How One Community United Behind Its Mayor’s Sustainable Building Initiative

Tips to improve job creation, health, & public support through sustainable design.

In April 2022, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, took a big step in demonstrating its commitment to sustainability, one that may entice more people to move there: For the first time, it shared its energy-performance benchmarking report about municipal buildings.

“Sustainable cities showcase smart choices,” said Vi Lyles, the city’s mayor, who is now in her second term. “As consumers recognize the importance of sustainability, it will change the way they want to live, shop, and engage with a variety of organizations.”

Since 2018, Charlotte, a city of 870,000 people, has been updating its public transportation and building sectors to run on zero-carbon sources as part of a commitment to become a low-carbon city by 2050. By sharing the benchmarking report, Lyles hopes to inspire residents and businesses to join her in strengthening “the health, vibrancy, and viability” of her community, making the city one of dozens across the United States to recognize an emerging fact: People want to live in communities that are slashing emissions. 

According to a 2022 survey by Pew Research, 75% of Americans support the United States addressing climate change, with 69% hoping the country achieves carbon neutrality by 2050. And for mayors, publicly sharing municipal benchmark goals is a best practice that can result in annual energy savings of over 2%, according to the EPA, reducing emissions and improving public health in the process.

Here are some of the lessons learned from Charlotte’s experiment, and from other forward-thinking communities.

First & foremost, reuse or repurpose old buildings

Renovating buildings reduces embodied carbon, which is the carbon emitted during new construction through the manufacture, transport, and assembly of materials. Updating what’s already there is the easiest way to achieve more sustainable communities. 

“If you renovate and reuse the biggest parts of existing buildings—typically the structure and foundation—you can save 50% of your carbon on a project right off the bat,” says Larry Strain, FAIA, a principal at Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, California. “It’s the first thing all architects and owners should try to do.”

But retrofitting existing buildings has benefits beyond carbon reduction.

Repurposing helps form community bonds 

At the EastPoint Project in Oklahoma City, city officials brought together residents and architects to transform a strip mall into a 40,000-square-foot community hub that has now become an economic engine for the area. “This transformation has had a great impact,” said Nikki Nice, a local councilwoman. “It went from an empty, boarded-up building to a place where you can have community engagement. It has awakened and renewed our spirit.”

Repurposing creates new jobs

Compared with new construction, a larger portion of a retrofit’s budget often goes to labor, creating jobs with each dollar spent. More than half of firm billings in the last year (March 2021–March 2022) are from renovations, retrofits, rehabilitations, alterations, additions, and historic preservation work, with much of that likely going to local contractors and communities.

Repurposing promotes equity & inclusion 

Retrofitting buildings has another benefit: Increasing equity and inclusion through community engagement and reinvestment. Renovating a single building can spur growth, but it needs to be done with the existing community foremost in mind to avoid gentrification. Mayors should be intentional about local participation and engagement to meet the needs of residents as well as the property owner. Ultimately, investment in local businesses and entrepreneurs can help build multigenerational wealth across an entire community.

Better materials have better health outcomes

According to research by the University of Pennsylvania, building materials made up of polymers derived from fossil fuels (like PVC pipes and flooring) may pervade our air, water, and bodies, and harm us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Sustainable materials, by contrast, are made from renewable resources that have a minimal effect on human health and are popular with residents. According to a 2021 industry study of over 1,500 homeowners in the United States, 74% agree that ecofriendly materials are better for the environment, with 70% planning to use them in future renovations. 

Sustainable materials can reduce project costs

Frances Yang, an architect in San Francisco, recently helped a client use low-carbon concrete made from granulated blast-furnace slag, lowering the cost of the project and the environmental impact. “The main thing is to start the conversation early and get everyone’s support,” Yang says. “In that instance, we were able to help the client cut 12,000 tons of embodied carbon, making everyone really happy with the outcome.”

Mayors don’t need to go it alone

Sustainable design is challenging; architects can help in many ways beyond designing and modeling buildings. Architects orchestrate building systems that can work equitably for communities in areas like infrastructure, public health, security, and the environment. 

Partner with an architect to discover ways to create resilient and sustainable communities that benefit every citizen—for every budget.