A Talk with Farah Naz Ahmad On U.S. Green Buildings, Education, Government and more | DT Interviews

Farah Naz Ahmad is a Registered Architect with NCARB, LEED AP, a sustainable design professional and now working as a government official on public projects in New York. She graduated in 2012 from City College of New York, with a bachelors in architecture. Her role as Student Communications Project Leader for the CCNY team at Solar Decathlon 2011, has had a huge impact on her current career choice.

She also served as the President of American Institute of Architecture Students chapter at CCNY. As an observer, she attended the signing of Paris Agreement for Climate Change on Earth Day 2016, and has shared few clips from the day at UN headquarters on her blog. She actively engages with students and professionals via Twitter @farah_arch and Instagram @renewablefarah.

Born and brought up in New York, she has a keen interest in the way city is responding to the climate change and green architecture. In conversation with DesignTerrains, she hints on the factors influencing building sustainably in the US and her personal journey as a sustainable design architect.

DesignTerrains (DT) : How early in your career did you start thinking about energy efficiency in buildings?

Farah Ahmad (FA) : Professionally one of my first role was working on an energy engineering project in the public schools of New York city. That particular project involved energy savings for public schools that were 30,000 sq. ft. buildings to 300,000 sq. ft. buildings. What we were doing was replacing older lighting fixtures with more energy efficient ones.

Consequently we noticed huge savings in energy, and for me being fresh out of college, to get a sense of how many watts per square foot were being saved in a building of that size, was the first time I started thinking about scale. Moreover when you multiply that by the number of public schools, it leads to macro energy savings. So you start to see space by space how much efficiency you can introduce from a very simple change.

That was back in 2013, where we had a building energy code mandate. In a single decade, the requirement has become half of that. As it was only lighting that I was working on at that time, I got a sense of how much impact one building system could have.

DT : As a student, what it meant to participate in Solar Decathlon and what were your learnings in the process?

FA : The decathlon was my first interdisciplinary experience, and also one of my first hands on experiences on a construction job site. So for me as a student, it meant getting that real world experience to design and build, which I couldn’t necessarily get from my college courses.

It was my first dive into construction in terms of how to communicate with others as an architect, engaging with contractors first hand, seeing a drawing come to life, details that we had worked on that became actual workshop drawings, which were then produced and fabricated by other companies and later installed on site.

It was an excellent design build experience and I think what we learnt from that process is how many different trades are involved. As a student you see how detailed, time consuming and labor intensive the real process is. Also we learnt a lot on residential energy efficiency and how the energy engineering aspect comes into play in architecture.

DT : Being a New Yorker, how challenging would you say it is to build ‘Green’ in Urban areas?

Lot of New York city is an existing construction, which is extremely difficult to retrofit. One real challenge is that a lot of districts are a landmark, so you might not be able to alter buildings in their entirety. So for example its not easy to swap out your windows for a more high performing ones, or to build an exterior wall system.

“So what you really have to do is get creative with how you use your internal space.”

You know how urban areas have high density livings, you have to really make use of every square foot. So what you get in New York city are these micro apartments with this adaptable furniture and lot of modular construction, with flexible floor plan layouts for multipurpose use. Also if you are looking into a multi tenant building for pursuing renewable energy and lets say you don’t have the rights to your roof, you have to get through the building management to get your clean energy.

I strongly believe that it also comes down to how the home owner or the building tenant uses the space and takes some liabilities. Making smart choices like selecting efficient appliances to monitor the utility bills, in order to reduce the heating and lighting consumption. So if you can’t necessarily alter a building per se, there are smaller choices that users can make and that’s also onto the building owner to enforce that education.

Here, people are still finding land to build a new construction or tearing down old buildings, putting up new ones at their place. Very often lot of these projects take an existing space, for leasing it out and retrofitting. So you have to get creative with your space in New York.

DT : As you mentioned the difficulties arise due to lack of ownership. Are their local level programmes that encourages people to have a community voice for sustainable infrastructure?

FA : There is nothing that is mandated by the government but then New York city has been very good about providing resources for building owners or the management or building operators. There are certification programs to learn how to properly operate and make your building function as intended. There are resources where you can actually call and get an energy audit for your building, so you can understand more about how your energy use is impacting the society. There are several education programs that are voluntary.

I think lot of economic incentives for buildings to make smarter choices on energy savings are important drivers. Getting tax break or some kind of rebate for green products is a scenario of win-win for the manufacturers and for the buildings. These sort of economic incentives drive the change and also voluntary actions to want to make that change. So nothing that is mandated by government but those two forces are helping people take the necessary actions.

DT : You have mentioned about the local incentives to build green but there are cities in the USA where local codes regarding energy efficient buildings play a major role. To what extent do you believe is it important to involve sustainable building practices, beyond local codes?

FA : Codes are minimum requirements, so it’s always best to exceed them like you are mentioning. But they are becoming more and more stringent, so I will place an emphasis on having the importance on adopting new codes and its important that they continue to be updated rigorously. But what codes don’t always specify is best practices for installation, we usually have to rely on good set of construction documents – drawings, specifications, as well as an honest hard working contractor, which might not always be the case in New York city.

So beyond local codes, we really need stronger enforcement for construction practices. We have a regulatory body – OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), that checks up on the site safety. Some jurisdictions in the US, they send out inspectors for energy code inspection, but not every jurisdiction does that. So until you have that you can’t really import how the sustainable building practices are coming into play.

Another necessary factor is to have some accountability for energy requirement beyond the construction period. To check if the savings that we are usually predicting in the design are holding true. Whether the user is using the building properly, has someone been trained to properly commission the equipment so that they are performing at desired levels and are the users keeping the windows open while the heating or cooling system is functioning. There are so many little nuances that come into play that need to be taken into account when monitoring these sustainable building practices.

img via FNA blog

DT : Talking about such measures, which project outside USA would you consider wholly sustainable and not just part of a marketing strategy?

FA : This makes me think about my international travels, and there is this one project that I always circle back to and it’s not a specific building or a specific site, but it an engineering infrastructure project in Iceland. They have this very extensive geothermal piping system that runs along the road, it’s visible, like you can see how the country is so renewable! They have this geothermal water that’s running through the piping and its used for so many things, for heating, generating power and also for domestic hot water purposes. Even recreationally they are using it for swimming pools and those very popular blue lagoons.

So to have this geothermal hot water that is heating homes, a very natural resource that has cut emissions in the country, and they have been doing this since like 1940s. I am impressed how their government has been able to establish such a system with specific energy convention and they have been supportive and engaging. Their emissions are super minimal in comparison to most of the countries.

DT : In your experience, what strategies can help mainstream environmentally-conscious construction?

FA : I think for me, because of my experience with government, legal enforcement is one of the best strategies. Otherwise what happens is, people look at the upfront costs only. So you have to get the government involved in form of stringent building codes that are updated on a continuous cycle and retaining local council’s support for reviewing local laws, which New York city has been very good about.

The government involvement hasn’t been in sustaining a competitive economy, where manufacturers are trying to build up the next best performing product and outperform each other. Good government involvement will force the economy to improve. When you have manufacturers that are trying to produce products to meet government regulations, you are going to have automatically good products that are around the shelf. Your economy will scale up, because it will become normal to be able to go into a store and whatever you pick is going to be great for the environment.

I think that’s important because the consumer has little technical knowledge sometimes. It becomes a new norm, to be able to go out and purchase a product for your home or your business, that is going to contribute to its energy efficiency. Because right now there is a huge gap between consumer market and what is actually being produced.

DT : As an architect who is working for sustainable design, what are your day to day responsibilities and work specifics?

FA : I am currently working in the technical standards development side. Our agency has very rigorous set of standards that guide design and construction for public schools and what I do is I have to take a look at building code updates, green building local laws, LEED certification. So our standards integrate some of their policies and our sustainability design standards. So we have to look at updates in that and then integrate those changes into our standards. I also work as a sustainability consultant for in house and out sourced projects, focusing on project triggers, project criteria and checking on different compliance systems.

DT : A word of advice for future and young practitioners in the global south, who are adapting to Green Architecture?

FA : One thing that I would tell to someone who is going into green architecture is to be mindful of all the building systems. If you are going to work with sustainable buildings, then you have to look at energy engineering and building operations. It’s very important to dive into the way building functions and understand how the systems will perform in synergy.

There is so much technical knowledge, which is overwhelming at times and hard to grasp, but that’s what is going to affect your building’s performance and energy efficiency. So these are the things that your learn when you work, little by little. Most importantly try to get into the mindset of an engineer for understanding building sustainability.

I would encourage young architects to have a background knowledge on technical standards, which will be driving your design. Most importantly to get involved with the government, because that’s the direct force for change in the industry.

We are grateful to Farah for a professional insight into the green building industry of New York. We encourage our readers to follow her blog that covers her various expeditions as educational resource. You can also follow her on Instagram @renewablefarah and on Twitter @farah_arch.

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