Building Green in a Steel City
Transforming a one-time industrial powerhouse into a city known for its sustainable approach and healthy buildings is no small feat.
But, it’s a challenge Aurora Sharrard embraces daily.
Asking questions, challenging assumptions and always striving for higher goals are just a few ways that Sharrard, the executive director and vice president of innovation at the Green Building Alliance, in Pittsburgh, fuels positive change in the region’s built environment.
At 37 years old, Sharrard was recently named among Pittsburgh Magazine’s annual Top 40 Under 40 for 2016, as a stand-out leader in the area.
Since joining the organization in 2007, she’s held several different titles, including research manager and director of innovation. Before the GBA, Sharrard earned her master’s and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, with a focus on green design and life-cycle assessment. Before that she spent two years performing geotechnical engineering consulting after graduating with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering.
One of her most notable projects with the GBA thus far is the creation of the Pittsburgh 2030 District—a nationally recognized initiative of high-performance buildings in downtown Pittsburgh and the Oakland area that aims to drastically cut consumption.
“With over 100 property partners committing over 480 buildings to amazing efficiency goals [50 percent reductions in energy, water, and transportation emissions by 2030—as well as improving indoor air quality], every day is a new challenge or opportunity that’s simultaneously measureable and impactful, both at the single building and District level,” according to Sharrard.
|Photo by Mark Dixon; courtesy of Aurora Sharrard|
Sharrard, 37, is the executive director and vice president of innovation at the Green Building Alliance in Pittsburgh.
Another memorable project Sharrard played a key role in for eight years was DASH: Database for Analyzing Sustainable and High Performance Buildings. The goal of the project was to collect building performance information across the bottom line (asset value, energy use, rent, indoor air quality, productivity and more).
Sharrard admits that the market wasn’t quite ready for the program—which was built as a software service.
“The idea lives on in much of what GBA and I continue to do today,” she notes.
Slow, Continuous Process
When she takes on a project, Sharrard says the team of 16 at GBA works together to figure out where the conversation is starting and why; then they turn to determining the specific outcomes the clients and stakeholders expect.
She says she asks questions about everything, including why the goals may be too low. She challenges herself, her staff, alliance members, stakeholders, and others across western Pennsylvania to set and attain goals far beyond what was initially thought possible, sharing the progress and results along the way.
One other key part in her process, Sharrard says, is realizing that “the project will never really be done because whether it’s a building, development, program, initiative, or person, we’re always creating long-term assets, very rarely short-term investments.”
|Green Building Alliance|
More than 100 property partners committing over 480 buildings are aiming for 50 percent reductions in energy, water, and transportation emissions by 2030—as well as improving indoor air quality, Sharrard says.
Creating more green buildings and sustainable places in Pittsburgh is work that isn’t done overnight or even complete in the more than 23 years the organization has been around, she says.
The process is slow. Patience is required to work in the building, development, and real estate industry, and that is sometimes the most challenging part, she notes.
“We at GBA take our work and responsibility very seriously, but know that some of the conversations we have the great privilege to be in will not result in a building, development, or transformation for a decade—or more.”
Advice for Recent Grads
For those who may be considering a career in green building, Sharrard imparts the following guidance: Read, read, and read some more because “conventional changes fast.”
She warns recent graduates to not “write off a job or a company just because ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ isn’t in the title or job description.”
|Green Building Alliance|
The double skin facade allows The Tower at PNC Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh to breathe. The office building is one of the greenest in the world, according to the Green Building Alliance.
“Do your research and you’ll hopefully be pleasantly surprised about the level of environmental commitment and corporate social responsibility efforts of a potential employer. It’s more important that you work for a company that believes in sustainability than be the only employee focused on the extremely large goal of achieving a balanced triple bottom line,” she adds.
Sharrard says, “Don’t let anyone (even yourself) convince you that you can’t do something better than you’re planning to,” noting that there’s always a way to create the amazing building, place or initiative you want.
“It just takes commitment and creativity.”