Meet the 2021 Outstanding New Legislator

Rep. Tracey Bernett

House Representative Tracey Bernett (District 12) is the esteemed recipient of the AIA Colorado 2021 Outstanding New Legislator Award. Representative Bernett was an instrumental force behind the landmark HB21-1303: Global Warming Potential For Public Project Materials embodied carbon bill, known as the “Buy Clean Colorado Act,” signed into law on July 6. The bill requires the Office of the State Architect and the Department of Transportation to establish policies to limit acceptable Global Warming Potential for asphalt, cement, concrete, steel, glass, and wood on state-funded building and transportation projects.

She sat down with AIA Colorado to discuss her motivations, the influence architects have had on her perspective, and her plans to improve Colorado for future generations.

What inspired you to seek office and how will the office allow you to make a positive difference in the built environment in Colorado?

I want to make the world a better place! My dad was an engineer, and he instilled in me the values of honesty, integrity, and the pursuit of excellence. My mother was a lifelong activist for environmental causes and inspired my brothers and me to make the world a better place. My core passions are the environment, education, and equity. I am also a world-class runner, No. 1 in my age group for indoor mile, with asthma. I’ve completed 36 marathons. I have to check air quality when other runners just look at the weather. I know that we are in a climate crisis that is also a health crisis.

I worked as a Research and Policy Analyst for environmental legislation with Mike Foote and Faith Winter. My first report was 86 pages on the Health Effects of Climate Change in Colorado. I attended a seminar on new energy and became interested in buildings as the hardest nut to crack. Buildings are the most difficult to transition to the new economy, and I wanted to start on the hardest problem first.

How has your experience as a civil engineer influenced your values and priorities in the state legislature?

I am not afraid to ask technical questions. My sweet spot is technology and business, specifically how technology impacts the business world. I went to Cornell for Engineering and Harvard for an MBA. I worked on the design of nuclear engineering plants, in the aerospace defense industry on international development projects, and was an entrepreneur as a computer industry analyst consultant before being elected to the legislature. I connect technical topics to real impacts that people care about.

Let me tell you a story. It was 10 p.m., Saturday night on the house floor, we were talking about concrete. There I was, talking about concrete in the middle of the night, thinking to myself, “Who the heck cares about concrete?” Let me tell you why you should care. Concrete generates 14 percent of the total greenhouse gas in world. Cement, if it was a country, would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. If we address concrete, we can decarbonize, greenhouse gas is reduced, and pollution is reduced because we can use recycled content. Colorado has some of the greenest steel and concrete suppliers in country, so it’s good for our economy, too.

What motivated you to add CDOT projects into the “Buy Clean” embodied carbon bill? Do you see potential for the bill to expand in the future?

The Buy Clean Colorado Act is only the second Buy Clean bill passed in the U.S. and is unique in its scope. Colorado’s bill not only covers both buildings and transportation, but also is the most comprehensive in terms of materials. It was proposed in 2020 but didn’t pass. I took it in 2021 and included the State Architect and CDOT. I heard from the AIA, suppliers, and manufacturers that so much asphalt, steel, and concrete are used in transportation projects. Transportation projects are challenging. There was a lot of education in transportation stakeholder discussions. They need more latitude to understand life-cycle costs even per mile between asphalt and concrete. I partnered with the Carbon Leadership Forum to demonstrate the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool, worked with the Asphalt Association to share that Arizona has systems that use half of the emissions of Colorado, and that it would apply here. There will be tweaks; we need to give people time to learn.

What are your other priorities for legislative action regarding the climate crisis in Colorado?

My priorities are to continue to work on decarbonization and buildings. I worked with Senator Chris Hansen on HB21-1238: Public Utilities Commission Modernize Gas Utility Demand-side Management Standards, known as “The Clean Heat Plan,” a gas-demand, side management rebate from utility companies for using more efficient gas furnace and appliances. This will encourage the use of more energy-efficient items, like moving to heat pumps, and adds a social cost to carbon dioxide and methane generation. This is a first-in-nation plan and could reduce greenhouse gas by 22 percent by 2030. I want to build performance and impact at on a large scale as well as at the individual building scale.

How can AIA members help in those efforts?

Send Ideas! I’m a big picture thinker that is interested in sustainable infrastructure, the grid, resilience, decarbonizaton, and how to transition from fossil fuels. There is more work to be done in the future and I am excited to help.

Has your daughter’s degree in architecture or your relationship with AIA Colorado reshaped your perspective on certain topics?

At Cornell, I looked into double-majoring in Architecture but it would have taken forever—I am a frustrated Architect! I am living vicariously through my daughter, who graduated with an M.Arch from Cornell. She is interested in sustainability beyond LEED; she has worked with Bill Browning (founding member of USGBC LEED) at the Terrapin Bright Green Center. She has done research for a program to make early design decisions that optimize energy and embodied carbon. Her thesis is on a negative carbon development in Indonesia. She is a strong influence.

Is there anything else you’d like AIA members to know?

Climate change is a health crisis, we need to slow it down, increase resilience, and fight for our children and grandchildren. Architects get it, but there is a lot of education to be done.

For more information on Representative Tracey Bernett’s perspectives, see her op-ed on why we should care about embodied carbon and the social impacts of carbon dioxide and methane. For more information on Representative Tracey Bernett’s experience and support of the “Buy Clean Act,” see her op-ed on HB21-1303. Representative Bernett will also be a panelist at New York Climate Week on September 21 and speaking at the Carbon Leadership Forum Policy Webinar on Oct 8.

About the Author

Jennifer Ramsey

AIA | Architect Practicing in Denver | Editorial Committee Member

© AIA Colorado 2022