The Empire State Building’s retrofit has helped to make it an energy-efficient building, drastically reducing its carbon emissions. (Image: Dorian Mongel / Unsplash)

Episode 11: Energy-Efficient Buildings

If we’re serious about addressing climate change, we’ll need to address one of our biggest carbon emitters: buildings.

City of the Future
Sidewalk Talk
Published in
14 min readOct 2, 2020

“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk discuss solutions to make buildings more energy-efficient with architect Wanda Dalla Costa, sustainable buildings expert Kimi Narita, PropTech expert Ryan J.S. Baxter, and Sidewalk Labs Senior Product Manager Rachel Steinberg and Data Scientist Jenny Chen.

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Wanda Dalla Costa: When I decided to retire my corporate career in architecture, I was working on the tallest tower in Western North America.

Eric Jaffe: That’s Wanda Dalla Costa.

Wanda Dalla Costa: I am a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Northern Alberta, Canada.

Vanessa Quirk: She’s also the first First Nations woman to become an architect in Canada. And after half a decade of success designing skyscrapers, she grew tired of working on huge buildings.

Wanda Dalla Costa: I found that that connection with the people of the place and their ideas and knowledge connected to that place were missing when we do big buildings, and what instead was guiding that large 76-story tower was economics. That was the only value and metric that was being used.

Eric Jaffe: So Wanda left her corporate career and moved to Phoenix, where she met a leader of the Gila River Indian Community, which lies just south of the city limits.

Wanda Dalla Costa: And when he found out that I was an architect, he started talking to me about energy efficiency. Straight off, what was our first conversation. “Can you help us make our buildings more energy-efficient?” They have thousands of people that live in that community, and the cost of cooling those homes for Arizona’s hot summers, which can last 4–6 months, is quite considerable.

Vanessa Quirk: But for Wanda, the Gila Community’s energy-efficient buildings were about more than saving people money.

Wanda Dalla Costa: Phoenix is one of the fastest warming cities in the U.S. And the impacts of that are many. I started doing research into…it’s quite a morbid subject, but into death, heat-related deaths in Phoenix. And what I found out was that over a 12-year period, there were 1,500 heat-related deaths in Phoenix. We should be looked at as the canary birds. I often use this concept: who senses the climate changes first? And of course, it’s often the Indigenous people. And in this case, in the City of Phoenix, they are impacted. So this is becoming an issue to me of justice.

Eric Jaffe: So Wanda Dalla Costa got to work on a new housing development for the Gila River Indian Community, one that would be as energy-efficient and environmentally just as possible.

Architect Wanda Dalla Costa stands in front of a shade structure that she built for the Gila River Indian Community. (Image: Selina Martinez / Arizona State University)

Vanessa Quirk: And, to do that, she looked back to the history of the land.

Wanda Dalla Costa: In this region, their long history in architecture has been using adobe, which is as you know a very thick and dense material that they used to build very thick walls to be able to keep the heat out in those summer months. There’s no footprint at all from the old architecture. It would be really, really wonderful to kind of start… I know we can’t go all the way back, but to go back somewhat and to take some of those beautiful principles and bring them forward.

Eric Jaffe: Wanda’s right, we can’t go all the way back and rebuild our cities from adobe.

Vanessa Quirk: But what if we could apply some of those principles to the buildings we already have — even the big skyscrapers.

Eric Jaffe: Imagine if the buildings of the future only ever used as much energy as they needed.

Vanessa Quirk: If they could respond to their climate and adjust their energy use — automatically.

Eric Jaffe: If they could even respond to people, adapting to our needs.

Vanessa Quirk: And imagine if these innovations were affordable not only to a few fancy buildings, but to all buildings, old and new.

Eric Jaffe: Welcome to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.

Vanessa Quirk: Each episode we explore ideas and innovations that could transform our cities. We’re your hosts. I’m Vanessa Quirk.

Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe.

Vanessa Quirk: And in this episode, we’re talking about an idea that could help our cities address the urgent challenge of climate change.

Eric Jaffe: Energy-efficient buildings.

Photograph of a waterfront with tall buildings. The sky is hazy and orange with smoke.
Smoke from the September 2020 wildfire settles over San Francisco, turning the daytime sky a dark orange. (Image: Christopher Michel / Flickr)

Kimi Narita: I’m in the Bay area, I’m just south of the San Francisco Airport and it’s Tatooine out here, no joke. The sky is gray-orange and the sun is not out because the smoke is just in the atmosphere. It’s bad, so yeah, you know? Thanks, climate change.

Eric Jaffe: That’s Kimi Narita, a sustainable buildings expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Vanessa Quirk: We spoke to her in September on a day when the debris from the California forest fires was blocking out the sun and leaving an orange cast over the entire sky.

Eric Jaffe: A pretty foreboding symbol of how urgent this situation really is.

Vanessa Quirk: Kimi told us why buildings are so important for cities responding to climate change.

Kimi Narita: Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. So anyone serious about tackling climate change has to tackle our existing building stock, and that’s because buildings stay around for generations. The building stock we have right now, about half of it was built more than 40 years ago and we have to think about how to improve all of the buildings that we have in order to reduce our carbon emissions significantly.

Eric Jaffe: Across the U.S., dozens of cities ARE tackling the issue of energy-intensive buildings through new regulations.

Vanessa Quirk: St. Louis, for example, recently passed regulations that target existing big buildings in the city.

Kimi Narita: Simply creating a new building leads to carbon emissions, so if we are able to retrofit older buildings, that usually is less carbon-intensive than creating a new building altogether.

Eric Jaffe: St. Louis isn’t the only Midwestern city making huge strides in building sustainability. Kimi is also impressed with Columbus, Ohio.

Kimi Narita: In Columbus, Ohio this year, the city recently passed what’s called a benchmarking and transparency policy. This is actually a foundational policy, basically the city is requiring large buildings to track and report their energy use, year over year. Because we actually don’t know how our buildings are doing nationwide. And this is in contrast to cars. Cars have a mile per gallon rating, every single car you know, in broad strokes, how they’re doing compared to other cars. We do not have any of that kind of information for buildings. And so the City of Columbus, with this benchmarking and transparency ordinance, is creating that data set and saying, “Hey, for these largest buildings, we’re going to track and report the energy use, see how they’re doing, and share that with the public.”

And simply doing that every single year actually raises the awareness of building owners and managers to energy efficiency. And we see a small percent decrease of energy use year over year just by having that kind of an ordinance. But if you think about it, a small decrease year over year over thousands of buildings in that city creates actually massive energy savings and massive carbon emissions savings.

Vanessa Quirk: Together, all these innovative policies are great news for the planet.

Eric Jaffe: And these regulations aren’t that hard to navigate for bigger, well-resourced buildings, sometimes known as Class A buildings.

Kimi Narita: The fancy, shiny class A buildings like the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, they have a whole team of people and likely are taking advantage of incentives or financing that’s available because they have the time and capacity to navigate that system. But when you start talking about other sectors like affordable multifamily housing, the time and energy needed to navigate this stuff is significant.

Photograph of a green, landscaped plaza on top of an undulating building surrounded by tall skyscrapers.
Class A buildings are bigger, well-resourced buildings, like the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. It’s easier for them to comply with new regulations around energy use. Smaller, Class B and C buildings don’t always have access to the same kinds of resources. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Vanessa Quirk: Older, smaller, class B&C buildings, don’t always have access to the same kinds of resources.

Eric Jaffe: So as important as energy regulations are, they can put these buildings at a disadvantage.

Vanessa Quirk: Which is why some experts wonder whether or not regulation alone can reduce building emissions as drastically as we need.

Ryan J.S. Baxter: In practice, when you’re focused on advancing energy efficiency, I’m unfortunately of the mind that regulation can only go so far.

Eric Jaffe: That’s Ryan J.S. Baxter, a PropTech expert and advisor who has helped buildings comply with energy regulations. He’s also seen where regulations can fall short — and not just for small buildings.

Vanessa Quirk: According to Ryan, even million-dollar fines aren’t always enough to incentivize bigger buildings into making energy upgrades.

Ryan J.S. Baxter: I think it’s more interesting to think about why individuals, companies, and investors, and owners should embrace or are embracing energy efficiency. Because I believe more fundamentally if we can create carrots rather than sticks, we will have better outcomes.

Eric Jaffe: He thinks that building owners would happily get on the energy-efficient bandwagon if they could see how investing a little money now could save them a lot over time.

Vanessa Quirk: So what is the first step for buildings to get this insight?

Ryan: Real-time data.

Vanessa: Can you expand on that?

Ryan J.S. Baxter: I would love to. It is unfortunately the case that homeowners and many other energy consumers only get energy data once a month or every other month, or maybe they’re proactive and can log on to see their consumption, but they only do that once or twice a month. And so new sensing technologies, new control devices will make it easier to make more informed decisions and you are more able to justify investing in energy efficiency.

Vanessa Quirk: Ryan’s right. A 2020 report by the Urban Land Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute found that Class B and C building owners could save roughly 15% on their energy costs, just using simple technologies.

Ryan J.S. Baxter: I do think technology adoption is going to drive energy efficiency. This idea that sustainability should be its own business plan, as opposed to just part and parcel to the business plan, to me is going to dissolve as technology adoption increases.

Eric Jaffe: If the goal is getting buildings to adopt new technologies, then that tech will have to be affordable and accessible.

Vanessa Quirk: We talked to some folks at Sidewalk Labs who are trying to tackle that very issue.

Rachel Steinberg: Hi, my name’s Rachel.

Jenny Chen: Hello, I’m Jenny.

Vanessa Quirk: Rachel Steinberg and Jenny Chen have been working on a solution to help buildings get more energy-efficient. It’s called Mesa.

Graphic showing Mesa‘s kit of parts, which can help office buildings become more energy-efficient.
Sidewalk’s Rachel Steinberg and Jenny Chen have been working on Mesa, a solution to help office buildings get more energy-efficient. It’s an easy-install energy savings kit that automates energy use, bringing us one step closer toward a more sustainable future. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

Rachel Steinberg: Mesa is an energy optimization or energy savings kit, and it comes with a mix of sensors and smart devices that enable more granular data to be collected about a space. Non-identifiable, so this is only information about what’s happening within that space.

Eric Jaffe: Okay, so no information about you or me in the space, right? Just things like electricity use and temperature?

Rachel Steinberg: Yeah, exactly.

Jenny Chen: Mesa takes all these inputs, optimizes for the most energy-efficient results, and makes adjustments, automatically.

Vanessa Quirk: But Surely most modern buildings are already doing some of these things automatically? Like turning off the lights at night?

Rachel Steinberg: Something that I found surprising is that buildings are quite manual. So a lot of times you really depend on a human to make sure that the lighting’s off, or the heating is on, or the cooling is on.

Jenny Chen: Most buildings are using scheduled heating and cooling, which means they will decide the set point by time of the day and a day of the week.

Rachel Steinberg: There’s still a lot of wasted energy, even within scheduled buildings that just try to get heating and cooling for assumed times, not really the actual work times, so you could have your office being cooled on a weekend when no one’s there.

Eric Jaffe: So over the weekend I walked by the Columbia Architecture School building and all the lights were on. Nobody’s there. Nobody’s even allowed to go in there.

Rachel Steinberg: Yeah.

Eric Jaffe: All the lights were on and I was just thinking, “This is obviously timed or scheduled and it’s supposed to come on, because it’s during “normal library” hours but it doesn’t understand that things have changed. There’s nobody here, but it could.

Vanessa Quirk: The irony, too, that it’s an architecture school.

Eric Jaffe: How about that?

Vanessa Quirk: You’d think that they’d be the ones that were on the vanguard of automating their building there.

Rachel Steinberg: Yeah, but I think that gets to the point that this is really hard to do.

Vanessa Quirk: Jenny and Rachel have been focused on making it easy. Which is why Mesa is pretty simple to install.

Rachel Steinberg: Each piece is very much like plug it in, stick it on the wall, and you’re ready to go.

Vanessa Quirk: Once building owners know more about energy use in their building, they can then make better informed decisions about which energy-efficient upgrades are right for them.

Jenny Chen: When they have options to either invest in an installation or better window or more efficient HVAC system, they will have better ground to make their decisions.

Vanessa Quirk: This cuts energy waste — and helps buildings comply with new energy regulations.

Rachel Steinberg: And then, even beyond the measuring piece, it’s hard to manually adjust energy use constantly. It’s like you need to just have an energy guru standing around your office, seeing where people are leaving and what you can cut. And instead, if you have an automated energy guru, then you don’t need to worry, like, “Did Jamie turn off the thermostat at night or turn off the lights?” So you really do need some tool that focuses on how you take all of this data in one place and then use it to adjust the energy use. This is a tool that will just take care of it. And that’s part of why we’re mainly focused on under-resourced, understaffed buildings that probably don’t have someone staring at a building management system all day and optimizing it and tweaking things. It really is supposed to be an aid to supercharge or superpower some of the existing understaffed buildings.

Eric Jaffe: Mesa helps building owners automate things like heating and cooling, so energy is only being used when it’s actually needed.

Rachel Steinberg: We have an algorithm that accounts for: are people in this space comfortable, and at the same time, are we saving energy?

Vanessa Quirk: I, for one, would be incredibly happy if office buildings stopped blasting AC in the middle of the summer — not just for my personal comfort, but for the planet!

Eric Jaffe: And I know a lot of us at Sidewalk Labs, including myself, would actually be very interested in seeing how much energy we use as an office, and how to mitigate it.

Vanessa Quirk: And Rachel told us about a new kind of lease you can try when you have real-time energy data in a building.

Eric Jaffe: They’re called green leases.

Rachel Steinberg: Green leases end up adding components into the lease that align incentives for both the landlord and the tenant to care about energy use, to add transparency into what energy is being used and share in being able to cut that energy use.

Eric Jaffe: So building owners have lower operating costs, and tenants get lower energy costs — it’s a win-win.

Vanessa Quirk: Plus tenants are actually happier when they know that their building owner is actively addressing their carbon footprints. That Rocky Mountain Institute report showed that tenants with green leases are more likely to renew.

Eric Jaffe: And it’s examples like that that could convince all buildings of the advantages of energy-efficiency.

Vanessa Quirk: Including those smaller, under-resourced buildings that have to be careful with their cash.

Rachel Steinberg: There’s certainly big equipment upgrades that you can work on, but it’s just unattainable to maintain affordability of buildings. It becomes a complicated, big investment decision. And that’s where I think a lot of these easy-install, affordable technologies that get you a lot of the savings, or a lot of the easy-to-cut savings, have a big impact. If you’re saving even 10% of the energy, but in general, things like Mesa can save 20 and even 30% of the building’s energy, just imagine every single building in the U.S., in North America, in the world, saving at least 20% of its energy. That’s a huge impact. Even through small changes, there’s a lot that we can do.

Eric Jaffe: Kimi Narita, the NRDC buildings expert we heard from earlier, agrees that we need every building in every city to start doing their part. Because we’re running out of time.

Kimi Narita: We basically need to get to net zero carbon by 2050. We basically have one generation to do this. Whatever solutions that we do, we have to do them at a massive scale, and we have to fundamentally rethink how we use our buildings because we basically have 30 years to change everything.

Eric Jaffe: But, considering the scale and the urgency, Kimi believes we won’t be able to get there through either new technologies or new regulations. We need both.

Kimi Narita: Carrots are great. Incentive programs are wonderful. But we need the regulations as well to encourage more funding available for building owners and other stakeholders to be able to make investments in their buildings and drive down their energy use. Team carrots and sticks.

Vanessa Quirk: But if cities continue the momentum they’ve started with these new laws,

Eric Jaffe: If buildings use real-time data to make more informed decisions and invest in energy-efficiency,

Vanessa Quirk: and if affordable technologies make all buildings energy-efficient.

Eric Jaffe: Then we might be able to build toward the more sustainable and just future we need.

Vanessa Quirk: So I would love, Kimi, to hear what is your ideal, I assume sustainable, future for cities everywhere? What are the buildings like in these beautiful future sustainable cities?

Kimi Narita: The future that I see is one where there’s clean air, clean water. Everyone lives in really great, healthy buildings, regardless of race or income status. And so to me, it’s about justice. The city of the future is a just city where energy efficiency in buildings is not something that is just enjoyed by those of us who live in “nice buildings,” but all buildings are nice.

Vanessa Quirk: I love that.

Eric Jaffe: Yeah, me too. That’s great.

Vanessa Quirk: I want that city, too.

Kimi Narita: I don’t care what they look like. Give me justice!

Eric Jaffe: Thanks for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamin Walker and Andrew Callaway.

Vanessa Quirk: Mix by Zach McNees. Special thanks for this episode go to Wanda Dalla Costa, Kimi Narita, Ryan J.S. Baxter, Jenny Chen, and Rachel Steinberg.

Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau, Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work, you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam.

Vanessa Quirk: To learn more about Sidewalk Labs, visit our website, where you can subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page. And you can also follow us on Instagram.

Eric Jaffe: See you in the future!

Vanessa Quirk: Bye!



City of the Future
Sidewalk Talk

A podcast from Sidewalk Labs.