Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh skyline. Photo by TH Carlisle.

Pittsburgh’s buildings are not only getting more energy- and cost-efficient, they’re also getting healthier, which benefits us all.

Since it launched in 2012, the Pittsburgh 2030 District has aimed “to commit commercial buildings in the central economic centers to 50% reductions in energy, water use and transportation emissions by the year 2030, while improving indoor air quality,” explains Paige Colao, Pittsburgh 2030 District program developer for the Green Building Alliance.

In that time, the Pittsburgh 2030 District has saved more than $154 million in reduced energy, water and transportation usage, and avoided 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

The largest of 22 designations around the world, the Pittsburgh 2030 District includes more than 86 million square feet of space across 556 buildings, mostly in Downtown, Oakland and the North Shore.

For the second year in a row, the District has surpassed its benchmark goals for 2020 in the areas of energy and transportation and is on track to meet water use reduction goals.

Not only does this reach environmental goals like reduced carbon emissions, but it also saves building owners money.

“This year the District reduced their energy use by 23.1% below the baseline,” says Colao. “Which means they saved $34 million dollars, just in energy reduction alone.”

Energy usage for Pittsburgh 2030 District, courtesy of the Green Building Alliance.

It’s an entirely voluntary effort, but one that Pittsburgh building owners are taking seriously.

“They make a good faith effort to share with us their individual building data, specifically their energy use and water use as well as transportation and indoor air quality information,” says Colao. “We compile that, and every year we sit down with them and provide a performance report of their buildings, and how each one of their buildings is doing towards reaching those 50% (reduction) goals.”

Some of those energy reductions can be done simply by upgrading the lighting in a building.

“Especially in older buildings, if they still have incandescent bulls, those are very inefficient,” says Colao. “With the advancements in lighting, especially LED lighting, the amount of energy it takes to light up the same building is so much less. That’s a pretty quick payback. We’ve had people talk about LED retrofits of their buildings that paid themselves back in under two years.”

Last year, Pittsburgh International Airport became the first airport in the world to commit to 2030 District goals. The city of Pittsburgh has also embraced the goals.

“The Pittsburgh 2030 District has helped city government leverage the power of energy benchmarking, catalyzing the creation of the Pittsburgh Energy Benchmarking and Disclosure Ordinance and framing the development of the city’s Climate Action Plan 3.0,” says Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh.

In terms of water use reduction, 2030 District buildings were 19.8% below the baseline in 2019, avoiding using 274 million gallons of water, or almost 16 million showers.

When it comes to water use, toilets are, of course, important.

“Older toilets have a pretty high gallons-per-flush rating,” says Colao. “Certain buildings have installed very low-flow toilets that have really decreased overall water use.”

Pittsburgh is also the first 2030 District to add air quality as a metric.

“People, on average — especially Americans — spend 90 percent of their time indoors,” says Colao. “Whenever you have a building with poor air quality, it directly impacts the health of the occupants.”

“There’s something called ‘sick building syndrome’ — if you have certain levels of CO2 in the space, occupants may start to feel tired, they have worse cognitive performance, and they can also get headaches.”

Indoor air quality is not easy to track without a complicated and expensive array of monitors. That wasn’t really feasible here.

“We decided to create a survey open to any building owner that builds upon best practices in different rating systems, like LEED and RESET,” says Colao. “I tried to prioritize the questions that came up most frequently, and created a survey that can go out to partners and they can determine which individual building practices they do, and how that affects their air quality.”

There are some very easy things to do to improve air quality. Changing a building’s air filters every six months is one. Another is even simpler.

“One of the first things I’d suggest to do is install walk-off mats at entrances, loading docks,” says Colao. “That typical black Cintas long skinny mat. Whenever you’re walking outside, you’re picking up dirt, other debris — if you have these walk-off mats in place at all of these entrances and loading docks when occupants come in, most of that dirt is captured into the mat itself instead of being kicked up into the air.”

Poor air ventilation in buildings can also increase the chance of virus transmission.

“Obviously, the world is undergoing the COVID-19 pandemic — and air quality, specifically ventilation, can do a lot to try to stem the transmission of viruses through buildings,” says Colao. “Taking this from resources like the CDC, they’re suggesting to increase levels of outdoor air infiltration into buildings to try to prevent the virus from passing around.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.