Reprinted from MassLive
By John Fish | Guest viewpoint
If Massachusetts is going to meet the new state energy efficiency standards signed into law in March, and also regain its place as the nation’s most energy efficient state, we need to make green buildings more affordable to build.
Suffolk Construction and the University of Massachusetts teamed up on what might be one of the most forward-looking energy efficient buildings in the nation—a building that should serve as a model that inspires and intrigues architects and developers.
The John W. Olver Design Building is the future of sustainable, energy efficient construction. Named a 2020 Top Ten Award winner by the American Institute of Architects, the industry’s top honor for sustainable design excellence, the building won a Wall Street Journal Best Architecture award and an award for sustainability from World Architecture News.
The Olver Building is timely: For nearly a decade Massachusetts proudly trumpeted its place atop the national ranking of energy efficient states only to lose the top spot last year. At the same time, developers, unions and real estate associations have voiced concerns that the state’s new energy efficiency standards could stymie construction. An Act Creating a Next Generation Roadmap for the Massachusetts Climate Policy, just signed into law, made national news with a 50% emission reduction target by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. The Act could also give cities and towns the power to essentially mandate net-zero buildings, with little guidance on how to build homes and offices that are affordable.
Roughly a third of Massachusetts emissions come from combustion of fossil fuels in residential and commercial buildings. That means the key to climate change success is going to come from new construction. But developers and real estate associations that have pushed back on the new standards are right to have worries—none of this is cheap. That’s why government also needs to take a role to make constructing gems like the Olver Building more affordable and accessible to commercial builders. For example, investment tax credits like those for solar, wind, and geothermal have been critical to creating clean power and reducing the emissions of buildings. That same forward-thinking vision needs to be applied for construction.
The Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress are looking at this now, and their help will make this state’s goals much more reachable. The infrastructure bill currently moving through Congress builds on the success of those solar and wind tax credits by adding more eligible green building technologies to the mix.
One bill relevant to the Olver building is the Dynamic Glass Act, sponsored by Senator Ed Markey. Senator Markey’s bill would bring the cost of the electrochromic glass used in the Olver building closer to that of traditional window materials. Legislation like the Dynamic Glass Act, and other similar efforts like the E-QUIP Act, which would provide for accelerated depreciation for state-of-the-art green technologies, can help to break down the prohibitive cost barriers to building more energy-efficient buildings. Beyond the Olver Building, electrochromic glass is also used at Boston’s Logan International Airport and in a massive new energy-efficient project currently being built near Fenway Park over the Massachusetts Turnpike. We can regain the number one energy efficiency ranking and dramatically reduce carbon emissions if new construction statewide incorporates technologies and innovations in the Olver Building, and if government steps up with programs aimed at making those buildings affordable to construct.
What makes the Olver building a model? In short: Revolutionary window and skylight technology that provides maximum daylight to the building’s interior—the glass knows when to be clear, when to darken—and significantly reduces artificial lighting needs, energy use and cost. And it is built of sustainable laminated wood with the strength of steel but without steel’s carbon footprint.
The building envelope is super-efficient, with dedicated mechanical equipment zoned for maximum efficiency. Radiant flooring and chilled beams provide robust energy savings, and storm water roof runoff is filtered through bio-swales and wooden dams back to the Connecticut River. On top of it all is a roof garden.
This is the kind of building we need to be constructing in Boston, Worcester and Springfield and the towns in-between. But while all this tech cuts carbon and energy costs, the up-front costs are significant.
This state is a leader on solar power and will soon lead in wind power, as well, in large part because tax credits made those technologies affordable. If we are going to build the green buildings we want and need for tomorrow, we need the same kind of vision and support.
John Fish is the Chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction and Chair-Elect of The Real Estate Roundtable’s Board of Directors.