does not specifically mandate LEED certification, it specifies that buildings must perform 10% better than ASHRAE standards.

“We are encouraging LEED and other performance standards,” notes Mark Hand, director of the GreenGov Council for the state’s Department of General Services. “We’re raising the floor, and we’re also encouraging greener practices.”

Among other programs, the state also runs a green energy loan program for energy-efficient retrofits, which have helped fund 14 projects so far, including three that have received LEED certification. These include the LEED Silver Hilton Homewood Suites in Philadelphia, the LEED Platinum Ambler Boiler House in Ambler, and Paseo Verde, a Philadelphia project that was the first LEED Platinum project in the country under LEED for Neighborhood Development.

Although not every green building incorporates public education about sustainability to the extent that DCNR’s facilities do, there’s a trickle-down effect from every LEED building that the state builds, funds or otherwise supports, says Heidi Kunka, energy program specialist for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“There’s nothing like the ability to see, touch and feel a high-performance building,” says Kunka, who was until recently the director of the USGBC Central Pennsylvania local community. “I loved planning and organizing tours of LEED buildings. You would see the change in people as they learned from the owners of these buildings about the why and the how.”

Heidi Kunka is the energy program specialist for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The Saint Paul RiverCentre, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is one of the first LEED Platinum convention centers in the nation.

Jim Ibister is vice president of facility administration for Minnesota Sports and Entertainment.

Big players

Kunka attributes much of the growth of LEED development in Pennsylvania to key industries, such as health care and education, that have not only enthusiastically embraced sustainable building practices, but that also occupy vast quantities of indoor space, helping to send the state’s LEED square footage skyrocketing as organizations build and renovate.

Among the institutions aggressively pursuing green building strategies is Dickinson College, whose High Street Residence Hall was certified LEED Platinum in January 2019—the fifth LEED building on campus and the first dormitory in the state to earn Platinum certification. The building is expected to use 24% less energy than a standard building of the same size and type.

Scott Pusey, a senior sustainability consultant with Steven Winter Associates, Inc., worked on the project, and he says that college students who are exposed to the benefits of green buildings at an early age may go on to demand sustainability features later in life, as they become homebuyers and workers.

“I hope so,” Pusey says. “Buildings of a certain age, or even more modern ones, are often really not all that comfortable, unless a lot of thought has gone into that. In a building like this, air testing would never have been required previously, and that’s a big component of what makes a building comfortable or not. Once we start demanding more comfortable and energy-efficient buildings, developers are going to want to deliver that.

In Minnesota, sports facilities provide the double benefit of adding huge amounts of square footage to the state’s LEED registry, while also playing a very prominent role in public education around sustainability.

In addition to U.S. Bank Stadium, the LEED Gold Target Field (home to the Minnesota Twins baseball team) was recertified in April of 2019; the Xcel Energy Center, where the Minnesota Wild hockey team plays, was certified LEED Platinum in September 2019; and TCF Bank Stadium, where the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team plays its home games, was the first new football stadium to receive LEED certification, earning Silver in 2009.

Jim Ibister is vice president of facility administration for Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, which manages the Xcel Energy Center and two other buildings on the same campus. He says that his organization tries to appeal to hockey fans’ sense of state pride and team spirit, while also talking about sustainability in terms they can relate to.

“We talk about it in terms of being a Minnesotan,” Ibister says. “We’re frugal. We don’t like to waste things. There are people who will keep every little trinket and will cut coupons when they go shopping. That’s nothing different from what we’re doing with sustainability. When we save energy, we save money. When we compost, we save money. There are some huge business benefits to our sustainability efforts. And I think if we focus on those benefits, and being really frugal and smart with our dollars, people start to get it.”

The Wild team participates in the NHL’s annual “Green Games,” where there’s an extra emphasis on sustainability education. Also, team employees recently volunteered for a day of service, where they engaged in activities like marking storm drains and cleaning up parks. Several times per season, the team brings in university students to stand next to waste bins and help teach fans how to sort out compost, recycling and trash. It’s all part of what Ibister views as both an opportunity and a duty to leverage the team’s visibility for positive environmental outcomes.

“A LEED-certified office building, it doesn’t…connect with people as much. But the sports connection is big,” he says. “Hearing that message over and over again, people are interested to know, what does that mean, what does it take?”

Christina Reeves, owner of Progressive Associates and project administrator for LEED at the campus that includes Xcel Energy Center, says that seeing sustainability features at major sports venues helps to make them feel “normal” to fans.

“If they see write-ups of energy efficiency efforts and proper recycling bins, those become more normal, and maybe it improves what people will do at home,” she says. “To some extent, there’s the idea that if these big buildings can do it, then we can too. I certainly think there’s been some of that with the business community, and hopefully some with individuals as well.”

Asa Posner, senior sustainability manager for Sustainable Investment Group, has worked on the LEED certification processes for both Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium. Partly due to the leadership of the state’s sports teams—but also owing to government regulations, green building advocates and leaders in other industries—Minnesota has reached a tipping point when it comes to green building, he says.

“I’ve lived in Minnesota for six years,” Posner says. “I’ve noticed, there’s now significant, large-scale support for sustainability. The average person believes that sustainable design, construction and operations are valuable. This is a market that adopted LEED early on, and from a policy standpoint, the government does a good job of pushing and driving for more innovation. Everybody kind of realizes it’s the right thing to do.”

Christina Reeves is the owner of Progressive Associates and a project administrator for LEED.

Asa Posner is a senior sustainability manager for Sustainable Investment Group.

“It’s still a ripe market,” Posner adds. “There’s still a lot that can be done. But the state is in a good place, from a sustainability perspective, I think.”

“The real story”

In both Minnesota and Pennsylvania, people are quick to share credit. Ask Reeves about her work advancing green building in Minnesota, and she’ll tell you to talk to Ibister about his leadership, and then Ibister will tell you to call Inderrieden. Ask Kunka what’s happening in Pennsylvania, and she’ll point you to Walsh, who will pull West into the conversation. Everyone will insist that you need to talk to another person, and another, and then three or four more, to learn the real story about how their state is becoming a green building leader.

There is no one “real story.” Rather, there are many stories—hundreds of them, thousands, so many threads weaving together that eventually they become difficult to tell apart—and then, you see the fabric coming together into a design.

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