Alistair Jackson - Living Shelter Podcast, from Board & Vellum

Episode 008

Evolution of the Built Environment

How Buildings Must Change with the Climate with Alistair Jackson of O’Brien360

July 26, 2023


Terry sits down with guest Alistair Jackson to discuss the history and current state of sustainable design, as well as where it’s heading. Terry and Alistair explore the development of building and energy codes in the western US, as well as the work of O’Brien 360, a nationally recognized leader in sustainable building.

Learn More About Alistair Jackson

Alistair Jackson is a managing principal and primary thought leader at O’Brien360, a leading force in sustainable design and building advocacy. Alistair has been involved in sustainable building for over 30 years, focusing on simplicity and making sustainable design accessible to all through education and small footprint living.

Episode Transcript

Terry Phelan: Welcome to the Living Shelter podcast, where we explore ways to create healthy, energy efficient and joyful places to live. I’m your host Terry Phelan, a Pacific Northwest native and an architect with over 30 years’ experience designing with a focus on sustainable options. I am delighted to be presenting this podcast series as the Director of Sustainable Practice at Board & Vellum, an integrated design firm based in Seattle. Living Shelter’s goal is to help you expand your green knowledge toolkit, so together we can help build a resilient future that includes comfortable and sustainable places for everyone to live. Our guests share their years of experience in one or more of the many facets of the green and natural building industries. With topics like material choices for health and wellness, energy efficiency and carbon reduction, regenerative site design, waterway health, and other big picture ideas from thought leaders we think you’ll find inspiring.

In this episode, we’re going to start with a look at the current state of sustainable design, especially in the western US and how its developed over the years. Then, we’re going to dive into some exploration of what is next. Building codes and energy codes have changed and keep changing, which is a blessing, and a challenge. Technology continues to present new products and possibilities. This can be exciting and encouraging, yet we don’t fully understand the consequences. We keep searching for a path to a truly sustainable future. And how we make and operate buildings is just one element of that paradigm. These are big considerations that deserve as much time to ponder as the things we celebrate along the way.

I’m honored to introduce my guest today, Alistair Jackson. Alistair is a thought leader and a Managing Principal at O’Brien 360, a Seattle based firm providing strategic consulting, building performance modelling, rating system certifications, and commissioning for multifamily and commercial construction projects. Hi, Alistair, and welcome to the program.

Alistair Jackson: Hi, Terry. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Terry Phelan: You’re very welcome. Now I know you’ve been at O’Brien, which is now O’Brien 360 for about 20 years.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah.

Terry Phelan: What kind of work did you do prior to that? And how does that inspire your work?

Alistair Jackson: Interesting. Yeah, I have a kind of multifaceted portfolio of careers. My college degree was in environmental science. From there, I went into the watersports industry and was involved in windsurfing, and kayaking, and, and all of that, for quite a long time, and ended up in Hood River, Oregon. And decided at that point, it was time to stop having fun and do something serious with my life. So, I went back to the UK, actually, and started working for The Body Shop International (skin and hair care retailer), first in the fair trade department, and then more involved in workers’ rights and human rights. Actually wrote human rights policy for The Body Shop International, again, back in the ’90s, when everybody was starting to understand the complexity of child labor, supply chains that were opaque, and so on. And so, that was actually a really interesting experience, because I was working with Levi, and The Gap, and Nike, and Reebok and all sorts of people who were similarly struggling with those things.

And stayed with The Body Shop really for an extended period. I was running their, their sustainability program here in the US, and then moved here to Seattle and ran into Kathleen O’Brien. And that was when I sort of stepped into more of the built environment work. And I think, you know, that sort of breadth of experience has really kind of helped me, you know, the fact that I sort of came out of a bit more of a sort of human rights and social auditing, social program management, I guess.

Terry Phelan: Yeah, The Body Shop was really one of the early adopters in all the worker rights, and…

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, thinking about supply chains and the impact that business has on communities was something that The Body Shop plugged into very, very early on. We were the first company to do environmental audits of our products all the way from source to consumption and going down the drain.

Terry Phelan: Wow, I didn’t realize it.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah. And then sort of did the same with social auditing. So, took that same approach to say, actually, we should talk to all our stakeholders and understand the impact of our business on them, not just our shareholders, you know, and that was pretty progressive thinking back then. Ended up being a complete nightmare, I can tell you, but…

Terry Phelan: Well, you open the door, I think, to a lot of the other, the larger companies that found that people were interested in this, that people wanted that information. And I remember when Nike was, you know, people were boycotting Nike because of some of their human rights issues, and that forced them to change. And whether that would have happened if The Body Shop hadn’t been there first or when it would have happened… Somebody would have been there first…

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, we were part of a movement. You know, there were a lot of people — Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farms — you know, there were a bunch of people at that time, who were all sort of taking this same approach. And I think, I have to say, to some extent, I don’t think we were necessarily successful. I know, I tell people that working at The Body Shop International, particularly, was kind of like just being in a campaign organization. You know, it was like we didn’t, we weren’t very good merchants. We made great products, but we didn’t really know a lot about retail, and how to make a lot of profit. And so that was sort of challenging when that was your business. So, I think we didn’t necessarily build a model that could be replicated in the more standard, corporate environment. But I think it certainly helped to make progress. You know, I think that recognition that stakeholders are an important consideration is something that you find this, sort of, you know, the Built-to-Last companies tend to think about more — they’re not pure profit oriented, they see some bigger picture and recognize they need to deliver value to more of their stakeholders rather than just to their shareholders.

Terry Phelan: And that’s, that’s a really interesting place to come into the building industry from; and maybe 20 years ago, it wasn’t as evident that the whole the stakeholder side, and the equitability, and affordability — it wasn’t as prevalent, it wasn’t as in focus as people are asking questions about those things today.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah.

Terry Phelan: So, 20 years ago, what were you seeing then? And what are some of the big things that you’ve seen change since then in the green building world?

Alistair Jackson: Wow. A much higher level of sophistication, I think, now. You know, there’s such a spread of capability within the building industry generally, right? I mean, there’s a continuum from the most progressive, to the most laggardly, if you like. And I think that’s always been the case, there are always people who are pushing the envelope.

One of the biggest shifts, I would say, is talking about the laggards, is that we have gone from a situation — you mentioned codes, evolution of code, we’ve gone from a situation where the codes really were sweeping up the laggards, right? They were really focused on health and safety and making sure that nobody built a building that was going to kill its occupants.

Terry Phelan: Right.

Alistair Jackson: And now we’re reaching a situation where the energy codes particularly are stretching the most progressive people that, you know, even the people who would lean towards doing a Passive House or a Living Building find that they’re actually having to push themselves to meet the code in some cases.

So, the code has become a stretch for everybody. And that’s out of necessity, I think, to move the industry because the industry hasn’t moved, you know, construction is very conservative, and understandably so. So, the code has had to keep pushing and pushing to try and get people to move in the direction we want them to.

Terry Phelan: Yeah, and with things like Architecture 2030 and the… What is it? The 2030, what is it? The Seattle 2030…

Alistair Jackson: The Seattle 2030 District.

Terry Phelan: Yeah. I think here in the Pacific Northwest, we are in in the midst of it. We’re in a hotspot where people seem to be a little more willing to make these changes and, as you said, are still being challenged with with the new codes. And the codes, as I understand, were supposed to change July 1st. And now that’s been pushed out.

Alistair Jackson: For Seattle.

Terry Phelan: For Seattle.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, Seattle has pushed their 2021 Energy Code update — has been pushed out to October. The Washington State Code, at the moment, for 2021 is still supposed to come into force on July 1st, at the moment.

Terry Phelan: Okay, and I know that the current, the 2018 codes are challenging, even, you know, as they are.

Alistair Jackson: Yes.

Terry Phelan: And programs, certification programs were built on beating the code, you know, it’s like, okay, the code is here. And to get the certification, you need to do these extra things. And the certification programs now, as the codes move, the programs have to step up. And I don’t know when they’re going to get to a point where certification is just like, not happening, not needed, because the codes are, are as far as they can go. I mean, I think there will still be certifications for programs like Living Building, which is beyond the code. But, uh, you work in certification for things like LEED, and Built Green

Alistair Jackson: Built Green, ENERGY STAR, all of the sort of mainstream, and some of the “not-so-mainstream” certification. Yeah, I mean, it’s a great point, very, very topical. I was in a Built Green committee meeting on Monday. And that was one of the topics on the agenda is, you know — Built Green has always put its star levels with some improvement above the energy code. So, you know, if you’re three stars you’ve got to be 10% above, if you’re four star you’re going to be 20% above, and so on. And it has significantly impacted the uptake of Built Green certification, particularly in the last code cycle, because it’s just become too challenging.

And, so the question of, you know, do we need to no longer require that premium? Do we say, a building that’s built to the current codes is actually about as good as we can expect it to be? One of the arguments that I made, because I am inclined to think that the codes are actually getting to the point that we probably shouldn’t be looking for a lot more than the code gives us — except that we need to make sure people are actually complying…

Terry Phelan: Right. Right. So that’s third-party certification. And, you know, a lot of inspectors will sign off on something on-site, you know, it may be in-line with the intent, but it doesn’t meet the specifics, which can be good, I mean, there’s a particular project that comes to mind, that we did a small kitchen bump out. And to meet the energy code, just that bump out needed to have this extra insulation on the outside to meet the points that we were required, and yet the rest of the house was uninsulated. So, the builder made the case that if we can remove the additional exterior insulation on this bump out, we could put loose fill insulation in the walls of the rest of the house. Okay! That sounds like a good trade.

Alistair Jackson: A good trade. Yeah. Yes, yeah.

Terry Phelan: But it is it’s moving people towards better choices.

Alistair Jackson: Mostly, yes.

Terry Phelan: Mostly. Yes. And, maybe what happens with Built Green is it becomes more about indoor air quality and landscape options and things that aren’t part of the energy code, but are part of health and wellness?

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s a great observation. Because, you know, I think we need to remember that, that green building certifications are about green building writ large, right? It’s about the whole sustainability, from every perspective. We get sucked into the talk about energy, the only thing we really think about, and I think that that in itself has been a challenge because we were still all about energy and not really thinking about carbon emissions. And now we’re kind of transitioned to thinking about carbon emissions. And now we’ll get rid of the carbon emissions, and we’ll start focusing on embodied carbon…

Terry Phelan: Right, I was just gonna say embodied carbon, and some of the insulation to reach the energy goals is high in embodied carbon. So…

Alistair Jackson: …Yeah, those trades. Well, absolutely. And you know, I think talking, we mentioned Passive House already. And I think there’s been that sort of discussion for a while about — where’s the balance there between the amount of foaming agent and refrigerant, and who knows what else we put into the building, versus the energy savings? And at what point did those two lines cross and it no longer makes sense for us to keep doing that? Particularly in this environment, you know, where we have a very moderate climate. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of worthy questions there that we need to be looking at.

Terry Phelan: So, in this climate — in this Pacific Northwest climate — there’s also the Pacific Northwest political climate, which has allowed these things to be adopted more. And so we’ve made some real progress with that support. Do you think we can reasonably do that in other regions in places like the Midwest, or the Deep South where, again, the climate is different, the weather patterns are different, changing too, the political climate is a lot different. And can these things take hold in those places?

Alistair Jackson: I think the answer is yes. I think we’re seeing that shift happen. The Northwest is no longer as far ahead of the rest of the country as it used to be, you know, I think we’re seeing a fairly rapid shift, particularly around energy codes towards adoption of a fairly aggressive set of codes in most of the country, not all of it. But most of it. I know, I have a fairly deeply held belief that we won’t get where we need to go, as far as climate change, and greenhouse gas mitigation and so on is concerned, until we restructure the marketplace enough for it to make sense for people, because we won’t move the market until it makes economic sense, or until something catastrophic happens. And all of the sudden, it’ll make sense for a lot of other reasons, right? And so, I think at the point that we restructure the market, people will then naturally gravitate in the right direction, you know, it’s not a complicated problem to solve. It’s just difficult.

Terry Phelan: You’re listening to the Living Shelter podcast, I’m your host, Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with Alistair Jackson of O’Brien 360, about how the green building movement has progressed, and what might be next.

So, the thought of how we move forward with the economic system that we have; we’ve made good progress, there’s still a lot of work to do, there’s challenges in our economic system, you know, it’s linear. And you outlined some things in an email to me earlier, and I’d love to dive into the thought process that you have, and how we’re talking really big changes in the way people look at how we live, and the choices that we make, and what do we what do we value?

Alistair Jackson: Right. What do we value? And how do we value it? Yeah. Yes, I mean, I do hold the belief that that our economic system is ultimately the cause of the problems we face. And it’s accelerated over the last 20 years or so, as capital has become king or queen. Because those who have the ability to manipulate the market have done so in ways that serve themselves well. And that’s the nature of our free market capitalism. It’s all about concentrating wealth. And it’s in order to do that, the model we have is a linear model of consumption. The more we put stuff through the system, the more we extract and process and turn things into products and sell those products, the better. And our ability to make that process cheaper at one end and the product that comes out of the other end more expensive, increases the opportunity for people to extract value from that system. And so in order to keep doing that, we build systems that then motivate people to want more stuff. And I look at the world we live in and how we experience it. So much of it now is through the internet, and through social media. And all of those are tools that are really just designed to make us feel like we need more stuff. And so that’s not a pathway to anywhere sustainable. Right? Even if we do it with renewable electricity…

Terry Phelan: …We still have to mine things that are there are not going to replicate themselves. Well, right now anyway, maybe there’s a way that we can grow some of this stuff in the future?

Alistair Jackson: Yes, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think all of those things are possible. So, one element of that model that’s flawed is that linearity, and you don’t see it in nature; every other organism on the planet lives in a fairly cyclical frame, it uses things that are completely renewed, they’ve been used before, they’re going to be used again, every cell in our bodies, every mineral, every atom, has been through countless other beings before us. So, that cyclical model is the only one that’s going to work at a scale that we could hope to continue to support the human population on the planet. Unfortunately, simultaneous with population growth, we’re very focused on more consumption, and a better standard of living for everybody. And a standard of living at the moment means more stuff. So, yeah, it’s problematic.

Terry Phelan: It’s the kind of thing that can keep us up at night, if we let it.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It’s, it is troubling. And it’s interesting to me that we are now focused. And this is one of the things that keeps me up at night a lot, is that we’re now focused on fixing our climate problem by producing different stuff. Right? So now, everybody’s focused on buying an electric vehicle. So we have to have an electric vehicle to save the planet. And so our existing gas car is a bad thing. But the $50,000 new car that somebody’s going to manufacture, and however many tons of lithium and who knows what else that has to get extracted from the Earth’s crust in order to make that battery, and is one of the things we have to have in order to get us to the next level. The same I think is true about wind farms, and wave generation and all these other things. If you look at the people now who are promoting and lobbying for renewable energy, it’s actually the same companies that were previously promoting fossil fuel extraction, all sorts of other things…

Terry Phelan: …they have to change their business model, because they don’t want to go out of business as gas becomes the new asbestos. So that’s not a surprise, but it is, you know, they are following the same model of extraction and building these technological things.

Alistair Jackson: Yes, yeah. And this is where I hesitate a little, because, you know, for a long time, the green movement has been sort of tagged with this idea that, that what we want is for everybody to turn off the lights and go live in a cave, right? And, and, at some level, unfortunately, I think we have to take quite a big step back from what we see as a meaningful quality of life at present, because I think the way we measure talking about what we value, the way we measure what is success is very much in terms of physical things… The amount we travel, the places we go, the experiences we have, the stuff we own. And unfortunately, there isn’t enough to go around for 8 billion people. And so if we want an equitable society that we believe is going to be healthy and peaceful, then we have to share what there is evenly. And so how do we re-create what we think of as success in a way that people can have a good standard of living a good quality of life that doesn’t require gigajoules and gigajoules of energy and material to support it?

Terry Phelan: It’s a big, big topic, big question. And it’s really healthy, that we’re talking about it. But the answers are…

Alistair Jackson: …the answers are difficult. Yeah, and scary. You know, I think it’s important to recognize that we, on the progressive left, which I guess is where I sort of locate myself, we can be pretty judgmental about those who don’t share our view of the world and don’t see what seems to be obvious to us, they don’t recognize it, the conversation I have with my partner quite a lot is, you know, that, that as environmentalists, we place the health of the planet fairly high in the hierarchy of needs, right? And, in part, that’s because we care about the future of our children, and our neighbors and their children, and so on. But also, you know, I come from a place at the age of 17, that I wanted to save the world. And when I meant save the world, I meant save the birds and the bees and the animals and the fishes and the trees; I wasn’t particularly interested in the people, I think, they were going to be okay.

Terry Phelan: People will figure that out, we have to save everybody else…

Alistair Jackson: Part of the mix, that’s right. And for people, you know, who may more traditionalist in their thinking, they’re equally concerned, but their priority is for themselves and their families and the people closer to them. And they don’t necessarily recognize that protecting the planet is a high priority for them. And, and that when push comes to shove, and things get difficult, having wealth and assets, and material goods, are going to be important for them in order to be able to look after themselves. And I think it’s very easy to say people just need to understand we have to do these things in order to reach a better future. But for other people, that’s their livelihood, right? So for them, what we’re talking about as being something that must happen, for them is a threat. And I think that’s something that we have to recognize and figure out how to bridge that gap, and come together to say your threats are just as real as mine. And together, we have to figure out how to fix them all. Because we’re not right any more than they are right. So we’ve got to figure out where the actual answer is and I think that’s the thing a lot of us find most challenging is: we don’t know the answers anymore. You know, I mean, we’re experts, right? People pay us for our expertise. And the truth is, we don’t actually know what the right answer is. So learning to be comfortable in that uncertainty, I think is one of the things we’ve all got to grow into.

Terry Phelan: Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s a really good space to consider and, develop our own personal ways of being in the world, so we are able to do that. I mean, it takes real strength to admit that you don’t have the answers.

Alistair Jackson: I hope none of my clients are listening to this!

Terry Phelan: Let’s pull back a little bit into space that we might know a few of the answers about. We’re talking about the economy, and how we can make some of these shifts within the paradigm that we’re living in, at least in the meantime. Code increases are changing the cost of building. It’s making buildings more expensive. And we have more people that we need to house. How do these two things support each other? Or, how do we get to affordability? Or maybe this is not a question that we know the answer to! But a challenge that we’ve been thinking about is, how do we address affordability with the building codes and the energy codes pushing further and further into solutions that cost more money to put in place? I know that there are some government programs, there’s some support that’s happening, especially on the multifamily front. What are some of those things that you’re seeing and how effective are they?

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, I’m just not sure this is an area where we have answers. It’s a complicated question. I think one of the challenges with the codes, in general, is in the pursuit of greater energy efficiency, resource efficiency, but also, reliability and controllability, I guess. I think we may be over complicating things a lot. We rarely go back to first principles, right? And say, let’s write a new code. And let’s decide exactly what it is we want and, and how to get there. The code tends to be layered.

Terry Phelan: Yeah. And additive.

Alistair Jackson: Additive, right. So we push ourselves into a path that it’s then very difficult to back out of. And, and there’s not a lot of bandwidth or interest in trying to find alternatives that will deliver the same goal. So I think think we’ve ended up with a fairly prescriptive process, that kind of constrains people, rather than a clearly defined outcome that allows people to figure out their own way to get there.

And I think, you know, there’s a long conversation about why that happens from a regulatory perspective, and why that happens from an industry perspective. Because I think that the other thing that’s happening is, we live in an increasingly risk averse and litigious society. And I think the tension that comes between the owner of a building, and the designer of a building, and the builder of a building can be kind of counterproductive. In a lot of cases, that’s not the case. But in, I think, probably even more cases, the need for people to do the “CYA” means that we add layers of cost at every level, because in order to make sure that nobody’s going to be able to be held responsible for something going wrong, we double and triple protect ourselves.

And I’ve long been intrigued with the newer models for development, such as true design-build, not in the way we think of it, where we have a building, and we have a design-build mechanical subcontractor, who has some basis of design and basically gets to determine, they design and build their part of it. But the idea of a process where we define what we want the building to do, but we don’t draw it. And then we have a collection of master designers and craftsmen come together and say this is the best way to give you the thing that you want. And this is what it’s going to look like. And I think if there’s a — you’re probably familiar with the integrated project delivery contract — are you familiar? It’s an AIA contract form.

Terry Phelan: I’m familiar with it. I imagine our listeners are not.

Alistair Jackson: Right. So, the conventional contract that we typically see between an owner and an architect and a general contractor to build a project places responsibility and liability in a way that creates some tension between those parties. To be able to create a relationship where those three share equally the responsibility for delivery seems to me might be a really effective way of trying to change some of the drivers of cost, I think there are ways that we could actually… Particularly when it comes to stretching to higher performance, because very often when we’re asking general contractors to do things in their buildings that they’ve never done before to build them in a way they’ve never built before, to use equipment that they’ve never installed before, and to carry the responsibility of it, doesn’t work. And I think that’s an unreasonable expectation, and it tends to drive a lot of cost.

Terry Phelan: Yes, I can see that.

You’re listening to Living Shelter. I’m your host Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with Alistair Jackson of O’Brien 360 today about the way buildings are designed, and how the sustainability movement in the building industry echoes out into so much of other parts of our life.

Alistair, you’re talking just now about how different entities that participate in building take on liabilities. And that reminds me so much of the liabilities of climate change. And the mounting costs of rebuilding after some of these horrific storms, and fire storms, and wind storm,s and tornadoes, and how those are increasing all the time. And something I found interesting is the insurance industry has become quite the proponent of lowering our greenhouse gas emissions and lowering our carbon, which might be one of the keys to pushing this sustainability movement forward. I’m wondering at what point people are going to see that this is an emergency and actually make a change. Because the further and further we go down this road, the harder it is to become unstuck and make these changes. I was really hoping that when the insurance industry stepped into this arena, maybe eight years ago or so, that it was like signaling big things. Haven’t really seen big things yet. Do you have any reflections on that?

Alistair Jackson: That’s interesting. I mean, I think it is changing. I mean, I think there’s a lot we don’t see. And the movement is slow, but significant. And I think there’s a there’s a tremendous amount of activity in all sorts of areas related with action on climate change, right, that that I think we don’t see enough of, and we don’t understand the meaning of, I think, you know, as an example, or a couple of examples, and we’ll come back to the insurance, the role of insurance in that because I think it is really key.

But I’ve been looking recently a lot more at what’s going on in renewable energy and renewable technologies. And, you know, because I’m conscious of the fact that we live in this little bubble in Seattle, where Seattle City Light has basically carbon free electricity to give us, right, so we can retrofit our buildings to electricity. And we’re pretty much emissions free. There are a bunch of caveats and questions there about the durability of that. But that’s the reality, if we step outside of City Light’s territory, into PSE’s [Puget Sound Energy’s] territory, for example, it’s a very different story right now. And so if I’m having a conversation with a developer, about whether they should put condensing gas, domestic hot water in their building, or heat pump water heaters, then what’s the difference in the carbon emissions? And so in Seattle, it’s very easy because if you do the heat pump, you basically have no carbon emissions from that system. And if you do gas, you have a lot and you’re going to have it forever. If you go into PSE territory, surprisingly, it’s almost no different. Right? So between the electric system and the gas system, there’s almost no difference in emissions because of the emissions in PSE’s electricity.

Terry Phelan: And that’s because it’s coal burning…

Alistair Jackson: …Because they have some coal and a lot of gas.

Terry Phelan: Ok, they have a lot of gas, too.

Alistair Jackson: They have a lot of gas, yeah. That is going to change over time, because the state is requiring that we will eliminate that eventually. But it really struck me as something to be thinking about, is how contextual this issue of a decarbonization retrofit is, because depending on where you are, you might require somebody to do this retrofit and become an electric building and actually not change anything on the emissions profile in the near term. So, what’s going on in the background? And how quickly will we really change to an emissions free grid?

And if you look at the rate at which renewables are coming on, nationally, it’s actually pretty impressive. It’s grown dramatically in the last two or three years, particularly, we’re seeing a really rapid increase in renewables on the grid. Interestingly, we’re seeing almost exactly the same growth in natural gas consumption. So, while we’re making progress, we’re also actually not making progress because we’re retiring coal plants, but we’re bringing on more gas instead. So that all going on, then you take a look at the renewable capacity that is being developed or has the potential to be developed. And, and this is where it becomes confusing. We have, I’m gonna say it’s 1,200 gigawatts of power generation attached to the grid nationally, there is almost 2,000 gigawatts, nearly twice as much, of renewable energy capacity being proposed. So there are actually people who are willing to invest enough money to create more renewable generating capacity than we currently have total capacity in this country. So there is a market that’s saying, this is where the money needs to go, and we’re willing to put it there, the problem is that the grid is not capable of taking that capacity. So…

Terry Phelan: The grid has to be updated as part of this.

Alistair Jackson: The grid has to be updated. The process of approving those facilities has to be changed, because a lot of it is delay in application processing. In this country, I think it takes five to six years for somebody to figure out if they even have the ability to connect to the grid, they have to get an approval to connect. So, they don’t even know if they have a viable project until somebody spends this whole amount of time doing that. I mention that because it was a revelation to me that there is a huge amount of capital that’s flowing now towards renewable energy, because the insurance industry has sent this signal that says, this is looking bad folks. And so the people for whom that is really significant, are moving.

If you look at, you know, there’s so much talk at the moment about ESG, right? Corporate responsibility reporting. There’s a tremendous shift now in how corporations are tracking and reporting their global greenhouse gas emissions, among other things, because of pressure they’re feeling from shareholders, and because there is an increasing recognition that there’s a risk out there somewhere. Unfortunately, you know, there’s a question about how legitimate a lot of their claims are. I don’t know if you’ve followed any of what’s been happening around carbon offsets, and so on recently, where there’s been a tremendous scrutiny of the kind of carbon offsets that people are paying for; people and making claims that they’re offsetting their emissions. But the systems that they’re using to do that, the credits they buy, may not actually be durable.

Terry Phelan: Right, I have seen that there needs to be a lot of scrutiny when you choose your carbon offsets, like, if you want to choose for travel, for instance, right? To not go directly through the airline, but to find your own.

Alistair Jackson: Yes, yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of difference in quality of an offset. You know, planting a million trees is great. But if 995,000 of them die before they get to two years old, then not necessarily doing much for the planet, right? So, I think there’s an amazing complexity that’s starting to develop in the market, because we don’t really understand how to manage that. You know, going back to this idea of how do you change the marketplace to move people in the right direction. But what we are seeing is that the shift is happening. And I think the insurance industry’s focus on their risk, and how they manage that risk, in terms of charging higher premiums is becoming a really significant driver of that change. Because it’s guiding people in the right direction, it’s beginning to change where we place the value, right? I mean, if dollars are the only way that we can really measure anything these days, because I don’t think we have any other systems anymore. You know, how do we skew the market so that the dollars flow in the right direction?

Terry Phelan: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s really good to think about the things that we’re not seeing, but that are happening in the background and thank you for sharing that insight.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah and sadly, I know I mentioned what you pay attention to is a phrase that I find myself trying to focus on more and more because it’s so easy to get sucked into the mainstream media buzz, everybody does a bit of their doom scrolling, I know I get sucked into the news feed every morning. And it’s such a narrow slice of what’s going on, and yet it becomes what we think is going on, and if you don’t step outside of that, and look for other information, you tend to get stuck in this little corner of all the things that the media thinks is important.

Terry Phelan: Well, and we each kind of select our media based on things that we believe. And so what we learn from one news source be could be very different than what a friend or a family member is learning from another news source. And conversations around the dinner table can get quite interesting. Kind of fired up. I want to ask you, you know, those of us in this industry, you know, we carry a big load of trying to trying to make change trying to move this forward. How do you recharge, personally, and what inspires you? What is your exercises or your, your practices to keep you inspired?

Alistair Jackson: That’s a painful question, actually, right now. Because I don’t think I have enough of them, quite honestly. I think that where I find some comfort and relaxation, and maybe calming is just in smallness. One of the things that I think is becoming pretty central, in my thinking of my life is about smallness, it’s just about having a small footprint myself, in the context of, what can we do, you know, talking about carrying a heavy load. And I think I’ve chosen careers or activities — careers doesn’t fit well. The things that I’ve chosen to do, have quite often been with some bigger purpose associated with them, apart from the windsurfing, of course. But most of the rest of what I’ve done has been some ulterior motive rather than just to put food on the table. Increasingly, I think I’m finding myself more focused on just putting food on the table, and growing food, working in the garden, making a choice to vacation locally, I mean, I am going to the UK in next week to visit my mother. But.

Terry Phelan: Family can make a difference…

Alistair Jackson: …make a difference, but doing it selectively, I do think really trying to be more mindful. And it sounds a little kind of touchy-feely and crunchy saying it, but I find a lot of reassurance in moving towards more self-reliance, trying to move — I mean, I think my partner, I are really trying to move ourselves into a place where we can sustain ourselves when, if things get rough, you know, if the food chain collapses, if who knows what happens, if we have a big earthquake in Seattle, right? Are we going to be able to survive? Do we have water? Do we have food? Can we, you know, we’re fairly self-reliant in terms of being able to make things and fix things and do things and I actually think I find that quite refreshing and recharging. There are a bunch of things I wish I could be doing. I have a boat, which I used to live on part-time not so much anymore, but it doesn’t get off the dock very much. And one of the things that I’m committed to this year is to making sure that I spend more time on my boat. So, that’s the thing that I will be doing. But at the moment, it seems to be more about feeding the chickens and digging in the yard.

Terry Phelan: It’s a good time of year to be digging into yard. Planting, planning.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, yeah.

Terry Phelan: Is there anything that you might suggest people do themselves to become more resilient? As our climate’s changing around us?

Alistair Jackson: Yeah, well, I would say all of those things if you are fortunate enough to have a little patch of ground, learn how to grow some things yourself. If only to just get connected to the miracle of life, right? I mean, I think we, particularly those who live in the city, I think, become detached from that reality: the wonder of life. I know, both my kids live here in Seattle. I live over on Bainbridge Island. And it’s almost tangible. The little feeling of relief that I sense in them when they come and just sit in the garden with the trees and you know, talk to the chickens in the backyard, and so on, because they live in this concrete hardscape. And, and in Seattle, it can be a pretty depressing place at present.

Terry Phelan: It can, and it depends on where in Seattle, different neighborhoods are different densities, and different economic systems.

Alistair Jackson: Yeah. Yeah, we very much live in a kind of privileged enclave of Bainbridge, and I’m very, very conscious of that in in comparison with coming into the city. I also think, and this is a trendy thing to say probably at the moment but: stepping away from the screen. And doing the small things that we used to do reading a book, and learning to play an instrument, learning some other craft or skill, learning to sew or knit or do carpentry, or any of those things. I mean, I think that those kinds of old tactile skills are really important. I believe that they feed your brain in a way that that the digital Metaverse doesn’t. So, I think I think those things are important.

Terry Phelan: I agree.

Alistair Jackson: Of course, we’re older. So, if you don’t mind me saying, I’m proud of it.

Terry Phelan: I wear my wisdom with pride.

Alistair Jackson: Yes, we do.

Terry Phelan: So Alistair, where can people go to find out more information about O’Brien and about any of the things that you…

Alistair Jackson: Oh, wow. Yeah, well, I mean, we have a website, In terms of where can you go to find this stuff that I talk about, off the top of my head I struggle to have specifics, but I can probably provide you with some suggestions. There’s a podcast I listen to a lot. Well, there are several but Volts, if you’re interested in the transition to a renewable energy world. There’s a gentleman named Dave Roberts, who has a newsletter called Volts, which is super interesting, very, very, very intriguing. There is a movement for the circular economy, which I believe has a group here in Seattle, which I’ve been meaning to try and connect to but haven’t yet, which is very focused on, how do we recreate an economy that is circular, where growth is not a requirement? That I think is a really interesting conversation to be a part of the present, a lot of interesting stuff going on. I’ll think, there were a couple of other resources I’d meant to list out for you which I can send.

Terry Phelan: Yeah. And we’ll include those in the, the written part of this podcast posting. Well, thank you, Alistair. It was it was wonderful having you here and I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Alistair Jackson: You’re welcome. Me too. Thank you so much for asking me along.

Terry Phelan: That was Alistair Jackson of O’Brien 360, a Seattle based firm providing strategic consulting, building performance modeling, rating system certifications, and commissioning for multifamily and commercial construction projects. I also want to thank everyone listening in, and I hope you’ll tune in again for more in depth conversations with inspirational guests from the world of sustainable design.

The Living Shelter podcast is a project of Board & Vellum, a multidisciplinary design firm practicing architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture for residential, commercial and civic projects. From our studio in Seattle, I’m your host Terry Phelan. Take care and we’ll talk again soon.