On Dec. 13, Charlotte Matthews departed IMT’s board of directors after more than 10 years of service. We interviewed her on what has changed for IMT and for buildings more broadly during her tenure.
How have the building sector and IMT changed over the last decade?
Ten years ago, the focus at IMT and in the building sustainability world largely was on efficiency. Now the conversation is about energy transformation.
For example, 10 years ago, “co-gen”—the simultaneous generation of electricity and heat for heating hot water and conditioning spaces—was a broadly promoted sustainability strategy for buildings. Because the electricity supplied through New York City’s power grid has a larger carbon footprint than natural gas, strategies like cogen that allow buildings to substitute natural gas for grid power, save a lot of carbon in my hometown city.
Now a decade later, the New York City power grid is still just as carbon intensive, but sustainability leaders are promoting all-electric buildings and championing the elimination of natural gas connections for new construction, even for cogen. The strategy has changed from saving marginal amounts of carbon today, to investing in the transformational infrastructure that will support a truly low carbon tomorrow. A future with all-electric buildings served by renewable and low carbon electricity through the grid. The new strategy makes a lot of sense considering the long time horizon of building and infrastructure upgrades.
Another major evolution in the space is equity, and the recognition that the building policies IMT was helping cities develop, pass and execute were not addressing many communities’ most pressing needs. I remember conversations with Lotte—even before she was IMT’s Executive Director—about how self-reverential and out of touch “sustainability” was feeling to us. Those conversations mark the beginning of Lotte overhauling IMT’s strategy to put equity at the center of every policy and program design conversation. The race equity retreat in Montgomery, Alabama that IMT staff and board members attended in August, 2019 was an inflection point for my own understanding and desire to learn about the history and legacy of racism in our country. I am so grateful to Lotte, her team at IMT and my fellow board members for steering a course for sustainability to become relevant and representative.
What is the future of buildings and what do you see as IMT’s role there?
In order to achieve the low carbon future we seek, we need to make building electrification affordable for all residents and reduce the cost premium of electricity over gas, which is on average four times greater! I am pleased that IMT is engaging with utility regulators and community stakeholders to help figure this out.
We also need building performance assessment methodologies to evolve. Tracking and reporting energy consumption on a monthly basis does not distinguish buildings that shift load to reduce their peak demand and maximize use of solar and wind power, which is only available at certain times of day. Nor do current methodologies of tracking occupancy really show if a building is turning down as occupants leave. In another 10 years, I’d like ENERGY STAR scores to be assessed by a building’s CO2e/person/hour, with occupancy and energy metered hourly, and married with an hourly carbon intensity for the power grid. IMT is fortunately involved in an effort to test such an idea.
So, all in all, I’d say IMT’s role is to be exactly where it is: on the leading edge of new building performance thinking, and on the ground, working with stakeholders to craft and implement building performance policies and programs that serve the needs of the many, not just the few.