We recently caught up with DiAnn Tufts, LEED AP, BD+C, LFA for a conversation about what is new and where things are headed with sustainable design today. DiAnn, Sustainability Director at PCA, is a leader in the Greater Boston design and sustainable building community, a facilitator for the International Living Future Institute (IFLI) and committee chair of the USGBC’s Living Future Collaborative.

What are some of the big changes taking place right now in sustainable planning and design?

The biggest change I see is greater clarity on what works and why it matters. Our clients are more aware of the benefits available and the advantages of setting goals for carbon neutrality. Many of them are thinking about a strategy for net zero energy in the not-to-distant future.

At PCA, our ability to apply data-driven design and real-world experience allows us to explore a wide variety of options with greater accuracy than ever before. Technology, materials, modeling and building systems are a generation ahead of what we worked with in the past. This allows us to better guide our clients through the options and to focus on the most effective strategies to advance their goals and help make sound decisions.

Fortunately, there is a lot more opportunity in both new and existing buildings to plan and design for a carbon neutral future, one that will provide both a positive return on our client’s investment and a positive impact in our communities.

Where is a good place to start for clients interested in getting to a carbon neutral or even a zero-net energy future?

Well, the first things we focus on are strategies to reduce the energy load that the building creates. Whether it is for a new or existing building, driving down the energy load will increase efficiency and provide operational cost savings. A few options to consider are enhancing building envelopes both from a thermal performance and an air leakage standpoint, controlling ventilation through an efficient heat exchanger, installing lower-demand LED lighting and investing in high-efficiency heating and cooling systems.

Second, clients should consider a long-term strategy for achieving decarbonization, something they can phase, as necessary. Switching to an all-electric energy approach reduces reliance on fossil fuels and the carbon emissions they produce onsite.

Third, consider onsite renewable energy options to meet the energy needs and further decrease carbon production. These options can be added over time to achieve net zero goals and drive down ongoing utility costs.

How do you measure the future efficiency and tangible impact of these initiatives?

One of the advantages today, which relates to the notion of greater clarity around sustainable design, is our ability to provide early energy modeling. Modeling compares a variety of options and provides the data for informed decision making in line with design development. This is a truly a game changer because it provides the accuracy needed to integrate strategic approaches into project financing.

Are government requirements and regulations changing and influencing decisions around sustainable design and building?

Yes, that’s one of the reasons for taking a long-term view. We are tracking cities and states around the country as they introduce new regulations as part of climate action plans. Seattle, for example, recently approved an ordinance requiring new buildings to use electric or renewable energy instead of natural gas or oil for heating and cooling.

Closer to home, the City of Boston’s Climate Action Plan will eventually strengthen city zoning requirements to likely adopt a zero-net carbon standard. To preserve future building value, it is essential to anticipate future requirements to shift away from oil and natural gas and to keep a close watch on emerging trends. Staying ahead of these trends and seeking opportunities to make changes ahead of time – or to design buildings that are easily convertible when the time comes – will help future-proof real estate assets from risk and unknowns.

Is it possible to future-proof older, existing buildings?

Yes. For starters, older, leaky buildings are energy hogs that should be looked at as an opportunity to reduce owner and tenant cost. As I mentioned before, strategies such as enhancing the thermal performance and air leakage of building façades and pursuing high-efficiency heating and cooling systems are great avenues to achieve savings. Other adaptations to future-proof and increase future property value include actions such as updating existing heating, cooling and ventilation systems to take advantage of recent gains in performance efficiency.

The largest-impact option, and the one that will provide the biggest impact on carbon reduction, is to use electric energy as much as possible. Converting from gas to electric utilities will reduce carbon by 40% on average. The emission reductions will increase over time as planned improvements to the electric grid come into play.

Beyond the benefits of lower emissions and an overall cleaner source, an electric system is more easily compatible with introducing onsite power generation from solar panels. This is a beneficial option to have for present or future use and a big contributor in achieving net-zero energy and carbon neutral goals.


How early in the planning for a new project should sustainability decisions happen?

When we look back at the data on our biggest-impact projects, we see that very early-stage review and decision making is key. Whether a client is looking to achieve a net-zero outcome or wants to create a building that will have the lowest carbon footprint within their construction budget, working toward each client’s goal early allows us to develop a design that will meet it. The longer into design you wait to make these decisions, the fewer big-impact options exist.

For example, one of the early-stage benchmarking tools we recommend for many current projects is a Passive House Feasibility Study. In addition to helping create a resilient, lower energy use building, Passive House studies reveal for clients how their project may meet the criteria to receive third-party incentives from utility companies that we can help facilitate.

In fact, here in Massachusetts Mass Save offers an incentive that pays for the study and the modeling. Recently, on our Mildred Hailey housing project the feasibility study allowed the team to realize an enhanced envelope strategy that resulted in a projected energy use intensity of 20.8 kBtu/ft²/yr, which is 25% better than code.

Last question. What are the intangible benefits of pursuing carbon reduction, net-zero and other sustainability goals?

Reputation and brand integrity are important assets for any business today. Our clients understand this. They make smart decisions every day that reflect their values, including decisions related to sustainability, climate change and community well-being.

We help guide them through the decision-making process and together, we take a holistic, practical view of achieving the best outcome based on cost, impact, risk and ROI. Each step forward advances a safer, healthier and sustainable experience for everyone.