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The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts



You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “integrated medicine.” When it’s practiced skillfully, medical experts from a variety of disciplines work together to create a better treatment plan for their patient than they each could have developed on their own.

This collaborative approach, based on flexibility, expertise, and intuitive thinking, also works well as a business model. We end up seeing linkages and creating solutions that would have been impossible without the combined insight of our colleagues.

And it can work well as a means to address the difficult design challenges that face our cities—as demonstrated at the American Architectural Foundation’s Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA).

As a finance person, I don’t usually participate in charrettes. For the uninitiated, a charrette is a focused, collaborative session in which a group—typically of designers— produces innovative solutions to a difficult problem. But in the fall of 2010, I was invited to be a “design team member” for an SCDA charrette focused on sustainability projects in three cities: Denver, Pittsburgh, and Chula Vista, Calif.

SCDA takes the concept of the charrette to the next level by bringing together an especially diverse mixture of professionals with a broad range of expertise and perspectives. To support the local leaders attending SCDA from the participating cities, AAF tailors design teams whose expertise matches the demands of the project. In this case, I was assigned to the Living City Block (LCB), Denver, group.

Here was the project: Living City Block, Denver, Lower Downtown District (pilot)

  • 16 existing buildings, primarily brick and timber construction built between 1890 and 1920, the majority of which are designated as historic
  • 40 different property owners
  • 600,000 aggregated sq. feet
  • Mixed-use at 57% office, 32% residential, 7% retail, and 4% restaurant

The Goals:

  • Urban revitalization
  • Community building
  • Enhanced livability
  • Energy and resource efficiency

The Specific Energy Savings Goals:

  • 50% in two years (by summer 2012)
  • 75% in four years (by summer 2014)
  • Two buildings with net-zero historic building retrofit status (by 2014)

Sounds simple, right?

Let me take you inside our conference room—ground zero for the LCB project. There were seven of us at the table: Llewellyn Wells, Chad Riley, and Doug Laub from LCB; Philip Saieg from the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado (ASC owns a building within the Denver block); Peter Schaudt, a landscape architect from Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects; Rand Ekman, an architect with Cannon Design; and me. I was the financial specialist.

Our first order of business was to learn our goals and objectives from the LCB representatives. Those goals were urban regeneration with a green and social bent. As noted above, LCB has truly ambitious energy efficiency goals for its work in Denver. At the same time, they want to create a resilient neighborhood that is livable, culturally diverse, and economically sustainable.

They also consider the Denver “block” a demonstration project that will help LCB create a “replicable, exportable, and scalable framework” for other urban regeneration projects. That includes a map for the physical retrofit and the use of all renewable resources, as well as the financing structure(s). As an aside, LCB is currently working on two additional “blocks,” one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Brooklyn.

Our next step was to cull through all the information and determine the most important pieces of the puzzle, and where we, the design team, could lend the most expertise. As you can imagine, any project of this magnitude is full of opportunities to get side-tracked without reaching a meaningful conclusion. There are just too many roads leading off to nowhere.

The energy component was huge, and in many ways it was the easiest piece to work on. The livability aspect was also compelling, and was made more so by Philip Saieg’s presence on the team. Philip, of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, was the one property owner (of the 40 total on the Denver block) in the room.

ASC’s mission is to advance economic, environmental, and social sustainability through collaboration. Its building in the LCB, Denver, block is used for social advocacy and education and as a demonstration project on sustainable building design and construction. This building, which is a retrofit of a nearly 100-year-old warehouse, holds offices, a community meeting room, and an adjacent parking lot.

For the first few hours we were all over the map—we needed to get as much information on the table as we could. We started by looking at many of the different “livability” or green opportunities, such as roof gardens, greenhouses, daytime public roof access, and a community park. We then tried to determine whether they could be implemented in the alley, on rooftops, or as part of the ASC’s building or parking lot.

In the afternoon, our focus turned to the LCB’s most immediate and tangible goal: a 50% reduction in energy consumption by the summer of 2012, which was only 20 months away. Conventional wisdom told us to focus on retrofitting the individual buildings. We looked toward the goal of energy efficiency retrofits for each of the 16 buildings on the block and asked ourselves:

  • How much efficiency is possible and/or necessary?
  • How do you engage the 40 individual owners and convince them to do efficiency retrofits in the first place?
  • What type of education and training is effective?
  • How will the efficiency be maintained over time?
  • How will the efficiency retrofits be financed?
  • Who will pay for the retrofits?
  • What will happen if they aren’t effective?

Then, we shifted gears to look at the inclusion of a geothermal district energy system:

  • What’s the potential for district energy?
  • How will the district energy be financed?
  • What are the investment criteria?
  • How would this be paid back?
  • How would this be accomplished from a structural point of view?
  • What type of system best fits the site?
  • How would the system be sized?
  • What would the timing be?

But we kept circling back to the individual building retrofits. Based on conventional thinking, we knew that if we maximized efficiency for the buildings first, then we could “right-size” the district energy system. We talked (and talked and talked) about how to finance the retrofit of 16 individual buildings, with 40 different owners—many of whom, in this difficult economic environment, aren’t interested or engaged—but we couldn’t come up with a viable plan.

Not until…

  • “What if we turn this on its head and look at it from another perspective?”
  • “What if, instead of looking to maximize individual building efficiency, we look at district energy first?”
  • “What if we build a green space that contributes to a district geothermal energy system and, at the same time, catalyzes ‘livability’ and enhances value?”
  • “What if a district energy system is more financeable than the aggregate financing for 16 buildings and 40 property owners?”
  • “And what if we go after individual building efficiency in tandem with the district solution?”

That was the pivotal moment in our discussion. We challenged our own paradigm and preconceived notions and jumped ten steps forward.

The conventional thinking: We need to focus on energy efficiency at the individual building level before we can “right-size” a district energy system.

The synergistic thinking: We can emphasize block-wide district energy systems, green space, and livability first, so it’s easier for building owners to see the inherent value of their efficiency retrofits.

We could integrate the district energy system into the sustainable public areas like the ASC garden and rooftop green space. If we funded the installation of the district energy system at the same time that we created sustainable public areas, then those projects would enhance the vibrancy of the neighborhood, reduce energy costs, and show the owners the value of energy efficiency retrofits in their buildings.

The funding and the physical design were inextricably linked. We simply had to look at them together, both the challenges and the opportunities. It wasn’t just the synergy of the group; it was the synergy of the ideas. Our flexibility and creativity resulted in a framework that LCB believes is replicable and scalable for other communities.

There’s no doubt that each group at SCDA (Denver, Pittsburgh, and Chula Vista) produced results that wouldn’t have been possible if the individuals (or even the disciplines) had worked alone. The SCDA framework catalyzed these breakthroughs by providing the network to bring the disciplines together. It created an environment in which our synergistic thinking was possible.

Molly McCabe, LEED AP, is the founder and president of HaydenTanner, a firm that guides corporations and entrepreneurs through the land mines of the “Green Revolution,” helping businesses maximize their financial returns by investing in sustainability and energy efficiency. She is also the author of Practical Greening: The Bottom Line on Sustainable Property Development, Investment and Financing.

The Sustainable Cities Design Academy, organized by the American Architectural Foundation in partnership with United Technologies Corporation (UTC), provides leadership development and technical assistance to local leaders engaged in planning a sustainable building project in their communities.

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