Taking the Challenge

Since 2012, the city of Pittsburgh has committed 60 million square feet of real estate to meet the 2030 Challenge.


By Jeff Harder

Pittsburgh 2030 aims to reduce its energy consumption and transform the city as a leader in sustainability.


When the Pittsburgh 2030 District branched out this past August, its reputation preceded its expansion. After just two years, the initiative had already guided a disparate assortment of property and business owners down a path toward creating high-performance, energy-saving buildings in the city’s Downtown. But when Pittsburgh 2030 added a second district in the adjacent Oakland neighborhood, the early response to the voluntary program exceeded the sunniest expectations: 244 buildings comprising 24.5 million square feet of real estate came under the program’s umbrella right away.

“We launched with 81 percent of the total square footage committed to the program,” says Sean Luther, senior director of the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts at Green Building Alliance. “That was just a jaw-dropping stat once we added it all up.”

It’s not the only impressive number: Since launching in 2012, the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts have committed close to 60 million square feet of real estate to meet targets outlined in The 2030 Challenge, an aggressive approach to mitigating buildings’ energy usage. By 2013, the buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh surpassed the Challenge’s first-year energy reduction target. Through improving existing structures to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and water and improve indoor air quality, the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts aim to create properties that benefit the environment as well as the bottom line. And in taking a grassroots approach, the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts have mobilized the business community to make a profound impact.

We launched with 81 percent of the total square footage committed to the program… a jaw-dropping stat once we added it all up.

– Sean Luther, senior director of the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts at Green Building Alliance

In 2007, the nonprofit group Architecture 2030 issued The 2030 Challenge, a set of ambitious objectives for folks in the building sector to curb their energy use and emissions: New buildings, for example, aim to be carbon-neutral by 2030, while existing buildings seek to reduce energy consumption by half over the same span. The Challenge manifested in the 2030 Districts, a series of voluntary public-private partnerships in cities across North America that connect businesses, property owners, local governments, community groups, and other organizations to benchmark their performance and encourage solutions that meet the aims of The 2030 Challenge. Seattle 2030—the first 2030 Districts—launched in 2011, four others have come to fruition since, and at least 10 more are in development.


The Tower at PNC Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh is dedicated to the challenge. Photo: PNC Realty Services

Once an industrial mecca, Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania have been reinventing themselves for the 21st century, Luther says. “It’s a region that understands that our next economic surge isn’t going to come from heavy industry, but from identifying the hardware and software that are going to help us achieve those 2030 goals.”

The Pittsburgh 2030 Districts began when Green Building Alliance (GBA), a Pittsburgh-based U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) chapter that’s been promoting green building practices in western Pennsylvania since 1993, instituted a strategic plan calling to effect change on structures already present in the city. “The reality is that most of the real estate in Pittsburgh—especially Downtown—is already here,” says Luther. “We were looking for a program that would move the needle on the existing real estate market.” After seeing the progress made in the Seattle 2030 District, GBA began gauging the interest of business and property owners in Downtown Pittsburgh. Large, forward-thinking organizations like PNC Financial Services, BNY Mellon, and the City of Pittsburgh signed on right away, and the district launched with more than 30 percent of Downtown’s square footage committed to the program. By the end of the year, Luther says, that number moved to 50 percent.

Today, there are more than 80 property, community, and resource partners spread between Downtown and Oakland, and the results have been emphatic and swift. By 2013, Downtown saw an 11.6 percent decrease in energy consumption. “That’s equivalent to taking almost 8,000 homes off the grid in western Pennsylvania,” Luther says.

The Pittsburgh 2030 Districts’ first step toward those reductions was simple: Help partners understand how much energy they were expending in the first place. “Big, big owners that signed on to the program weren’t tracking their energy usage. They viewed it simply as the cost of doing business,” Luther says. Using Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager software, the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts team provides data to its constituents on how their properties perform against national averages—as well as their peers in Pittsburgh—and formulate specific plans to reach 50 percent energy reductions, which could include HVAC overhauls, improvements to the building envelope, lighting retrofits, and so forth.

Six times a year, these partners meet in closed-door, confidential sessions to talk about improvements they’ve made and share stories of energy-saving initiatives that inspire their peers to make similar changes. One property owner, for example, made a presentation about a newly installed on-demand elevator system and escalator retrofit in front of an audience due for their own upgrades. Several others have spoken about having their cleaning crews work during the day instead of at night, which allows for earlier shutdown of lighting and HVAC systems, improves social equity for housekeeping staff, and requires no extra funds to put into action.

“This is a completely non-prescriptive program,” Luther says. “We don’t mandate that everyone needs to go into the parking garage and change their metal halide lighting to LED. Each property owner makes decisions on what and when to invest in their building on an individual basis. At its heart, we’re really cataloging and celebrating success in improving building performance in western Pennsylvania.”

Credit the widespread adoption to how the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts deliver the message. Western Pennsylvania is subject to the same effects of climate change afflicting the rest of the Northeast—hotter summers, warmer winters, more intense and frequent rainstorms—and the Keystone State produces 4 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. But, Luther says, some of Pittsburgh 2030 partners do not list climate change as their top priority: Instead, they signed on because learning how to reduce operating expenses would make their buildings attractive to prospective tenants. “The end result [of the program] is moving the needle on climate change, but it’s important that that not be the only conversation piece,” he says.

Despite the success so far, Luther says plenty of work lies ahead, including developing benchmarks for water consumption and indoor air quality. Over time, the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts intend to merge Downtown and Oakland into a single program. GBA is also exploring how to adapt the 2030 Districts model to western Pennsylvania’s suburbs, office parks, and other settings beyond the confines of cities—and the organization is excited to see the results of the 2014 progress report, which will include metrics of Oakland’s performance for the first time.

In a broader sense, the concrete numbers behind the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts make the best case for Pittsburgh as a city undergoing a true transformation. “All cities—especially their downtowns—market themselves as green,” Luther says. “The 2030 Districts allow us to show what our energy performance looks like, that this is a long-term goal that our private and public sectors have committed to. We’ll be able to say, ‘We’re a high-performing city, we’re a healthy place to live, and here’s the number that indicates that. What’s yours?