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From Climate Change to Climate Adaptation

The Evolution of Sustainability in Construction with Fitwel’s Zachary Flora

In a flurry of buzzwords related to the future of work, sustainability is being tossed around, leveraged, and implemented like there’s no tomorrow. Possibly because it feels like there isn’t. With so much in our feed reminding us that the world is literally on fire, it’s no surprise sustainability is front and center.

If you’re old enough, you remember the idea of recycling being nothing more than a wish and an eyeroll. Now organizations have in-house compost programs. All this to say, that as the world evolves, sustainability evolves with it. 

The world is literally on fire

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That accelerated pace is something Zachary Flora has witnessed. He graduated from Georgetown in 2016 having studied urban and regional planning. Now he’s executive vice president at Fitwel, the pioneering real estate certification platform committed to providing evidence-based insights and ESG performance data while improving bottom line value.  Even he isn’t immune to how quickly the world has transformed. As we talk about sustainability in the built environment, he starts to talk about climate change. Then he stops himself. 

“I’ll actually rephrase that to climate adaptation because the climate has changed,” he says. “It will continue to change. And now we're adapting to ‘what is this new climate?’ with drier parts of the U.S. or the incredible rainfalls we've been seeing in the Northeast.” 

Those high-profile examples are part of the reason why sustainability has shown up on everyone’s radar in such a major way. We’re all seeing the impact we have on our planet in a very tangible way. What was once the domain of hippies and nonconformists has become widespread and tied to almost everything we do. That definitely includes construction. 

Zachary Flora, executive vice president, Fitwel

“When we first got started, Fitwel, and healthy buildings, was adopted by sustainability teams because our goals are very similar. We want high-performing, better buildings that consider the environmental experience and the people experience. The people leading the sustainability movement 10 years ago already knew that the effects of climate change were going to impact people, more so than the buildings themselves. We're now starting to think about climate change and sustainability through a much larger lens - considering both public health and the effect it is having on people.”  

High performing buildings that consider the environmental and people experience

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Health and sustainability are inevitably tied together

As Flora points out, this point of view is reflected all around us. From COP 28 to the recent research published by The Lancet, there’s critical thought supported by evidence that climate adaptation and public health are inevitably tied together. 

What does that mean for people who are designing and building space? Given the amount of greenhouse gas and landfill waste created by the construction industry, there’s a lot to consider. Everyone involved in creating a building has to think about the environmental impacts on their design and construction choices. 

“Fitwel has several climate resiliency strategies. How do you prepare a site to minimize flood risk, fire risk, or heat management? And how do you put policies in place, similar to an emergency preparedness policy, that will allow you to think about resiliency and your preparedness for some of these climate disasters that we might be facing in the future?” 

But reacting to climate-related impacts on a building is only part of the equation. The other variable is how we as an industry approach building in a way that can reduce the impact of our climate emergency. Thinking proactively means everything from material use to decarbonization to building life cycle plays a role. This is why Fitwel, an organization focused on healthy-building certification, has climate adaptation and resiliency at top of mind. Moving from being reactive to proactive highlights Flora’s point about the focus being on people, not just buildings. The health of the planet is intrinsically tied to the health of those who live on it. 

The end result now is that we have to think about downstream, the effect this is having on people. How do we adjust our buildings and our policies to help limit the impact on people that climate change presents?

The focus should be on people, not just buildings

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Whether people are focused on energy efficiency and emission reduction or health and well-being, the truth is, it’s all part of the same sustainability initiative. 

“It's always been side by side. I think we're thinking about it more now because we recognize that the climate has changed and it's a new world that we are living in. We need to focus more on what people experience.” 

Resources and Further Reading

Check out Fitwel’s 2024 Best in Building Health Winners. 

Learn more about DIRTT’s sustainability efforts. 

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