Ask Mark

Philadelphia's Director of Sustainability, Mark Alan Hughes, answers our readers

Q: I’ve heard rumors that all new construction in the city will be required to be LEED certified or Energy Star rated. I’m sure these are just rumors, but what measures are being taken towards making new construction, including residential, more sustainable? The sustainable strategies include, but are not limited to: energy efficiency, construction waste management and requiring the use of regional materials. Also, when can we expect a zoning code that DOES NOT encourage the use of cars and parking in the city?
Christine Rossi, LEED AP, architect intern, Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC

A: Thanks, Christine. Great question. About half of the energy consumed in a city like Philadelphia is related to the construction and operation of buildings, so increasing the performance of our buildings makes the single-largest contribution to reducing our vulnerability to rising prices and our competitive advantage as a place to live and work.

Now, you raise a fundamental question that faces any policymaker: What is the right balance between mandates and incentives, between the famous carrot and stick? In Philadelphia, we’re all for mandates, but in general they should be applied at the state or national level. Enacting mandates, to take your example, on new building construction in the city would create an unbalanced playing field between the city and suburbs. I bet we both agree that a mandate like LEED certification or Energy Star rating would be good in the long run by educating the market about the advantages of high-performance buildings and lowering the price of efficient materials and practices. But in the short run, it would also likely add to the city’s cost structure as perceived by developers. Imposing local mandates in a city like Philadelphia is like asking orphans to build their own orphanages!

But there are many other things we can do to further our goal of improving the energy or related performance of our buildings. In particular, we can make it easier to design, build and renovate in a more sustainable way. For example, we could expedite or lower the permitting fees for projects that meet certain energy or environmental standards. Another example is the tax credit for green roofs that we already offer on the commercial side and could extend to the residential side. These incentives work well with our new stormwater regulations, encouraging a design element (a green roof) that allows an owner to avoid a cost (the stormwater fee). And finally, we could reward developers and owners who build to standards above the code requirements with, for example, an extension of the property tax abatement.

The good news is that between the Zoning Code Commission and the new Tax and Economic Competitiveness Commission, there is work underway right now to address these important issues in a comprehensive way, including car and parking issues! 

Have a question for Mark? Send an email to askmark@gridphilly.com