At their best, industry conferences are the perfect backdrop for rubbing elbows and sharing best practices with your peers. But even when performing at this ideal level, conferences have a tendency toward self-congratulations, which often work against the industry’s best intentions. In an attempt to correct this, and set a new standard for what a green building conference can do, the Delaware Valley Green Building Council (DVGBC), the host chapter for this year’s Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Philadelphia, launched a challenge to unite the greater community of the Delaware Valley by pledging to “green” itself by November 2013.

Written up with language borrowed from the Constitution (“We the people…”), which is geographically apropos, the DVGBC 2013 Challenge is divided into eight straightforward segments, promising that the Delaware Valley, as a people, will “take care of the buildings we have and make them healthier and more efficient; clean our air and unclog our roads; educate ourselves, our clients, and our future designers; build coalitions to make our communities stronger; care more about the materials we make, use, and recycle; reconnect ourselves to our natural environment; aspire to better standards for our homes, hospitals, workplaces, schools, and cultural institutions; [and] challenge ourselves as a design community.”

On one hand, these are the fundamental goals of the general green building movement, but the DVGBC devised a way to help the community of the Delaware Valley deliver on these pledges in a practicable, quantifiable way. To coincide with the 20th annual Greenbuild conference, the DVGBC invited sustainable building pledges—tangible goals that could actually be reached over the course of a year—from any businesses in the Delaware Valley community, not just chapter members. Heather Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the DVGBC, says, “As a chapter, we initiated this challenge in May 2012 because we knew that everyone in the city, both in and outside of the green building world, would want to participate in Greenbuild somehow, but outside of attending, there’s not always a way to participate. We wanted to show off the depth and breadth of the sustainability work that has been happening in the Delaware Valley over the past 15 years.”

The pledges for the 2013 Challenge are all different and unique to each individual business. They include goals such as DVL Automation’s deployment of ZeroWire energy-harvesting integration to reduce energy use by 32 percent and averting 100 miles of copper wire and 12,000 batteries; and Forbo Flooring Systems’ goal to use transparent, third-party verified Environmental Product Declarations for its products, and MaGrann Associates’ goal to certify 1,500 LEED Homes and 5,000 Energy Star homes nationwide. The list goes on with pledges from around 120 DVGBC-affiliated companies and organizations, aiming to deliver on these pledges before Greenbuild 2013.

Jonathan Rose Companies Eliminate nearly 79,000 car trips annually by completing the Paseo Verde transit-oriented development project with Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha.

Jonathan Rose Companies
Eliminate nearly 79,000 car trips annually by completing the Paseo Verde transit-oriented development project with Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha.

One of the keys for mobilizing and publishing this challenge has been through a grassroots network, similar to the one that originally led to the formation of the USGBC and Greenbuild. In addition to inviting the community to participate in the activities and philosophies articulated by the USGBC, the DVGBC’s 2013 challenge has also served to publicize Greenbuild, the DVGBC, and the green-building movement in the area in a cost-free, grassroots way. “Once we announced the challenge, some of our members saw the stature of some of the people making pledges—like the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Zoo, and so forth—others knew they wanted to be part of what we were doing,” Blakeslee says. “What we build is community and connections, and this challenge pledge was a way for us to hit all of those things.”

The idea of positive competition is an integral component of grassroots marketing and largely what has fueled the Delaware Valley’s community response to the DVGBC’s challenge and the DVGBC’s role as a community leader. The challenge has served as a way to highlight and provide visibility for other community organizations, such as the Lehigh Valley Sustainability Network, which is creating a Web platform to encourage communications, or the collaboration between PennFuture and Next Great City, which will cooperatively lead the Coalition for an Energy Efficient Philadelphia.

The collaborations inspired by the challenge extend to the built environment with the Jonathan Rose Companies teaming with the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha to develop Paseo Verde, a transit-oriented development seated on a 1.9-acre site near the Temple University Train Station. The design of the development incorporates energy-efficient building envelopes, green roofs, photovoltaic arrays, and locally sourced materials, and it is seeking LEED for Homes and LEED-ND Platinum certifications. “Jonathan Rose has always been committed to community-serving design and the transformational power of good design within neighborhoods,” Blakeslee says. “This Paseo Verde project is really fantastic because it’s a totally new kind of project in Philadelphia. It’s transit oriented, there’s an affordable housing component, and it hits all of the things both designers and city planners want to see.”

Chemical Heritage Foundation Engage 5,000 visitors with local environmental change with exhibits and programs, including this one by Vaughn Bell that gives visitors a worm’s-eye view of native plants. Photo: Kevin Kennefick

Chemical Heritage Foundation
Engage 5,000 visitors with local environmental change with exhibits and programs, including this one by Vaughn Bell that gives visitors a worm’s-eye view of native plants. Photo: Kevin Kennefick

Paseo Verde is a local project, but the challenge has also attracted pledges from larger international companies such as CertainTeed, a $3 billion subsidiary of Saint-Gobain founded in 1904 and employing roughly 9,700 worldwide. Whereas some organizations have pledged external goals and targets, CertainTeed has instead translated the challenge to redress its own sustainability efforts. “CertainTeed actually looked inward for the pledge, asking what they can do differently about how they operationalize their work,” Blakeslee says. “This means that they’ve encouraged more commuting and made policies around that. And because they’re a big company, even though this is a small change, it can still result in 10,000 gallons of gasoline being saved over the course of a year.”

In addition to actual built-project pledges, such as Keating Environmental Management’s pledge to help implement 10 LEED-EB projects or Mission First Housing Group’s pledge to deliver 1,000 green and affordable housing units, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization, will be curating an arts exhibit showcasing work from artists who have visualized or depicted changes in environmental growth or degradation. “This kind of exhibit is a great tie-in for what Greenbuild can be for a city,” Blakeslee says. “People are coming here, to Philadelphia, and they’re not only seeing our sustainable work, but our vibrant and robust arts and culture community. There are a lot of ties between the arts and the sustainable communities that make this region especially unique.”

Even with so much support, Blakeslee says that a big part of the challenge has been aggregating and demonstrating its impacts to a regional, national, and international audience. “Even with the first 120 pledges that have come in, it reflects billions of dollars of investment in the region, hundreds of thousands of tons of waste kept out of landfills and kilowatt-hours saved,” she says. “The impacts are huge, and we want everyone to celebrate the work they’re doing and for everyone to see that it’s being achieved as a collective whole.”

Although it remains to be seen if the DVGBC’s challenge to its members and connected communities will be repeated for future Greenbuild conferences by other regional USGBC chapters, the positive responses and tangible goals articulated in the 2013 Challenge set a high bar for what an industry conference can do to affect change beyond the ticket table.