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04/08/22 USC School of Architecture Alumna and Resilience Engineer, Brittany Moffett, Helps Tackle Decarbonization and the Preservation of Affordable Housing in Los Angeles

 

Since graduating six years ago, USC School of Architecture alumna Brittany Moffett (Master of Building Science ’16, BS Civil ‘14) has found a home at Arup, a mission-driven global engineering and consulting firm committed to sustainable development. There she has an uncommon but emerging role: Resilience Engineer. In her work analyzing risks and drivers of change in the built environment, she’s dedicated to meeting obstacles head-on and turning disruptions into opportunities for growth.

 

“Right now, the world is grappling with multiple concurrent crises, like climate change, housing insecurity, energy burden, and deep systemic social inequalities. None of these profound societal issues can be tackled in isolation – we need to understand how they intersect to design solutions that move the needle on all,” remarked Moffett. “We need to get clever about maximizing co-benefits and ensuring those benefits accrue to those at the frontlines of climate impacts and historically excluded from investment.”

 

Her recent work includes a study for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)

facing a critical question:

 

what are the unintended consequences of potential emission reduction requirements on the affordable housing sector in Los Angeles and how can those consequences be mitigated?

 

Buildings are significant contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – in LA accounting for 43% of the city’s total emissions. Achieving California’s ambitious climate goals will require not only removing fossil fuels from energy generation but also from buildings themselves – like natural gas-fired boilers, space heaters, and stoves. NRDC engaged Arup to study the impact of moving away from natural gas in buildings (building electrification) on the existing affordable housing in Los Angeles to inform their advocacy on potential policy and program pathways.

 

“For existing buildings, electrification is more complex. It's not as simple as plug-and-play. Especially for older buildings, this may require upgrades to panels, the electrical service, running new wires, adding outlets - you might run up against space constraints and other gymnastics caused by existing conditions,” continued Moffett.

 

“So here is this pressing need at the societal level at the same time as so many households are in crisis. In LA, there is a rent emergency that COVID-19 only turned the volume up on. The affordable housing sector is limited, overstressed, and fragile – so any required changes or disruptions poses an extreme risk of unintended consequences. The worst-case being displacement,” explained Moffett.

 

The study spanned energy modeling, cost estimating, market research, policy analysis and program design recommendations. Critically, it was informed by targeted outreach and conversations with non-profit housing owners, tenants’ rights groups, environmental and other CBOs, as well as implementers of energy retrofits, and other researchers and subject matter experts.

 

What Moffett and the Arup team found in modeling a prototypical multifamily building in Los Angeles was utility savings for both the utility owners and tenants. The operational savings were due the efficiency gains of replacing older gas equipment with today’s all-electric equivalents. However, the key takeaway was that those operational savings were not significant enough to defray the first costs: investments, protections, and new approaches are needed to support the affordable housing sector so that costs are not passed down to renters.

 

Solutions identified in Arup’s published report include innovative approaches to incentives, technical assistance for contractors and owners, new ownership models, rental protections, and a process centered around authentic community engagement. Their recommendations aim for bottom-up market transformation.

 

“A disruption is also an opportunity. When a system is disturbed, you have a narrow window to get clever around how you change it and develop new approaches to addressing underlying issues and stressors,” commented Moffett. “The question becomes how do you not only keep people in their homes but leverage any investments in building decarbonization to preserve affordable housing? How can we look at retrofits in the context of keeping housing affordable and keeping it safe and healthy in the face of climate impacts?”

 

“We’re proposing that the best way to move forward with building decarbonization is to center affordable housing. This sector is so complex, facing so many intersecting challenges, that there’s a risk of leaving low-income renters out or behind,” continued Moffett. “By starting with and investing in this sector, the growth in local labor skillsets and product demand will only benefit the larger market.”

 

“Because ultimately in order to have a bright future for this city - in order for Los Angeles or any city to be resilient - we need to keep people housed, energy affordable, and that housing comfortable while we reduce emissions,” said Moffett.

 

“I feel incredibly grateful that I get to spend my workdays thinking about this. I get to collaborate with brilliant and empathetic thinkers like Heather Rosenberg, who leads the resilience practice and co-authored this research, on projects at the nexus of climate action, resilience, and equity. And I can draw a straight line from where I am today to my time at USC School of Architecture,” stated Moffett. “The Building Science program set me up to think flexibly and holistically about the built environment and the communities that rely on it.”

 

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