Penn State and UNECE renew Global Building Network

The University and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe extend their partnership to continue advancing a healthier, more sustainable built environment


By Samantha Chavanic and Ashley J. WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the goal of creating an international framework to make buildings more sustainable, more efficient and healthier, Penn State and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe renewed the Global Building Network, coordinated through the College of Engineering, for another three years. The strategic initiative renewal announcement comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report underlining the urgency for action, with a focus on equity and justice, to bolster climate-resilient development in the face of already challenging warming.

“Aligning the performance of our building stock with the UN Sustainable Development Goals targets and the Paris Agreement objectives — such as reducing greenhouse emissions and improving the air quality of the indoor environment — requires a transdisciplinary approach, connecting knowledge from the built environment domain with insights from all the other disciplines,” said Esther Obonyo, GBN director and associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering at Penn State. “A multidisciplinary approach is required to address the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability in a more comprehensive and holistic manner. That is what the GBN aims to accomplish.”

Created by the University and the UNECE in February 2018, GBN fosters an internationally connected community of built environment researchers and educators and facilitates training of the next generation of built environment professionals to not only independently innovate but also collaborate to scale and translate local solutions globally. The GBN serves as one of the pillars in the UNECE’s High-Performance Buildings Initiative. The other pillars include international centers of excellence, a high-level strategy group and an industry leadership group supporting case studies that demonstrate UNECE’s Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings.

“The High-Performance Buildings Initiative aims to transform the built environment in terms of how buildings are conceived, built, operated, maintained and eventually dismantled, and how the built environment delivers quality of life,” said Scott Foster, director of the Sustainable Energy Division for the UNECE. The division is responsible for developing and deploying Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings. “To meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the quality of life and energy performance of buildings, as well as their embodied energy and carbon, must be addressed urgently. Our partners at Penn State are strongly committed to such issues and prioritize diverse collaboration to address global issues that require local solutions.”

Under Obonyo's leadership since 2019, GBN has established partnerships with eight industry and non-profit organizations and 30 higher education institutions in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia to collaboratively advance research and education methods.

“Since the 1970s, a lot of effort has been invested in making buildings more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient while also reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the built environment,” Obonyo said. “This notwithstanding, we are still not on track to achieve the carbon emission reduction targets associated with the building sector. Through the more inclusive and innovative approaches the GBN enables, we are making greater strides to achieve sustainable development.”

Over the next three years, GBN will continue seeding and catalyzing research projects focused on climate, health and the built environment in collaboration with the Penn State College of Medicine and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. Obonyo explained that additional research concepts that connect the built environment with human values are being explored through a new partnership with the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute.

“We are dedicating people, time and facilities to advance the deeply important work of creating a sustainable world as we connect globally to implement locally,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “In collaboration with UNECE, we are creating adaptable educational opportunities to prepare our workforce for the shifting realities of built environments shaped by climate change — to equitably improve the ecosystems of our interconnected and, often, interdependent communities. Our projects vary as greatly as our partners do because no single solution for all exists. We are depending on the varied experiences and skills of our faculty and students across Penn State — and partners beyond the University — to develop the best answers to benefit the most people.”

According to Schwartz and Obonyo, GBN draws from building and energy expertise and research from units across the University, including but not limited to the Department of Architectural Engineering, the Department of Architecture, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the Sustainability Institute and the Materials Research Institute. GBN also works closely with the Penn State Global, the University office that oversees study abroad experiences and more, to establish international relationships and highlight the importance of collaborative work beyond national borders, Obonyo said.

“We aim to continue building and fostering connections and partnerships across Penn State and across the world through the GBN and its renewal, motivated by the sustainability goals set forth by the UN,” Obonyo said. “The IPCC’s sixth assessment report will certainly drive more attention to these critical issues, and we look forward to welcoming more collaborators to make a significant impact.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations

"In collaboration with UNECE, we are discarding silos to continue creating educational opportunities that are adaptable and reflect realities. Our projects vary as greatly as our partners do, because no single solution for all exists. We are depending on the varied experiences and skills of our faculty and students across Penn State — and partners beyond the University — to develop the best answers to benefit the most people."

— Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering