Forest Hills has been singled out as a “sustainability maverick” by the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a project of the Green Building Alliance, in its 2023 Progress Report.

The distinction extols the borough’s progress toward making all its buildings as energy efficient as possible. When officials decided to construct a new borough building, completed in 2018, they created the newest net zero energy building in the region, according to the report, benefiting and serving as a model for its residents and saving operational funds. Then they passed a resolution in 2020 to achieve net zero emissions throughout the community by 2050.

At a news conference last month that highlighted the district’s continued progress toward carbon emission and energy use reduction goals, GBA leaders singled out the borough and especially former council member and vice president Patricia DeMarco for their work in energy efficiency among other achievements from its property partners and district affiliates.

DeMarco said in a news release on the report that Forest Hills knows that efficiency in operations is a critical commitment to make to its citizens. This requires looking ahead toward highly uncertain times, and a component of that is controlling what it spends on energy use by making its buildings as energy efficient as possible. That happened and will continue to occur, she said.

In total, 2030 District Property Partners reached a 48% reduction in carbon emissions in 2023, or 507,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions avoided, according to the release. This figure, which includes the purchase and/or production of renewable energy, reflects an improvement over the district’s last year’s reduction totals of 44.8%.

District leaders said this moves the district closer to its target goal of 50% to 65% reduction in carbon emissions by the 2030 deadline, with the district continuing to pursue zero carbon emissions by 2040. 

The GBA is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit founded in 1993 and one of the oldest regional green building organizations in the U.S. that pursues a number of initiatives to create sustainable and healthy built environments. Its Pittsburgh 2030 District is a founding member of the 2030 Districts Network, which connects more than 20 cities across North America. Founded in 2012, Pittsburgh is the largest 2030 District, according to the news release. The district convenes regional property managers and helps them reduce emissions, decrease energy demand and water use, and improve indoor air quality, all while saving utility costs, according to its website.

The district’s property partners represent more than 540 buildings occupying more than 86 million square feet. They include a variety of sectors and building types, including office towers, hospitals, hotels, multifamily residential buildings, universities, professional sports facilities, museums, municipal offices and facilities, and K-12 schools, according to the release.

The GBA covers a 26-county region in Western Pennsylvania, and while the Pittsburgh 2030 District is hyper-focused on Pittsburgh and nearby communities, outreach has been extended to properties within all those counties. For example, Erie has a project, and partners and affiliates are located in Lawrence, Butler and Westmoreland counties, according to Chris Cieslak, GBA chief operating officer and director of programs.

These 2030 District partners achieved a 22.3% reduction in energy usage in 2023, reflecting a savings of $60.5 million in energy utility costs and a 39.4% reduction in water usage, according to the release. District-wide energy performance has hovered around 22% to 27% reduction below baseline since 2020, though, suggesting a plateau in energy demand performance.  

“We congratulate our 2030 District Partners on their achievements in reducing carbon emissions in 2023, as the collective impact of their work is significant,” GBA President and CEO Jenna Cramer said in the release. “However, it is important to note that these important gains in carbon reduction were in part due to an increase in the production and purchase of renewable energy. There is so much more we can accomplish together through investments that reduce energy and emissions, as well as increase renewable energy generation. These include LED retrofits, installation of occupancy/vacancy sensors, investments in new energy-efficient HVAC systems, building envelope improvements such as adding insulation and sealing air leaks, and improving facilities operations.” 

Other actions cited that can reduce existing buildings’ impact on the climate include producing carbon-free energy by installing solar panels, reusing building materials and designing for deconstruction, and selecting building materials with low embodied carbon and that are locally produced.

The GBA and the district start work with their partners — who join at a variety of levels at a cost of less than $500, dependent on the type of organization — with a preliminary energy assessment of their buildings. Cieslak compared it to going in for an annual checkup with a primary care physician. Staff interview leaders of those organizations, reviewing energy bills, for example, and compare how they stack up against similar buildings, efficient or nonefficient. At annual meetings they talk through possible energy- and emission-saving projects, and then connections are made to architects, engineers, weatherization specialists, vendors and others to plot the best course and save as much as possible. Members pledge to share energy use data in return, which is kept confidential.

Cieslak said, “We connect them with what’s available in the marketplace,” as well as state and federal government programs and funding options. “Our job is to find the people who have taken advantage of the opportunity and come in and do a presentation [for members] and share their lived experience.”

She noted that district members have different eligibilities for these programs, and the available programs can vary. “It is very difficult to keep up,” she said. “We have a number of resources that keep us connected to the changes.”

Its work has moved GBA and the district six years ahead of long-range goals of reducing carbon emissions by 2030, Cieslak said. All the work done by district partners and affiliates is voluntary.

“Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the carbon emission. We will always need energy — in whatever form it takes,” she said. “The GBA has a two-prong goal: reduce overall energy demand and, second, make the demand you have cleaner and more carbon friendly. This year we found more purchase of renewable energy, but the energy efficiency projects — through LED bulbs, detectors and more — stayed steady. It didn’t get better. We wanted both to get better.”

Patricia DeMarco, former Forest Hills borough council vice president and director of the Rachel Carson Institute in the School of Sustainability and the Environment and a senior scholar at Chatham University. (Courtesy of Green Building Alliance)

She said DeMarco, the director of the Rachel Carson Institute in the School of Sustainability and the Environment and a senior scholar at Chatham University who has had a long career in energy and environmental policy, is an energy champion who inspires her borough. She worked in various positions in Connecticut and Alaska before returning to her native Pittsburgh in 2006, serving as executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association. DeMarco became involved with a number of foundations and CONNECT, the Congress of Neighboring Communities, as well as becoming a Forest Hills council member in 2016.

DeMarco said GBA helped her and her borough colleagues a great deal with technical expertise and resources on the new borough building and its other energy-saving projects. She drew as well upon Rachel Carson’s ethics as a way for people to understand the need for clear air, fresh water, and unpolluted and chemical-free land.

“I don’t think people appreciate all the things the living Earth does for us for free,” she said. The concept of buildings designed for natural systems, meaning using solar systems so buildings become power plants and communities working together to improve the ecosystem, follows Carson’s research and findings. “We have to find a way to make buildings part of our life support system,” DeMarco said. “Demonstrating that a building can create more [energy] than it uses, that’s the first step.”

Forest Hills consciously did not want to use or raise taxes for the new municipal building it constructed and completed in 2018, she said. As council worked toward that goal, the GBA became a source for credible vendors and bidders as well as links to funding sources — for example, state and federal sources.

Back to being a sustainability maverick: In addition to opening an energy efficient new borough building in 2018, the report explained the municipality realized reaching net zero emissions across the borough would feel daunting to its residents. To show everyone that it is possible, council decided to retrofit its seven existing municipal buildings as an example for them. It has its climate action plan from 2018-19 on its website.  

The borough’s Guaranteed Energy Savings contract with Siemens and the solar installations with EIS Solar has led to implementing $3.2 million in energy efficiency and solar upgrades to borough buildings, the news release stated. The project will save 243,000 kilowatt-hours of energy use and will generate a total of 387 kilowatts of photovoltaic solar energy, with estimated annual utility cost savings of $92,000.

Rather than requiring payment for a majority of project costs upfront, the Siemens contract allows Forest Hills to apply the resulting energy savings from its building upgrades to those costs over the lifetime of the project. It began in 2022 with investment grade energy audits for the borough’s seven buildings and a wide variety of building retrofits, according to the progress report. Major renovations included updating HVAC systems, electrifying buildings, upgrading lights to LEDs, adding more insulation, replacing windows and two roofs. The project also outlined implementing routine maintenance schedules to ensure all systems are operating properly. These intensive upgrades will collectively reduce the borough’s energy use by 243,000 kilowatt-hours, lowering its annual utility costs by 79% and improving building comfort and system reliability.

DeMarco decided not to run for reelection last year and instead is mentoring her replacement on council. In the release, she stressed that “Forest Hills is committed to continued leadership in sustainability by demonstrating not only feasibility but cost efficiency and accountability to future taxpayers. We strive for a net zero emissions throughout the borough by 2050.”

The report lauded the borough for its foresight: “One of the most exciting aspects of Forest Hills’ initiative is its proof of concept, confirming that transformative projects are possible in both new construction and older buildings, and that these impacts are attainable for local governments across our region.”

GBA wants to educate residents about the value of this work and projects like Forest Hills’. And one thing that the organization wants to see is a state-level policy change that would enact updated energy performance standards for new buildings and establish standards for existing buildings.

“Updating energy codes could save an estimated 160 trillion British Thermal Units of energy and $2 million in energy costs in Pennsylvania alone while also unlocking at least $5.2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for implementation,” Cramer said in the release. “The adoption process in Pennsylvania can take more than four years, resulting in the commonwealth lagging in the latest energy codes. Buildings in Pennsylvania are being built to less stringent energy performance standards, resulting in wasted energy and excess carbon emissions.

“There are also no statewide policies in place for improving energy performance over time in existing buildings in Pennsylvania. Enacting Building Performance Standards could address this gap by requiring existing buildings to meet specific energy or carbon emissions performance targets. Building Performance Standards give building owners flexibility on what measures to implement and have been successful in four states and 11 cities but have not been implemented in Pennsylvania.”

Cieslak said reviewing energy codes now every four years is an improvement over the previous 20-year cycle. But that can still hold environmental and building improvements back for its property partners.

The energy- and emission-savings work the GBA and the district want to see currently happens on mainly a voluntary basis, although technology is available for purchase and implementation. “An issue for some who want to do it,” Cieslak said, “is they may not have the finances to do it. All this has a huge impact on reducing energy bills and have added benefits of reducing carbon emissions that goes toward climate change.”

DeMarco, who will continue to teach and consult, remains active in her borough as a board member of the Forest Hills Community Alliance. She said she is “a big fan” of GBA and the Pittsburgh 2030 District. “They helped me a great deal in terms of technical expertise and resources and understanding the importance of what we were doing,” she said. “Everyone participating adds up to a lot.”

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at