Reflecting on sustainability

The late Maris Hearn opened her Thursday night Gumbo Shop on WJFF Radio with the salutation, “This is the music that inspires, delights and sustains me.” The curated content of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s (NESEA) Building Energy (BE) Conference, held annually in Boston, is the music of sustainable building that inspires, delights and sustains me. This year was no different, as the opening remarks and keynote address wove a theme of the imperative of using our building stock, both new construction and renovations, as a tool to draw down and capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Conference co-chair Michelle Apigian opened the BE19 with this admonition: “We now have one decade to right our ship—to help hold Mother Earth to less than a 1.5-degree C temperature rise.” Apigian went further, reminding us that “climate shocks lead to drought, flooding, fires and unpredictable seasons, all of which cause untold damage and suffering, and costs society enormous amounts of resources and dollars.” To help right our ship, she says that this has to be the decade of a sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the industrial revolution and the speed of the digital revolution. And, what was presented at BE19 shows us that we do indeed have the means, motive and the opportunity to bring this change NOW.

In the keynote, we heard from three young pioneers in the sustainable building world about how we can imagine, construct and occupy our built environment, so that our buildings become actual carbon sinks. These buildings will be able to drawdown carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. The building methods that keynote speakers Chris Magwood, Ace McArleton and Jacob Racusin passionately shared with us are data driven realities.

McArleton opened by stating that making carbon-storing buildings is the most important action that the building industry can take to address climate change right now.

Magwood dove deeper, relating the human pursuit of a fossil-fuel economy to the climate crisis we now face at the expense of all other impacts including human health, mass extinction, loss of biodiversity, climate change, racism, classism and sexism.

Racusin said that we must dramatically reduce the amount of carbon being emitted from our buildings. We can’t continue to create a built environment with a business-as-usual mentality. We need to look at how we connect our work to other trades and issues, such as sustainable forestry, agriculture and social and climate justice.

To begin to understand how our buildings are complicit in the climate crisis that our world now faces, we have to rethink the relationship of the operational energy of our built environment to the embodied energy in the very materials that we build with. We have to start from the beginning, because that is where the initial carbon release begins.

We have to change our relationship to how we build, why we build and what we build with.

We have to rethink the materials that we build with, and make a huge transition from using fossil-fuel based materials like foam insulation to biomass-based insulation materials like cellulosic insulation that actually stores the carbon dioxide taken up by the plant during its growth. We have to shift from relying on materials that require large energy inputs to produce, like steel and fiberglass, and return to forest-based products to construct our buildings. Wood products such as cross-laminated timbers, whole tree lumber and sawn lumber not only use less energy to produce, they also store carbon and provide healthier, safer buildings.

This change, though, is not easy. Decades of institutional training of architects, engineers and builders needs to advance, as Apigian suggests, with the speed of the digital revolution. Building codes must evolve enmasse, taking a large leap forward to codifying the protocols of the Living Building Challenge ( as the new standard by which we construct our built environment. The traditional code process of building product manufactures lobbying the code council is no longer relevant, because this process does not consider the social and environmental justice issues that our business-as-usual thinking refuses to see. No longer is the philosophy of incremental change acceptable. It is time for all hands on deck.

To learn more about NESEA, and to hear the recording of the keynote, visit

To dive deeper into McArleton, Racusin and Magwood’s work, see Vol. 37 NO 2, Fall 2018 of Building Energy Magazine.


Stephen Stuart has engaged in the study and practice of sustainable building since 2000. Though the NESEA community has been the most consistent teacher for Stuart, his closing reflection on BE19 is solely his and should not be construed as that of NESEA.


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