Of the many lists that Pittsburgh tops, one that is under the radar is this: #1 among 2030 District Cities.

That means in comparison to New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver—a total of 12 cities nationwide plus Toronto—Pittsburgh is tops in achieving aggressive energy reduction goals in building performance. That’s a big win since buildings are so resource-intensive.

Pittsburgh 2030 District is a voluntary program that includes 438 commercial buildings in Downtown and Oakland all with goals to reduce energy costs, water use and transportation emissions by 50% below baseline in 2030. That means it’s not the building against itself but rather, the national average by use type.

A project of the Green Building Alliance, the program is driven by Anna Siefken, a self-professed “total energy nerd” who is vice president of strategic engagement and the Pittsburgh 2030 District director. She will smoothly launch into a discussion of boilers and steam rooms and then stop, look at you archly, and say, “I know. Sexy, right?”

You get the appeal.

Why does it matter?We see it as a business driver and economic driver,” says Siefken, who can’t step foot inside a building without assessing its conditions. On this day, meeting for coffee in the lobby of the Omni William Penn, she confesses that it’s hard for her to be there. She examines the massive chandeliers and the dozens of old-style bulbs on each and then wonders what it takes to heat the central lobby with its soaring ceilings and old facilities.

Already she is wondering who to call on the property to discuss energy and cost savings. “It’s always a matter of finding the right person,” she says. That could be a facility manager in some buildings or a general manager in others. It takes some digging.

And on it goes.

Since late 2012 when the program started, she and her small staff—that’s three full-timers—have met with and recruited building folks to join the 2030 District initiative.

It’s not a tough sell. High-performance buildings are known to increase business and property profitability, enhance real estate values, improve occupant health and reduce environmental impact.

Lots of corporations look at cities for opportunities, Siefken says. “We encourage building owners to retrofit and improve buildings to drive down the expense of operating a building so it becomes a surplus. Suddenly you have funds that weren’t available before. And you’re feeling awesome about Pittsburgh.”

Sexy, right?

You bet. If Pittsburgh is making the march toward becoming a green city—and consider P4 and the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative—then yes, initiatives like these go a long way.

The collaboration citywide fuels the progress. “These are cutting-edge cities we’re competing against,” notes Siefken. “We have more square feet committed to the program than any other city—68 million—signed up. We have 25% more buildings—438 buildings. We’re also the first city to report out and exceed all the 10% milestone goals.”

The Pittsburgh 2030 District has made significant improvements across the board to achieve their number one standing. “For energy, we’re at 12.5% reduction; for water we’re at 10.3; for transportation, we’re beyond our 2020 goal,” she rattles off.

Anna Siefken presenting the 2105 Progress Report at a GBA event.
Anna Siefken presenting the 2105 Progress Report at a GBA event.

What is the Pittsburgh District doing that perhaps others aren’t? They’re finding the unsung heroes among us, for one.

“We shine a light on facility managers who are doing really innovative things that no one thought about,” says Siefken. “Suddenly they’re an operational asset. They provide info and knowledge and we cascade that knowledge to other cities. We speak to a lot of cities.” (The 2015 progress report lists 32 educational events and presentations. They track everything.)

It’s all about data

Siefken and her team take the individual data provided by the commercial properties and record the amount of energy used via an online platform—Energy Star Portfolio Manager—that is universally accepted. She and her team can then identify anomalies. “That’s when we’ve identified gas leaks, or windows that have been open for months,” she says. And that’s when they can suggest a good lighting retrofit, for example, which results in impressive cost savings.

Meanwhile, all that data goes into a massive spreadsheet which she compiles, giving them valuable, aggregated performance info about how the Pittsburgh 2030 District is doing overall.

“We’ve been the largest district for more than a year,” she points out. We started with 100 some buildings downtown and we’re now at 438. We keep driving forward.”

One building is almost to 70% reduction, she notes. “Six buildings have passed 40% so they’re at their 2035 goals.”

Another notable achievement? “We’ve built a whole economy around assessments,” she says.

“We’re doing a lot of work with parking garages—really sexy stuff here,” she says dryly, “and we achieved a lighting savings of 60% on the  energy bill of one garage in one year.  

“The URA did all five of their parking garages,” says Siefken, acknowledging David Thomas, asset manager.

“It was a team effort on the part of the GBA, the Mayor’s office and the URA to: 1) identify the opportunities for energy saving and 2) the URA board’s commitment to spend money ahead of time to save it later,” says David Thomas who notes that it pays for itself within four years.

“It has lasting benefits not only to the garages but to the businesses and the public who use the garages at SouthSide Works and Pittsburgh Technology City.” How do users benefit? “The garages are brighter and it saves us money which is passed to them through smaller rates over time,” he says.

“We have projects like this all over the city,” says Siefken.

“Take elevator retrofit—again, really sexy. Big old engines in the Steel Tower idle waiting for people to come. They’re creating (wasted) heat. They have since installed smart elevators which turn off when not in use and they have actually learned the habits of people who will crowd the elevators at 5:15.

She notes the time Duquesne Light team walked into a local and small, family-owned restaurant and offered to replace 79 light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs free of charge.

It all adds up.

Since it takes 80 years to recoup the energy costs of building new, their focus is on existing buildings.

“We want to really be thinking about how to use our existing housing stock and how to make them as sustainable as possible,” she says. “We are looking for more buildings.”

Got a building? Contact her here.

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.