Photo courtesy of Morgane Le Breton

To solve the climate crisis, fix buildings first.

Dear Secretary Granholm,

Your fellow Biden Cabinet member Mayor – now United States Secretary of Transportation – Pete Buttigieg said last week that he’s prioritizing a “fix it first” approach to infrastructure spending. This is the same approach that the United States should take to climate change and buildings. The central societal challenge of climate change is that we have an enormous installed base of infrastructure that needs to be re-oriented around a zero-carbon future. We should focus on fixing our built environment first, even as we add solar, wind and other new energy sources.

“A lot of what we have to do is dealing with a maintenance backlog,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve also got to think about the total cost of ownership of the things we’re building and the things that we have that Washington hasn’t been willing to support.”

Buttigieg’s statements can be generalized – a lot of our climate issue is actually a maintenance backlog. How do we know? We’ve seen it here at Gridium. We work with our customers to meet their energy needs and regularly save 30% – and sometimes up to 50% – of a building’s energy use.

The scale of the opportunity to fix the buildings we have is tremendous. Nearly 40% of U.S. electricity use is due to commercial building operations. And about 80% of commercial buildings were built before the era of modern building management systems that allow the fine-tuning of a building’s operations to save energy. The chillers, boilers, fan units and pumps in many of the buildings we work on are older than Secretary Buttigieg himself. That so much old equipment runs so well is a testament to the tradespeople who tend to it all.

Fixing buildings like this is a huge economic boost. In one example, we are working with a customer who owns a medical office building in San Francisco to reduce the energy use in that building by 45%. For that project, we will retrofit a large chiller built in the 1980’s with variable frequency drives, replace two large boilers of similar vintage with modern high-efficiency boilers, upgrade all the controls in the building to digital, and replace all the fluorescent lighting with LED lights. It’s a $2.5 million, 6-month construction project that will employ nearly a dozen highly-skilled tradespeople and use equipment and systems largely made in the United States. Fixing these systems will drop the building’s carbon impact by nearly half – equivalent of nearly 100 typical homes – all without impacting the grid or necessitating building out new infrastructure.

Boilers in an office building in San Francisco

Let’s be clear. In the public imagination, converting building control systems from old pneumatic lines to digital controls is not sexy. Neither is changing the programming of pump motors and altering building start and stop times. But it’s this non-sexy, valuable repair work that will gain us immediate and meaningful carbon reductions while saving building owners real money. This is repairing the infrastructure we have.

Pump room in a Bay Area biotech lab building

Our culture defines sexy systems as new items, as shiny changes in the world. In our age, these are solar, battery storage, electric vehicles, and the like – are fantastically expensive. Remember that solar plants last for 30 years. Every solar system we build now will have to be rebuilt in 30 years time. This will call into question how much of our energy system we will be able to support financially over time. We should absolutely build these systems. But let’s also fix our built environment so that the overall scale of the new solar buildout and of the energy transformation itself is optimized and is something we can support over time.

The other wonderful effect of Fixing It First? It’s the Ikea Effect. Labor leads to love. When we work with customers to fix their building’s systems, they work hard and they buy in to the results. They grow to love the long-term project of improvement and renewal they are undertaking in our built environment.

Slapping a solar system on a roof is a good, sparkly project but it doesn’t really interact with the building’s operations. Re-routing the air ducts in a building and changing how the air conditioning systems cool tenant spaces is a project that requires attention and intimacy with how the people in a building behave and how they are affected by the work.

This labor leads to a love that carries beyond public relations into the heart of how organizations operate. Because buildings play such a central role in our lives, the labor of efficiency also carries to the heart of how our society as a whole operates. Fixing our buildings and our society are the tasks we should prioritize.


Mark Shahinian
VP Alpha Development
Gridium, Inc.

About Mark Shahinian

Mark works on legal, finance and operational issues at Gridium Alpha. He was at McKinsey & Co. in the Firm’s energy and cleantech practices. He has also been a product manager for software companies large and small. Mark has a BA in history from Dartmouth College, and an MS in environmental policy and a JD, both from the University of Michigan. When he’s not falling off a surfboard, he’s riding a bike on the Bay Area’s roads and trails.

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