Alan Miller is departing IMT’s board of directors after more than 20 years of service. We interviewed him on what has changed for IMT and for buildings more broadly during his tenure.
How has the building sector changed during your time on IMT’s board?
The building agenda has evolved over the past two decades, from a narrow focus on urban building energy efficiency to the many linkages between buildings, climate change, and increasingly issues of fairness, equity, and diversity. Some of the solutions remain much the same but others have required new strategies, especially a wider range of partnerships with groups working on the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion agenda as well as the private sector.
Looking back at the 1970s when appliance efficiency standards and energy codes were being passed, there was a fairly narrow understanding of the benefits, expressed primarily in cost savings. At IMT and in other places, there was an understanding that markets were themselves not working to produce efficient buildings and that government policy solutions were required.. However, it was a bit isolated from other environmental or social issues. Our early partners were other NGOs and technical experts like Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
What I’ve seen over time is recognition that efficient buildings are important for so many other reasons. Buildings easily represent a third or more of fossil fuel emissions causing climate change. More than a decade ago IMT’s co-founder, and my former colleague, David Goldstein, proposed energy costs and location efficiency should be included as factors in mortgage lending. At the time much of the focus was on policy solutions implemented through government agencies like Fannie Mae. As announcements in Glasgow indicate, the multi-trillion dollar community of pension funds and other long-term asset managers is now seeing their self-interest is to recognize the significance of these costs and reflect them in their investments.
Efficiency is also related to equity in terms of energy burden and the quality and total costs of housing, particularly for populations with lower incomes. There’s also a much greater understanding of how buildings play a role in communities more broadly in terms of social and economic development, access to transportation, etc.
IMT’s board has evolved from technical and policy experts with government or experience to include people with a much broader range of perspectives, including those in affordable housing and using new technologies. We also have increasingly focused on domestic activities, rather than international ones. IMT’s work collaborating directly with cities through the City Energy Project and the Bloomberg American Climate Challenge demonstrated how important it is to have local knowledge and experience with efficiency issues. Overall, this represented a change from a more analytical focus to a more applied practice, which provided tremendous learning opportunities to IMT about how to better advance efficiency in buildings and why it matters.
The evolution from analytical to applied work also led to more partnerships with private companies, and to new kinds of board members, which reflected a more collaborative approach. These partnerships are now essential to what IMT does. COP26 was a good example of how governments often move slower than the private sector. Some of the most exciting commitments announced in Glasgow were from companies putting money into financing renewables and other essential climate measures. And there’s also an important role for community and civic groups that are willing to engage with both government and business on energy, housing, and other issues.
What do you think is the future of buildings and IMT’s role in shaping that?
More change is inevitable. It comes from multiple directions. There are cultural shifts, like accepting smaller homes. There are also more ambitious visions for building that go from net zero to net positive, storing carbon or removing it from the air. I also see a greater focus on technological innovation, especially with respect to air conditioning (of increasing relevance in a hotter world) and perhaps a return to thinking more globally. We are far from seeing the end of where this goes.
The trend toward considering energy efficiency as part of a broader picture will also continue. By coincidence, my daughter has been working locally on eviction issues, and that has helped me understand that housing will continue to be critical in urban areas and that nonprofits need to be mindful of that. There’s this notion that zero energy buildings and heat pumps and efficiency are products for the wealthy. That’s not true. IMT’s newest board members are really at the vanguard of new solutions that make efficiency more universal. I think there are very few groups, if any, as focused on that as IMT.
I also think that resiliency is an increasingly important issue. We have seen how traditional governmental approaches to flood insurance and supporting construction in waterfront locations have proven costly and often favor inequity. That needs to be called out, and reformed so that policies are more effective and more inclusive. Additionally, it’s impossible to separate buildings from their locations, so resiliency is no longer just about having an efficient building or a building with a generator or a grid connection, but about climate-appropriate siting and construction. A net zero building in a flood zone is a poor investment, no matter how energy efficient!
IMT’s role will be to help find ways to highlight these issues and potential solutions. IMT has always been able to identify what works, by working across government and philanthropy and business, and increasingly now with a focus on community. That’s going to continue to be critical. The methods may change—more digital strategies, more Zoom meetings—but fundamentally its about IMT continuing to find ways to connect with the core constituencies that create, maintain, and influence our buildings, whatever format that takes.