To assess the current state of sustainability and decarbonization in healthcare design, Jennifer Kovacs Silvis, brand director of Healthcare Design magazine, invited a panel of healthcare leaders to the stage during a Keynote Owners Panel at the 2023 Healthcare Design Conference + Expo, held in New Orleans in early November.

The group included Ramé Hemstreet, vice president of operations, national facilities services, chief energy officer at Kaiser Permanente; Mary Dickinson, regional director of regenerative design, principal at Perkins+Will; and Jonathan Hunley, system director of facilities infrastructure at Bon Secours Mercy Health.

Together, they held a frank, informative discussion on short- and long-term objectives in place at their organizations, the challenges facing the industry in greening operations, and the role that design and designers can play in the process.

Sustainability in healthcare design

Starting with the big picture, Dickinson said she’s having more discussions with clients about standards and system-wide approaches to sustainability. “We’re now starting to talk at scale,” she said, attributing the push to demand for information regarding companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) activities as well as growing awareness of sustainability rating systems and carbon challenges.

At Bon Secours Mercy Health, Hunley said Mercy Health is focusing on developing standards and understanding the organization’s carbon footprint. “You can’t make goals if you don’t know what you need to do to get there,” he said.

Kaiser Permanente, which has been a leader in sustainable design in healthcare for more than a decade, has its sights on addressing embodied carbon (the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the upstream stages of a product’s life such as extraction, production, and transport) as well as building zero-emission facilities.

Electrification in healthcare

More healthcare organizations are looking to green their operations through energy-efficient measures such as electrification, solar panel grids, and energy-efficient building systems. However, the panel acknowledged the challenges the industry faces in achieving these larger goals, including resource availability and the ability to hire experts on staff to manage these programs.

“All of this costs money that hospitals don’t have,” Hunley says.

Hemstreet added that the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act is helping driving innovation for climate solutions as well as offering tax credits, which can help support smaller and nonprofit systems to consider sustainable options for their facilities and projects.

Small steps toward a greener future

Looking to the future, the panelists said prefabrication, standardized building envelope and MEP systems, and geothermal systems, which replace fossil-fuel based equipment, are “steps in the right direction.”

Hunley added that Bon Secours Mercy Health has done central utility plant retro-commissioning, a process that seeks to improve how building equipment and systems function together, as well as energy modeling to identify places to make easy changes to improve energy efficiency.

Dickinson said she advises her clients to start with one area and build from there instead of trying to make a lot of big-scale changes all at once. For example, she said new concrete mixes with less embodied carbon are hitting the market.

“See if a team is willing to take it on but present it early in the project,” she said.

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