Posts Tagged ‘green building’

EcoDistricts Summit ’11: PoSI’s Naomi Cole on The Compelling Nature of District-Scale

October 18, 2011

The team at Portland Sustainability Institute are quickly becoming the global experts at district-scale innovation. Their EcoDistricts model drives sustainable development in cities through stakeholder mobilization, social and infrastructure improvements across a neighborhood, and integration of best practices into the broader citywide cultural fabric. Three weeks from hosting their third annual EcoDistricts Summit, Program Manager Naomi Cole, talks about the increased value found in working at the district scale and why cities around the world are looking to Portland for a roadmap to sustainable development.

EcoDistricts: How does the development strategy change when working at the district scale rather than on a single structure?

Naomi Cole: It’s an entirely different strategy at a district scale. When working on a physical structure, the overall goal is pretty clear: a successful structure, like a new or retrofitted building, bioswale or energy system for example. When working at an EcoDistrict scale, there are potentially hundreds of projects and strategies to achieve the overall goal of environmental and social performance improvements.

At the district scale, we consider projects in the built environment as well as programs around people and behavior. And most importantly, the mechanisms for achieving these projects become much more complex because there are many more stakeholders than in a single structure. At a minimum, we have neighbors, developers, institutions, a city and utilities. Development at this scale requires a new process for making sustainable cities. We created EcoDistricts to provide a framework and approach for creating sustainable neighborhoods that includes new models of governance, assessment, project innovation, finance and policy.

EcoD: What is the most surprising unforeseen challenge you’ve encountered since working at the district scale and what solution or solutions have you discovered to address it?

NC: The process takes a long time. Stakeholder engagement and buy-in is, in many ways, the most critical step, and that process is dynamic and difficult to control. After we built our EcoDistricts framework we thought we’d be able to progress relatively efficiently in our pilot districts. But the process of engaging neighbors, formalizing partnerships, committing resources and building local capacity is very process heavy and takes time. Engagement has to be done right in order to get to the next steps of assessment and project implementation, which is where we all want to be.

EcoD: What is the single biggest driver of success for the development of an EcoDistrict? Why is it so important?

NC: There are two equally important drivers for success and they are addressed by our first two phases of EcoDistrict development: district organization and district assessment. The district organization process is what I described in the last question — engagement, vision, partnerships, capacity, and governance of stakeholders in an EcoDistrict. If this is done right, the next steps fall into place. The second, and equally critical, driver of success is an effective assessment process to prioritize projects. The biggest question once an EcoDistrict is organized is, “what are the right projects?” An integrated sustainability assessment across a neighborhood is critical for determining high impact projects, low-hanging fruit, and long-term ambitious investments. An effective assessment provides a roadmap for ongoing district sustainability improvements.

EcoD: Are EcoDistricts just a sum of their parts, in terms of benefits, or do the positive impacts grow exponentially when addressed as a collective unit?

NC: Definitely the latter. In fact, we often say, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to describe the value proposition for EcoDistricts. The intention behind EcoDistricts is a more integrated approach to developing our cities. By thinking district-wide across multiple areas of performance, we see opportunities for investments to do many things at once. Adding bioswales to sidewalks, for example, provides a timely opportunity to lay infrastructure for district utilities, saving huge capital costs by tearing up streets only once. A neighborhood building retrofit program can save energy while also improving comfort, saving on utility bills, creating jobs and increasing property value. We focus on the district scale because it’s a compelling size — small enough to innovate quickly but big enough for meaningful results.

EcoD: What drew you to working at the district scale? Why is this concept so enticing to you personally?

NC: Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities, so it’s the next scale (beyond buildings) that we have to tackle if we’re going to achieve the kind of ambitious city and regional sustainability goals adopted around the world. My background is in architecture, and I was drawn to architecture because the built environment provides an opportunity to create better places for people and nature. After working on buildings for a few years, I quickly realized that we could only accomplish so much within the walls of a structure. The next opportunity for the sustainability industry is neighborhoods because of the compelling scale.

Social networks enable change, buildings have the potential to share systems, and public spaces are ripe to create community and provide ecosystem services. I like the complexity of the neighborhood scale because we are challenged to consider a range of social, technical, financial and political issues that don’t come up at the building scale, but feel more manageable to address than at a citywide scale.

EcoD: If you could paint a picture of this nation’s cities in 20 years — how does the EcoDistrict fit in? What kind of progress and results do you hope to see over that time as a result of district scale innovation and development? Is there an end game or set of goals PoSI is working towards?

NC: EcoDistricts are a critical step towards eco cities. They aren’t an end in themselves but an important step on the path towards scaling up what works in urban sustainability innovation to address the myriad challenges faced by metropolitan areas. So many sustainability successes are still seen as boutique projects and not transferable. Our goal is not for every neighborhood to become its own independent EcoDistrict. Through EcoDistricts, we aim to innovate at the neighborhood scale to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then we hope to ultimately make a particular practice, whether it’s neighborhood governance or assessment or finance, become the new norm for how cities operate.

EcoD: What do you think is so compelling about Portland’s EcoDistrict model? Why are cities around the world turning to the Rose City for guidance in developing their own district scale projects?

NC: I think the thing that’s compelling about our work is that we’ve created a framework – a “how to” approach – for getting to sustainable neighborhoods. Every city is looking for this. And while we know what we’ve got now isn’t perfect, it’s the best of what’s out there and it captures lessons learned and case studies from sustainable neighborhood projects around the world. While many cities work in specific neighborhoods with ambitious sustainability goals, we’ve taken a broad approach by developing a transferable framework that we hope can be adopted by cities around the world. In addition, as we respond to inquiries about EcoDistricts, we find that cities are equally interested in our expertise as they are in our leadership in creating learning networks and a place to share lessons learned in creating sustainable neighborhoods.

Naomi Cole is the program manager for Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) and a featured speaker at the third annual 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, October 26-28 in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about PoSI and their EcoDistricts model at Find details on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit and register at


Mark LaLiberte: Better Buildings For A Brighter (And Greener) Tomorrow—Part I

March 3, 2011

The time is now. Or so says building science expert and green building advocate Mark LaLiberte. The time is now to construct better buildings—smarter buildings that are more efficient, less toxic and more durable than what we know now. Mark will keynote the 2011 EcoVative Conference and Expo on May 10. If you’re in the homebuilding industry, he’s someone you need to hear from. After a half an hour talking with him, we’re convinced that if you don’t leave the conversation motivated to be the best damn builder out there, something’s up. Part one of our interview series with Mark is a dive into industry opportunities, challenges and investing in efficiency for higher performance.

EcoVative: What have you seen change in the last five years in the home building industry in terms of techniques? Are there exciting, new trends transforming the landscape?
Mark LaLiberte: There’s a lot of really amazing things going on. I’ve been in the business for 28 years and been able to watch the discussion progress on building and building science. The amazing thing is the effect we’re starting to have on so many different market segments. We’re seeing consumers and builders look hard at what it means to build “better buildings.” The innovation and change are quite exciting.

We’re seeing things like more sophisticated blown-in insulations and foams; better product suites on the market; and innovative air-sealing techniques being adopted by all the major manufacturers. We’re seeing improvements in HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air and Cooling) equipment and those units are becoming smaller and more efficient; higher performing windows; lower VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints as well as carpeting and hard surfaces.

You can see a nice progression happening in terms of how the industry is transitioning after a really challenging time. I think there is a lot of opportunity in new techniques and practices that seem to be making a difference in our priorities—which have shifted from building as fast as we could to stopping and discovering what’s most important.

EV: Can you give us a status update on where the consumer demand v. technology balance stands? Who is in the lead? Is there more technology than consumers want? Is the technology struggling to keep up with demand? Or is it perhaps held back from hitting the mainstream market due to issues of scale or cost?
ML: The challenge ends up being creating demand for change. The technology is on par with where we should be—though we always hope that technology is working a bit further out and pulling us along into progress. Creating that demand for change is really something that’s only happened in the last year or so for the mainstream.

We’re seeing that consumers are interested in seeing what’s better and innovative. They have the power of Google and search engines at their fingertips to help them do a better job of learning and investigating. They want to know why they should leave their existing house, which is OK, but maybe not ideal. And it ends up being for things like innovations in lighting, the use of water and improvements in energy efficiency. I think people have a genuine interest in improving their footprint, but they don’t always know what that really means or how to go about doing it. We’ve seen a lot of studies that cite the finding that consumers want better performance out of their homes and a more advanced home in general—they just don’t know their options.

Unfortunately builders often times steer consumers in the wrong direction as well. They tell consumers that certain things are very expensive, when actually the end cost is not. For instance, we’re learning that improving the ventilation of a building simplifies the heating and cooling system—which lowers costs substantially. And if they’re educated about it, people are willing to make some minor trade offs to get a smaller footprint, with improved performance.

In looking at the general technology that most consumers are interested in, you find pretty high levels consumer demand for innovation and advancement. If you look at the new cars—the Fords and the Audis—they all have remarkably sophisticated technology built in. People are easily adapting to that and want the benefits it brings. Even our smartphones have gone over the top in what they can do for us. But our houses have been a little slow to adapt to integrating new available technology. Part of that has to do with educating our industry. The other part is making sure consumers understand that the cost differential is really quite reasonable and nothing to be afraid of. But both parties do have to be educated.

EV: What is the payoff for homebuilders and contractors learning about greener technology, sustainable techniques and practices by attending industry events like EcoVative? What’s in it for them?
ML: I expect the people I work with—whether it’s a doctor, dentist or car dealer—to invest in education that helps them progress in what they’re doing and be the very best they can be. Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People that everyone needs to continually sharpen their saw. And I think the sharpness of our own personal saw depends on making sure we’re paying attention and learning so that we don’t get left behind.

In this lull of building that’s happened in the last few years, it has actually allowed some builders to stay better up-to-speed with building science and trends. They’ve had time to read magazines like EcoHome that are covering some great changes and advancements. But industry events like EcoVative give direct, concentrated access to contacts, innovation, people who have the know-how to help you, and classes to teach you about the latest advancements and techniques. Every builder needs to attend events like this one. It shouldn’t just be home builders who need to attend these classes to keep their license. Builders and contractors should want to attend classes in order to be at the forefront of what they do. It’s the only way you’re going to be a leader and the best in your industry.

People that strive for excellence know that going to educational forums are the only way to do that. They’re the only place where you can get involved and engaged, learn and ask questions. The opportunity EcoVative presents is quite remarkable, because you’re bringing together the brightest minds in this certain segment for the benefit of any builder who recognizes the value in it. I think that should be all of them. The room should be packed with builders saying, “What do I need to learn and how do I help move sustainable building forward?”

EV: We know the Pacific Northwest is a bit farther along in terms of mainstream sustainable building. But is this a trend you’re seeing pickup speed nationally? Or is green building still stuck in small regional pockets?
ML: We do see a bit of differentiation of course. Market segmentation and climate segmentation do that. We’ve noticed that in colder climates, the adoption of better principles and techniques usually comes faster. And that’s mainly due to the cost of energy.

Now the Pacific Northwest is an area that’s notorious for having fairly low energy costs, but always maintaining a decent progression for improving performance. That’s a really interesting mix, but I think it’s because the people of the Pacific Northwest are generally educated, forward thinking and expectant of progress. That includes lowering energy costs.

There are also pockets of the country—California and parts of the Southwest where I live—where people are getting $500, $800, $1000 a month energy bills. And these people are starting to question that. It’s pretty absurd. They’re paying so much when it’s actually unnecessary. We can show from the experience of builders and homeowners how investing maybe $50 more a month in a mortgage payment in order to improve efficiency will yield $150 in savings on monthly energy bills. Who wouldn’t do that? You give me $50 and I’ll give you back $150? That’s an easy decision. It’s that simple and that straightforward.
The problem is that most consumers, to be honest, don’t know enough and aren’t being presented those options. I can’t imagine a builder in today’s market that wouldn’t want to tell a customer they could get them into a more efficient house and help them enroll in national and local programs to offset those upfront costs, considering how spectacular the returns are. Compare that to returns in the stock market or interest you earn from a bank. Why opt for 0.5% interest from a bank, when you can invest in your home and get 10% back? That’s not wishy-washy whatsoever. It’s just smart.

Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Mark LaLiberte! Mark is a world renowned speaker and building science expert. He will be the keynote speaker at the 2011 EcoVative Conference and Expo, May 10 at the Holiday Inn Portland South in Wilsonville. For more details on EcoVative and to register, please visit: Get updates and the latest news on the EcoVative Facebook Page:

Learn more about Mark LaLiberte on his website:

On Deck: EcoVative Conference is May 10, 2011

February 16, 2011

It’s officially event season—and our crew has another stellar sustainable experience for you to add to your calendars. EcoVative Conference and Expo, put on annually by the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, is the region’s premier event for Oregon and Southern Washington home builders, contractors, vendors and realtors to unite education and practice for green building techniques and technology.

EcoVative takes place May 10, 2011 at the Holiday Inn Portland South in Wilsonville. It offers a full-day track of awesome speakers, educational sessions and courses, many of which count as credit towards CCB Continuing Education. EcoVative also hosts a robust Expo, featuring the region’s best green building vendors and high-level networking opportunities.

If you’re in the business, we hope you’ll join us May 10 for EcoVative! Spread the word—and don’t forget that CCB credits are available for attendees! Visit the EcoVative Conference website for more information:

NEWS: US Congressman Earl Blumenauer To Speak At EcoDistricts Summit

October 7, 2010

We’ve received word that US Congressman Earl Blumenauer will give opening remarks on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at the EcoDistricts Summit. We’re very honored and excited to have him on board! Congressman Blumenauer is the perfect candidate to give opening remarks—being a career advocate for sustainability and instrumental in cultivating Portland’s development as a respected international player in the green building and sustainable planning sectors.

Portland Sustainability Institute‘s second annual EcoDistricts Summit, which takes place October 25-27 in Portland, Oregon, will bring together policy makers, educators and design, planning and development professionals for dialogue around the ground-breaking concept of integrated district-scale sustainability projects. Topics covered through a district-scale lens include: district utilities, green buildings, smart grid, transportation, urban habitat, water management, waste management and community development.

If you would like to learn more about the EcoDistricts Summit and/or register to attend, please visit:

You can also join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!