Citizen Architect Profile: Carl Sterner

Carl Sterner, Board Member of NEST (Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation) & Member of the Cincinnati 2030 District Advisory Committee

Firm and Role: Director of Design & Sustainability at Sol Design + Consulting

What is the purpose of the organization that you are involved with? 

NEST is Northside’s Community Development Corporation. CDCs are non-profit organizations that help shape development based on the priorities of the community. NEST’s current areas of focus are affordable housing and revitalization of Northside’s business district.

I’m also involved with the Cincinnati 2030 District. The aim of a 2030 District is to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2030, including emissions from building energy use, transportation, and water use. Cincinnati has added a fourth metric aimed at improving occupant health. I served on the working group that got the District started in 2018, and I now serve on an Advisory Committee.

Why did you choose to get involved? 

For NEST, I wanted to contribute to the efforts to keep Northside diverse, affordable, and sustainable. I hoped that my expertise in sustainable design could help NEST further improve its efforts on that front.

For the 2030 District, I believe there is a huge opportunity for cities to take the lead on fighting climate change and drawing down carbon emissions, and I wanted to help make that change happen locally. The 2030 model appealed to me because it is both ambitious–aligned with targets needed to keep climate change to 1.5 degC–and also practical, with a history of success.

How does your experience as an architect contribute to the organization? 

For NEST, my architectural background helps me understand how and where to intervene for maximum impact in our community. It also helps me understand how to achieve design quality and character that is appropriate to the neighborhood, and what to look for when it comes to sustainable design.

For the 2030 District, a big part of the District’s goals relate to reducing energy use in existing buildings. My background in sustainable design and energy modeling helped me make the requirements tangible and concrete. A 50% reduction can sound daunting, but once you understand the path to get there you see that it’s achievable.

How has serving in this role benefits you as an architect? 

Through my involvement with NEST, I have gained a deeper understanding of the development process, including the financing mechanisms for affordable housing and the constraints that come with assembling financing. Design is in many ways a navigation of constraints, so understanding the financial constraints allows me to contribute more productively to projects.

For the 2030 District: Because of the focus on existing buildings, much of the discussion here revolves around the needs of building owners and facility managers. These folks are juggling a large number of priorities, and understanding their perspectives can help architects design buildings that better address the needs of clients and the end users–and that also perform better, because so much of a building’s energy use depends on how it is used and operated.

How much time and effort does your role require? 

NEST has just one paid staff member, our executive director Sarah Thomas—which means a good amount of our work happens through the volunteer efforts of the board. In addition to monthly board meetings, members serve on at least one committee, which have their own monthly meetings and often several hours of effort in between.

My level of involvement with the 2030 District has scaled over the years depending on the needs of the organization. Launching the District initially was a big effort from a number of very committed volunteers. My current role on the Advisory Committee involves monthly meetings with some work in between.

Would you encourage other architects to get involved in similar organization/committee? If so, why? 

Absolutely, it is incredibly valuable for architects to be involved as advocates, helping to shape policy and community development decisions. Architects have unique expertise about the forces that shape the built environment, from codes and policy to cost and buildability. Often times the “rules of the game” constrain what we as architects can do on individual projects. In many cases, those rules or incentives need to shift to achieve our goals, whether that’s rapid decarbonization, or diverse, vibrant neighborhoods, or affordable housing, or historic preservation, or any number of other important goals. Designing those policies can be even more impactful than designing our buildings—and can ultimately allow us to design the sorts of buildings we really want.

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