What’s Our Problem?

John Gilbert of Rudin Management and Thomas Sahagian, formerly of Enterprise Community Partners, went to the mat last week at the New York League of Conservation Voters’ 80×50 forum on buildings.

BE-Ex’s very own Executive Director, Richard Yancey, moderated a fascinating panel exploring ways we can radically improve efficiency in NYC’s building stock quickly enough to meet New York City’s goal of 80% reduction by 2050. One of the most interesting moments of the event was the surfacing of an ongoing debate in the building industry: Do we have a technology problem or is it something else (think education, implementation, priorities)?

This debate is not new; technocrats and non-technocrats have been going at it for years. In this author’s opinion we will likely need both technology and behavioral change to solve our problems. However, this conversation remains interesting because with limited monetary and human resources, it is clear that the side that makes a more compelling case will win a larger share of those resources.

Sahagian came down strongly that technology cannot solve all our problems. There are age-old, easy and cheap ways to save energy in buildings, such as air sealing and weather-stripping, that we have not managed to implement at a large-scale. We need to figure out how to get the most basic things done before imagining that technology will save the day.

Gilbert, on the other hand, explained that Rudin Management has achieved 20% energy savings in their base buildings by developing new hardware and software. Specifically, Rudin has developed a technology that optimizes energy use based on occupancy, in real time. Furthermore, this software and the results it produced has allowed them to make a compelling case to their tenants to do the same. It’s hard to argue with results!

As the debate continued, John Lee, from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, stepped back and reminded us that the core problem is that the world economy is built on fossil fuels. We are in a crucial moment in history. We are trying to change the commodity that runs our economy without knowing exactly what will come next. And that is bigger than the debate between technology and behavior!