Center For Green Building: Promoting Healthy Buildings and Healthy Communities

On this episode of EJBTalks, Stuart Shapiro welcomes Jennifer Senick, Executive Director of the Rutgers Center for Green Building. Jennifer discusses many aspects of green buildings from the design of the physical space to all of the components of its total operation. The two delve into topics from the New Jersey Zero Energy roadmap and the center’s integral work with the New England Energy Efficiency Partnership, to what zero net emissions would look like in buildings, and how public policy could work in favor of more green and better building practices. Jennifer also discusses her fieldwork, mostly concentrating on low-to-moderate income (LMI) and environmental justice communities where we see the most critical need for green building, affordable housing, and community health. Tune in for this and more!

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Interim Dean of the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues and our alumni in the fields of policy, planning, and health are doing to make the world, the country, and New Jersey a better place.

Today, we welcome Jennifer Senick, the Executive Director of Rutgers Center for Green Building to the podcast. Continuing our season-long theme of highlighting the Bloustein Schools’ many research centers. Welcome, Jen.

Jennifer Senick
Thanks, Stuart, I’m really happy to be here. What a great opportunity to share a little bit about the Center for Green Building.

Stuart Shapiro
All right, well, that’s for people who think green buildings or buildings that are painted green, maybe we can start with a description of what the Center for Green Building is, and what its goals are.

Jennifer Senick
You got it. So, the goal of the Rutgers Center for Green Building is to promote green building! Big surprise there… and healthy communities. We do this through research, education, and training and lots and lots of partnerships with industry, government, and also nonprofit organizations. We’re housed at the Bloustein School, although the center forms a common umbrella across the university (so lots of disciplines) for faculty, staff, and students interested in applied topics of green building. And you didn’t ask, but this is the favorite part of my job. I really like the opportunity to cohere a multidisciplinary team of researchers, I feel like I learn something new and meet somebody new almost every week.

Stuart Shapiro
So what is green building though, for people who haven’t heard the idea before?

Jennifer Senick
Yeah. Well, pursuant to your introduction, it’s not the buildings in the Teletubbies. ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing)) Also blue buildings and pink buildings!

Jennifer Senick
Or places from a Woody Allen film, although I’ve shown those slides sometimes at various presentations, just to get a laugh out of the audience. I think, you know, just some sort of quick facts in the US. Buildings are responsible for 40 of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings also accounted for 12% of total water consumed in the US.

And as people spend more than 90% of their time indoors in the US, at least, how buildings impact health, productivity, and satisfaction is another important area of green building research. So really, when we sort of talk about the design and operations of green buildings, what we’re trying to do is to mitigate net negative environmental impacts, and to provide benefits to building occupants that go beyond the basics, like shelter.

Stuart Shapiro
Gotcha.

Jennifer Senick
I guess I just add, there’s also solid evidence that green buildings are more valuable in terms of resale or lease-up, they tend to be better constructed, in addition to having these benefits in environmental and sort of human-friendly performance.

Stuart Shapiro
So you talk, obviously, about energy consumption, that’s one way building can be green. Are there broader environmental concerns that you guys look at?

Jennifer Senick
Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’ll look at water usage. We’re more focused on energy usage than water, but we’ll also look at water. And we, we certainly study a lot of topics related to indoor air quality. So that sort of health linkage of buildings, which I think until recently, people didn’t think a lot about.

Stuart Shapiro
I want to hit a couple of those topics because I think they’re all really interesting. Let’s talk about the energy component first, since it is kind of the big one, the big animal there. Can you talk a little bit about the New Jersey Zero Energy roadmap and the connection to what you guys are doing?

Jennifer Senick
Absolutely. I think I’d like to just preface this work by stating my opinion, that the climate crisis demands a transition to sustainable energy and sort of referring to what’s in the news these days, so do war’s over fossil fuels.

Stuart Shapiro
Absolutely.

Jennifer Senick
So the New Jersey Zero Energy Roadmap is a collection of strategies and pathways for New Jersey to realize net-zero energy buildings; that is buildings that do not use more energy than they can produce and which produce zero emissions. The New Jersey Zero Energy Roadmap is a product of something we call an Energy Codes Collaborative. In this case, run jointly by the Rutgers Center for Green Building, and an organization called the New England Energy Efficiency Partnership which among other things, specializes in running these collaboratives in multiple states in the US. Basically what an energy code collaborative does is to translate the research of best practices and inputs from stakeholders into policy recommendations.

You know a little bit more about… Well, so what is the Center for Green Building do here? Well, our effort on this initiative and a related one also on building electrification leads us to take on tasks like developing estimates of New Jersey’s existing building stock. So we understand, what we should be modeling in New Jersey, right? Each jurisdiction in the US or each state is going to have a different building stock. We do a lot of energy modeling, which means we’re sort of simulating different possibilities in buildings. What if we take a building that has a gas boiler, but we want to put a heat pump into it? What does that look like? How does the building perform? How much does it cost to do that? Does it payback for the building owner to do that? We also track a lot of like building codes and related legislative initiatives around the US, which is really kind of fascinating these days. And I sometimes say one of the ways in which the climate wars are playing out, although I, you know, I don’t mean that as an antagonistic statement.

Stuart Shapiro
So you mentioned boilers and heat pumps. What other ways do buildings get to zero net emissions? What are the design features in buildings that need them to be zero net emissions? And how do we, and maybe building codes are the way we get there, how do we get buildings to look like that?

Jennifer Senick
Yeah, sure. Good questions, right. So sort of beyond mechanicals, like heat pumps, I guess, one could sort of channel an inner realtor and say location, location, location. So that matters, particularly the orientation of a building for passive solar gain. We can also try to design buildings for active solar gain using photovoltaics right on rooftops, or ground mounts, depending on what the land looks like. Again, that kind of comes down to orientation and location. Because if a building is overshadowed, you know, say like in New York City, where you have a lot of buildings very close together, maybe that’s not the best strategy.

There are other so-called class one renewable sources we could rely on. However, if solar doesn’t work, people might have heard of geothermal energy. So sort of tapping the natural heat of a constant temperature of the Earth, that’s at a different level, depending on where you are in the US. Certainly, the building envelope is really important. Right? So part of energy efficiencies, making sure that the building envelope is not leaky, right, that you’re not heating your house just to heat the outdoors or cooling your house or office building to cool the outdoors.

Stuart Shapiro
So you mean when you say building envelope, you mean sort of what the outside of the building is? How it’s constructed?

Jennifer Senick
The walls, the windows, the ceiling, between the windows, Insulation.

Stuart Shapiro
Gotcha.

Jennifer Senick
A big part of the story here. Yep. So that’s called a building envelope?

Stuart Shapiro
And how do we get buildings to look like that? What do you know, I’m always interested in the policy angle here, of course, but what can we do to get more buildings to be great?

Jennifer Senick
Yeah, yeah. You know, so thinking about the policy angle, there’s sort of the whole kind of basket of policy tools we can use. One as you mentioned a few minutes ago is building codes. And that’s a great approach because it’s a broad regulatory tool that then dictates both new construction and to a certain extent, remodels depending on what is sort of triggered in what one’s doing to an existing building. So that’s sort of one way to go. But it’s not always kind of the first regulatory tool that’s employed when we’re trying something new. Because like anything else, it’s a political process to get there.

So sometimes, the way we start with a new green building strategy, or really any green building strategy that hasn’t been broadly adopted yet is to incentivize it. And that happens at federal and state and even more local levels. At the federal level, sometimes we see this through tax credits investment tax credits. At the state level. For example, here in New Jersey, we have the clean energy program administered by the state and by the utilities. That in fact does provide incentives for example, for switching to more efficient mechanical systems or for installation measures in your envelope.

There are other regulatory approaches like building performance standards. New York City has adopted this approach, among others, where building owners become required within a certain timeframe to upgrade their building. You can do things legislatively, that seems to be happening in some jurisdictions in the US when building code routes are failing. And where you have legislatures that really want to promote reducing greenhouse gas emissions or have signed up to meet certain targets, and so they may need to go beyond what the codes are doing it at any point in time. And then there’s a host of guidelines and voluntary approaches, things like green building guidelines, most people have heard of LEED or Energy Star certification. So you know, you kind of have a lot of different arrows in your quiver, and what’s appropriate at what time kind of depends on what adoption rates may look like, in a jurisdiction and also a course on what executive orders or legislation have been passed, that may require reaching certain targets.

Stuart Shapiro
Gotcha. That’s a great summary. Let’s turn to indoor air quality. I’ve always been fascinated by that ever since I used to work in this area, you used to see charts that it was one of those problems that experts worried about and the public cared almost not at all about.

Jennifer Senick
Yup.

Stuart Shapiro
And I’m wondering, except from your initial reaction, I can see that is still the case. What can we do to change that? And why is that the case?

Jennifer Senick
Yeah, well, actually, my yup is a double-sided comment there. Because I think that the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic actually has done plenty to draw attention to indoor air quality. And so, in spite of years of attempts of people like me to get people to care about indoor air quality, and understand its relationship to health and to the environment, the pandemic has done that in a very short timeframe.

Stuart Shapiro
Because people have to worry about what they’re breathing all day when they’re home.

Jennifer Senick
People have to worry about their breathing at home, at the office, in the theater in the supermarket.

Stuart Shapiro
Gotcha.

Jennifer Senick
And so technical things like how air volume and air exchange rates and air filtration influence the probability that we get sick that we pick up germs that naturally circulate in indoor environments are now almost household discussions. And, you know, never sort of thought that would happen, you know, beyond, as you say, sort of a community of experts. And you mentioned sort of your prior experience in seeing charts, and I’m not sure what that experience was, but you’re probably then aware that indoor air quality is barely regulated by building code or anything else. And so, instead, we have national air quality standards for outdoor air.

But the thing about outdoor air is, first of all, it becomes indoor air, through infiltration through that building envelope we talked about unless it’s really like completely tight, and that’s unusual. And then additionally, our, our behavior in buildings and the materials that we have in buildings contribute to indoor air quality. And so things like combustible appliances that use fossil fuels for space heating and cooling for hot water heating and for cooking, deteriorate indoor air quality.

Cooking especially has been in the news, you see this now, if not from page four of the New York Times. And I think I’ve seen front-page articles on the Washington Post that are talking about very explicit linkages between cooking with gas using a gas stove, and the high levels of indoor pollutants this generates that actually exceed National Air standards.

Stuart Shapiro
Fascinating. Now, I know you’ve also been connecting your work with community participation. Can you talk a little bit about that we’ve had a number of guests talk about involving communities in questions like this?

Jennifer Senick
Sure thing. I mean, I wouldn’t be much of an urban planner, if I didn’t right?

Stuart Shapiro
Uh-huh.

Jennifer Senick
So we situate much of our field research in LMI, low and moderate-income, and also environmental justice, so-called communities. And the reason we do that, and we do that, chiefly through a lot of our federal grants from the likes of the National Science Foundation, or HUD is because we want to sort of bring the research and the funds to the places that are least likely to otherwise see these improvements. That’s another sort of public policy tenant. The money tends to go where it’s least needed. So we sort of tried to swim upstream on that one. Illustratively, we’ve been working a lot with the Housing Authority City of Elizabeth for about five years now, and their multifamily buildings comprise their portfolio of public housing. And our work is really situated at the intersection of green building affordable housing and health, although the projects vary.

For example, with funding from the National Science Foundation, again, HUD, and charitable funding from Valley National Bank, who’s really been great all these years supporting our work, we’ve co-created a series of what we call community-based air quality interventions. And they’re called Community Based because they’re co-created with the community to work, you know, sort of culturally and contextually, and also because anything that we sort of develop with the community has to be sustained by that community.

So as an example, for several years now, we’ve worked with both youth and seniors at development of the housing authority to raise US EPA, color-coded flags, it’s called the Air Now Flag Program. And it’s tied to US EPAs Air Quality Index. This is the national index, where they have an app called Air now, that tells you what’s the air quality in my community. And it tells you by giving you a number, which may or may not be meaningful to most people, but also giving you a color. And they’ve promoted this color scheme long enough now that people understand green means the air quality is good, and yellow means it’s okay-ish. But if I’m a person with bad asthma, maybe I should be cautious about going out same with orange, and purple. And red means, you know, now is sort of not a time to go out and play soccer, because their quality is really quite poor.

So we’ve developed these air quality ambassadors with youth who live in properties, owned and managed by the housing authority of Elizabeth, they raise the flags up, they see you know, what’s going on with air quality, and they change the flags throughout the day. And then they explain to family members and friends and anybody who asks, what does that mean? And what should they do? Is this a good time to open my windows or close my windows? Is this a good time to, you know, walk to the library or not? So it’s a good time to run my air purifier if I have one or run my window airbox and use that fan as filtration.

So you know, lots more, we’ve been running a youth STEM summer camp there for five years now. So we always have all really kind of cool hands-on projects, but the flag program one of them and you know the kids really love it. They gather around me they raise their hand and they say, Miss Jennifer, can I be the one to put the flag up today.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s wonderful. So we have a couple of minutes left, and I want to give them to you to sort of talk about whatever you want about what the RCGB is doing. Things you want to highlight for our audience.

Jennifer Senick
Oh, boy. Hmm, tough choice. I think I’ll just briefly highlight one of many current projects that we’re conducting now for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. I probably should have mentioned earlier, that we are clean energy evaluators, for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. We’ve been at the Center for Green Building in this role for six years, and prior to that for about a decade, ex-colleague at Bloustein Frank Felder had that role through another research center. So Bloustein has really played a very integral role in the evaluation of market research in supportive New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program. The project had mentioned briefly as a solar market potential study. So we’re in the process of updating the Solar Technical and market potential in New Jersey. So that’s a lot of fun. And beyond looking at it… I think it’s fun ((laughing)), you know, rooftops and….

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing)) I’m sure it is.

Jennifer Senick
We’re also looking at landfill sites and tailing sites from old mining operations. We’re looking at newer operations like floating solar and Agra voltaic, that’s when you put ground-mounted solar installations on agricultural land and continue to farm it. Figuring out you know, what’s the right spacing to get a tractor through or which plants like having some of the shading of the panels and so forth and so on. We do a lot of big data work with that kind of project. It gives us an opportunity to work with some of our public informatics folks, which is also a lot of fun.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the New Jersey Green Building Manual, which is one of our older but also recently updated products. And so for the state of New Jersey, we developed and maintain and periodically update a web-based resource of green building best practices with case studies from New Jersey. One of the things we learned early on in this gig was that would be green builders didn’t want to hear about examples from California. They said, well, we want to know what works here in New Jersey, we want to see the pro forma meaning how does it work financially in New Jersey, we wanted to sort of understand what strategies work in New Jersey.

So we have this web-based resource, and in 2019, we updated it to more explicitly include a resiliency lens, I guess you can’t see my air quotes… with an overall focus on green building strategies that jointly benefit energy efficiency and resiliency. And this website receives a fair amount of traffic from practitioners, and also sorts of organizations that are interested in contributing a resource or some kind of case study. I guess for our listeners, I’ll just say you can go to greenmanual.rutgers.edu. Check it out. And you’ll find there’s a form you could send us a comment.

Stuart Shapiro
Fantastic. Thanks so much, Jen. That’s a wide variety of activities, and I learned a lot about green buildings. And I didn’t really think they were just buildings painted green when we started but I know a lot more now than I did 20 minutes ago. So thank you for coming on.

Jennifer Senick
Oh, thanks Stu, been a lot of fun.

Stuart Shapiro
Also, a big thanks to our production team, Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen. We’ll see you next week with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.