by Yetsuh Frank, Managing Director, Strategy & Programs Building Energy Exchange
Originally published in Building Energy Exchange Quarterly Report (Q2 2020) 

On March 10th BE-Ex held a joint program with ASHRAE New York in our Manhattan resource center. Although there were not yet specific directives available from the City or State regarding COVID-19 we were of course following the progress of the disease and had taken several precautions, including providing signage asking people to avoid shaking hands and to practice frequent and thorough hand washing. We reaffirmed these with announcements during the program and we eliminated the breakfast buffet we had planned. There were lots of elbow bumps, and not a few wry smiles that reflected our unease with the increasing awareness of the potential severity of this growing epidemic, but in large measure the program looked much like the several hundred programs we have held across our ten year history. Only three days later we had closed the resource center to public programs and vacated our office. I recall this as a reminder of how quickly things changed and how rapidly so many sectors of our economy pivoted to remote working. The disruption, of course, has been near total. The virus has ravaged the city we call home, and most every other community as well. The most fortunate among us, those that have not lost their loved ones or their jobs, have merely had their lives turned upside down. 

For our small part in this global drama we quickly committed to continuing to educate decision makers in our industry, but also to provide creative platforms for engaging our community. At a time when many of us were suffering from severe isolation and near constant stress we felt that providing a few bright moments to see and talk with others, albeit virtually, was the least we could do. We launched a live interview series, Radio BE-Ex, that offers a more focused and intimate way to learn about the work of one or two individuals at a time. The team working on WISE (our Women in Sustainability & Energy series) quickly offered several small format discussion style events that have been very engaging. Despite our reservations about the long-term viability of remote programming, the raw numbers, at least, have been encouraging. We have had consistently higher registration and attendance to our (remote) programs across the board, with a recent joint program with ASHRAE New York on HVAC systems and COVID-19 drawing an audience more than twice the size of any other program in our history. 

“We’ve got 21st century technology and speed colliding head-on with the 20th and 19th century institutions, rules and cultures.”

— Amory Lovins

If there are any silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of them might be that it has highlighted the degree to which we all rely on one another to create an actual community. The virus had made plain that no person is an island and apart from a few noisy outliers gleefully highlighted by our national media, most of us have simply knuckled down and done the things needed to slow the spread of this vicious disease. At our programs and on calls with our partners I sense a renewed feeling of togetherness–an animating force behind people’s voices that we are not just going to get through this but we are going to come out the other side better than before. 

“All is connected…no one thing can change by itself”

— Paul Hawken

COVID-19 is directly related to the global warming crisis. In both cases there is virtually nothing that one person can do on their own to halt what is a systemic disaster. In both cases we all need to act dramatically, together, to ensure a just and equitable future for both ourselves and everyone else. If I allow myself to feel optimistic in this moment it is because I see a renewed sense of communal purpose in myself and others. Surely this rising courage has played a role in the dramatic advancement of protests against racism and police brutality around the country. Our message of solidarity with those protests is on page 11, but I find myself incredibly excited, despite the loss we have all endured, by what this renewed sense of community means for all these interrelated issues of racial justice, environmental justice and human well being. To use a tired phrase, it genuinely feels like an inflection point. 

In our industry it has been heartening to see how readily people have embraced the idea that buildings can play a positive role in our re-emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the green building movement, in large measure, is responsible for this positive outlook because we have been framing buildings not as the cause of major problems but as their solutions. In fact, many of the measures recommended to mitigate the transmission of viral disease–increased fresh air, more filtration of that air, proper humidity, access to daylight, operable windows–are strategies our community has been advocating for decades. Energy might be the technical lever most often used to force change in this regard, but ultimately it is the impact on people that we are concerned with. At BE-Ex we don’t ask how to use the least amount of energy in buildings. Instead we ask how do we provide the best possible indoor environment for people while using the least energy. Our mission is to “accelerate the transition to healthy, comfortable and energy efficient buildings.” COVID-19 has been brutal, and it is not close to over yet, but it feels to me that it has hardened our resolve to realize that mission and advance so many other critical causes. 

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