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North Hills Monthly

The Green Building Alliance: Helping Pittsburghers Save Money and the Environment

Apr 01, 2018 09:32AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Frick Environmental Center

Green Building Alliance (GBA) is one of the oldest regional green building organizations in the country. In collaboration with its many partnerships, the nonprofit organization has contributed mightily to transforming Pittsburgh into a leading center of green building activity. We spoke with Dr. Aurora Sharrard, the organization’s executive director, about the success of the Green Building Alliance as it celebrates its silver anniversary this year.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is GBA’s mission?

Dr. Aurora Sharrard (Sharrard): Our mission is to advance innovation in the built environment by empowering people to create environmentally, economically and socially vibrant places. We achieve this by not just working at the building scale; one of the things we’ve learned over time is that you have to work at multiple scales, starting with people—they create, operate and try to make places better. We work with people, materials, byproducts, technologies, buildings, districts, whole neighborhoods and communities. To date, GBA has nearly 1,200 individual members and more than 200 organizational members, plus we have a large stakeholder base across western Pennsylvania.

NHM: How did you get started?

Sharrard: GBA was formed in 1993 as a true alliance of individuals looking to green the building environment and as a partnership of three different nonprofits in the Pittsburgh region, including Conservation Consultants and the Pennsylvania Resources Council. ‘Alliance’ is an important word for us because we’ve evolved by working with different individuals in western Pennsylvania in various ways. In 1993, there were a lot of people in the building industry that were interested in greening the building environment; that alliance was cross-discipline and cross-sector, including public, private and nonprofit sectors. That sense of collaboration is what we continue to depend on today; it is part of our organizational ethos and theory of change.

NHM: Why was there a need for this organization in Pittsburgh?

Sharrard: Twenty-five years ago, the idea of creating a ‘green’ building hadn’t really been defined yet. GBA was founded the same year as the U.S. Green Building Council (a national organization that went on to create the LEED green building rating system and a whole suite of green business certifications). In 1993, there were many questions about what you actually needed to do to green a building: where you should start, what standards you should follow, as well as how you could share that information with other people, and how to make it not just about energy but about site selection, water use, supply chains operations, maintenance and more. None of those answers was easy to find 25 years ago.

NHM: Is the Greater Pittsburgh region a leader in the green building industry?

Sharrard: Yes! Three of the first 13 buildings to achieve LEED certification in the world are right here in Pittsburgh—they include KSBA Architects in Lawrenceville, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne and PNC Firstside Center in Downtown Pittsburgh. That early green building leadership demonstration speaks to where Pittsburgh began as a national green building leader, and that legacy continues today. We have a very strong cluster of ‘passive house’ designers and builders. We have one ‘living building’ out of only 15 in the world (the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes), with a number of other spaces in hot pursuit. The region continues to push boundaries of sustainability in the built environment on many scales.

NHM: Why green buildings? What are the benefits?

Sharrard: The triple bottom line benefits of green buildings are well documented, but what we have found over time is that different benefits resonate differently with different owners or developers. Some people really get into green building because they want to save money and see certification as a pathway to doing it. Some are really interested in efficiency and conservation of energy and water, and that is tremendously important. Some are interested in occupant considerations, especially what kind of workplace or learning environment they are creating; do they have good air quality and good access to daylight?

Green building can save money throughout a building’s life cycle; however, the details often depend on the type of building and use. The answer is also different if you have a new construction project versus a major retrofit of an existing building versus an operational focus.

NHM: What is a LEED-certified building?

Sharrard: The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system is the dominant green building certification in the world. Over time, LEED has developed a number of frameworks so it can be applied to any type of building, from hospitals to homes to commercial offices. LEED is the most widely recognized green building certification, with more than 92,000 projects in the world. Over 2 million square feet of space is LEED-certified every day by the U.S. Green Building Council.

NHM: What about in our region?

Sharrard: There are 363 buildings or spaces in western Pennsylvania that are LEED certification at some level; these total about 37.5 million square feet of certified space. Some notable regional green buildings include the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which is triple LEED certified for its design and construction, and also its ongoing operations and maintenance. Another example is the Frick Environmental Center, which is newly LEED Platinum and is pursuing the Living Building Challenge. The newest regional LEED building to be certified is the Midwife Center in the Strip District. However, LEED buildings are everywhere, serving as an indicator of people really investing in the places where they live, work, learn and play.

NHM: What are some initiatives undertaken by GBA? 

Sharrard: Generally, GBA has taken on initiatives over time, which fills the gaps in knowledge, capacity and willingness to improve the built environment in western Pennsylvania. For 25 years, we’ve provided professional education and continue to do so with over 100 educational events a year. In the past, we ran the Green Building Products Initiative, where we helped product manufacturers understand the opportunities that the green building marketplace represented for them.

Today, we also have a number of very focused initiatives, including our Green & Healthy Schools Academy. Over the past six years, we’ve spent a lot of time helping K-12 schools integrate sustainability into their cultures, facilities and curriculums. One of GBA’s most recognizable programs is the Pittsburgh 2030 District, where we have nearly 500 buildings committed to the 2030 Challenge goals of 50 percent reductions in energy use, water use and transportation emissions (below baselines) by the year 2030. New construction is committed to carbon neutrality by 2030.

NHM: What is your vision for the future?

Sharrard: GBA’s vision is that every building and community is sustainable so that every person can thrive. In 25 years, we’ve continued to see that every place has an opportunity for improvement: they may not know how to get started, and it may be overwhelming, but that is where we can help. We answer questions from single homeowners, professionals, businesses and government officials. Some have a long way to go, some are doing things on their own, and we help them all by meeting people where they are to make healthier and higher performing places.

To learn more about the Green Building Alliance, visit