March 31, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

U.S. Green Building Council-LA Leadership: Ben Stapleton and Sara Neff

In January, Ben Stapleton was named new Executive Director of the U.S. Green Building Council's Los Angeles chapter. Stapleton, formerly a leader at the LA Cleantech Incubator, has long been engaged in accelerating of clean energy technology. TPR spoke with both Stapleton and outgoing USGBC-LA chair Sara Neff, Kilroy Realty's Senior VP for Sustainability, on the evolving role of green building standards in an ever-changing policy landscape, ahead of USGBC-LA's upcoming Municipal Green Building Conference and Expo on April 18.


Sara Neff

"Kilroy Realty has seen over and over again that when we make bold moves toward sustainability, we are rewarded—by our tenants, our investors, and our workforce." —Sara Neff

"We need to help the traditional real-estate world see sustainability through the lens of good business sense. That is how we’ll make progress on tackling buildings’ contribution to climate change." —Ben Stapleton

Ben, you’ve recently assumed the helm as executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council-LA (USGBC-LA). Share your goals and priorities for the LA Council.

Ben Stapleton: It’s a great opportunity for me to join such a dynamic organization. As I finish my sixth week, I’ve made it a priority to take time to listen to stakeholders about what this organization has meant to them and their careers, what they see as its potential, and how they want to get involved. I have been overwhelmed by the level of engagement and enthusiasm that our leadership and membership base has for the green building space.

I see an opportunity for us as an organization to provide a clearer direction for the green building movement in the Los Angeles region. Going forward, I want to work more collaboratively with partners who share our vision. We can be a greater resource for those who believe in green building as a way to achieve sustainability. That’s the direction we’re building to now.

How has your past experience prepared you for the challenges of this role?

Ben Stapleton: Over the past few years, I have learned about the power that an idea and a vision have in bringing people together to create a real impact.

Let me share an example. At the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, I developed six Industry Cluster Groups that brought together industry leaders at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and innovation. In our Food & Ag Cluster, we came up with a concept for a community tech garden—a community garden that integrates technology to produce greater amounts of food using less energy and water and producing less waste. Combining forces with Nicole Landers at Community Healing Gardens, we created the Watts Healing Tech Garden, which became part of the Transformative Climate Communities grant awarded to Watts in 2018.

What struck me about this experience was the important role that this little garden played in winning $35 million for Los Angeles. It was the only place where people could envision the future we were trying to build. In a low-income community known as a food desert, kids were learning how to grow food and discovering career opportunities in technologies they’d had no idea existed.

This project taught me an amazing lesson about the power of placemaking, providing a vision, and bringing people together around it, and it’s a lesson that I think has prepared me for this role. At USGBC-LA, I want to focus on transformative projects and programs that can bring people together in the same way. 

Sara, as the outgoing chair of the Board of Directors of USGBC-LA, address what you hope will be the next iteration of the Los Angeles chapter.

Sara Neff: USGBC-LA is the largest chapter in the country in both membership and acreage. In the coming months, my hope is that we can increase our internal capacity to get our programs to more people, including professionals, community groups, schools, companies, and businesses.

In addition to growth, my vision for the organization is to focus on particular themes in which we can play an impactful role. One example is our Legacy Project, which is an annual partnership between USGBC-LA and an area non-profit to assist in a project that they’ve always wanted to take on. We now have five, and these range from the Ecotech Makerspace in Gardena to a Veggie Bus in South LA to this year’s Eco Urban Gardens Regenerative Learning Garden at Arroyo High School. These are great, impactful forms of “urban acupuncture,” and we need to do more of that.

Buildings account for 40 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. It’s important for USGBC to help more communities understand that, without a real focus on the built environment, we will not be able to achieve the climate goals we know we need to.

I’m also looking forward to a whole lot more collaborations with likeminded organizations—real estate or environmental—as well as with our city government. There’s a lot to do.

Ben, elaborate on the role that USGBC-LA has played in developing green building standards.

Ben Stapleton: The U.S. Green Building Council regional chapters came together at a time when there weren’t many opportunities to bring leaders together to think about green building standards and codes. USGBC created the place for that to happen.

We’re now in our 18th year as an organization. We’ve done so much hard work figuring out what standards we should have, advocating for those standards, and integrating them into building codes. And to a large extent, we’ve been successful, especially in California.

USGBC has had a large influence on many green building standards. One of the most important in recent memory is the Existing Buildings Energy and Water Efficiency Ordinance (EBEWE) in the City of Los Angeles. This will lead to long-term improvements on building resource use and awareness of that usage, reducing building related greenhouse gas production over time.

Now we’re thinking through what we can do next to continue to make that kind of impact. We have so much more to do in order to get on track to fight climate change.

Sara, as senior sustainability officer at Kilroy, a market-leading West Coast real-estate firm, speak to how green standards are incorporated into your projects.

Sara Neff: These codes are really important because they drive innovation and creativity on the real-estate side.

A company like Kilroy wants to be a market leader, and these codes set the baseline. If the code says LEED Silver, we want to get to LEED Gold; if the code is LEED Gold, we want to get to LEED Platinum. If the code requires us to benchmark energy and water, we want to benchmark energy, water, and waste. For those of us who are leaders in the space, these codes are helpful in spurring us to tackle ever more ambitious goals.

You led a panel at the VerdeXchange 2019 Conference on decarbonization of the built environment. Speak to what headway has been made since January in advancing this goal.

Sara Neff: Los Angeles is realizing that it’s actually relatively easy to decarbonize the core and shell of our buildings in the design phase. That’s something Kilroy has done in the Academy Square project in Hollywood, for example.

A lot of the best work on this subject is coming from the Building Decarbonization Coalition, which is a broad coalition of industry members from utilities, private companies, non-profits, and more. Their focus is on building electrification, which can be controversial, but given the research they’re gathering and putting out, Kilroy is comfortable moving in that direction. 17% of our portfolio is already all-electric, and we are focusing on all-electric Core & Shell for our office assets going forward.

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Ben, elaborate on how your prior experience as Cleantech Practice Leader at Jones Lang LeSalle prepared you to manage relationships between commercial tenants and building owners and developers.

Ben Stapleton: I have a background in commercial real estate, so I understand how those firms work and where they see value. I’ve negotiated with landowners and with tenants on implementing sustainability practices into their leases and buildings, and I’ve dealt with alignment issues and incentives on both sides. I also helped launch the LA Better Buildings Challenge with David Hodgins, which focuses on accelerating energy efficiency and water conservation projects in the city and establishing programs to encourage similar projects.

The real-estate industry is unique when it comes to these issues in that building owners tend to be very conservative. Sara and Kilroy are the exception in many ways. And what’s significant about them is that they bring good fiscal practice to their sustainability practice.

These conversations need to be led by the fact that green building practices have a better financial return. We need to help the traditional real-estate world—from real-estate service firms like JLL to construction companies—see sustainability through the lens of good business sense. That is how we’ll make progress on tackling buildings’ contribution to climate change.

Sara, what makes Kilroy a leader in sustainable commercial real estate?

Sara Neff: We remain a leader in sustainability because sustainability is integrated into everything that we do as a company.

We want to do it in a smart way, of course—we’re not going to throw a new and unproven technology on a building just because it sounds good—but we have seen over and over again that when we make bold moves toward sustainability, we are rewarded. We build a LEED Platinum building, and it gets fully leased before construction is even finished—sometimes before it even breaks ground. Clearly, the tenants we serve want green buildings, and we want them to think of us as the best company to deliver them.

Our investors like and reward it, our tenants like and reward it, and it makes our workforce happy. It’s a virtuous cycle that has not steered us in the wrong direction yet.

Given that Kilroy has shared its best practices widely, why haven’t other commercial real estate developers and owners mimicked your sustainability practices? 

Sara Neff: I think there are several reasons. One is that Kilroy is a long-term holder. We don’t build and flip; we hold for decades. So, it’s in our interest to do things that drive long-term value.

Another factor is that Kilroy builds in urban West Coast markets that already have strong building codes. As a result, the people we work with on the city side are familiar with green building, and we’re confident in the tenant demand.

One important advantage of Kilroy’s is that we have an in-house development team that is very familiar with best practices in sustainability. Most of them have some sort of LEED credential, and they understand the field really well.

If you don’t have that background in sustainability, building green from the ground up is difficult. You won’t know what the trade-offs are, or when to push back on a consultant or a vendor who says, “This isn’t possible.”

Moreover, green building takes integrated planning from the beginning. Sustainability teams have to be involved in the early conceptual design phases. I recently went to San Francisco for a meeting about a project that didn’t even have its massing yet, let alone any sort of design at all. That’s the right time to include me, and that’s how we do things at Kilroy. But a lot of companies suddenly remember sustainability in the middle of construction or after the design documents are already locked, and then try to figure out what they can do in the margins. That’s a major problem. 

Ben, USGBC-LA’s Municipal Green Building Conference and Expo is coming up on April 18. What will be on the conference agenda?

Ben Stapleton: We’re excited that this is the 18th year of this event. We typically have 600-800 attendees, and it’s a great mix of the public and private sector, the building space, and the traditional green world. This year’s theme is “Climate Change Solutions in the New Abnormal,” and topics will include adaption, mitigation, and resilience, and the differences between those strategies.

Our lunch panel will look at how cities, counties, infrastructure and a major university system are each preparing for climate change. We’ve  had more than 50 submittals for abstracts—our most ever—that deal with topics like energy storage and microgrids, net-zero-water buildings, and water-independent communities.

We’re also going to announce the launch of a new accelerator program targeting net-zero building technologies. Net-zero-energy and net-zero-water buildings have already been legislated in many parts of California, and the conversation is moving to net-zero-carbon buildings as well. But for people who actually run buildings, those mandates come with a lot of operational challenges. Our annual six-month program will focus on accelerating technologies to fill those gaps between legislation and implementation.

Lastly, Sara, as a leader in the practice of sustainability, what value do you find in attending the Municipal Green Building Conference?

Sara Neff: The Municipal Green Building Conference and Expo, to me, is the place that has its finger on the pulse of what is happening in sustainability in Los Angeles. You can hear what the public sector is up to with municipal buildings; case studies on other office buildings and residential, or what’s happening in schools. I go to see what is possible in Los Angeles, and the coolest projects happening here.

I appreciate that the focus is local, because Los Angeles is my home and the headquarters of the Kilroy sustainability program. At the same time, many speakers offer a national perspective, and last year, Seleta Reynolds brought transportation into the conversation, which was great because our field so often focuses on individual buildings.

Everybody in the green world of Los Angeles goes to MGBC. Let me put it this way: I recently needed to hire an employee for my team, and I didn’t even bother to advertise for the position. Why? Because MGBCE was coming up, and I knew that the right person for the role was going to be in the room—and that anybody who hadn’t gone to MGBCE wasn’t somebody I wanted to hire.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.