Earth Day Challenges: Thought, Action and Influence
By Traci Rose Rider
In the past few years I have been lucky enough to be deeply involved in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Emerging Green Builders (EGB) program. It was created to provide opportunities and resources to students and young professionals, helping to integrate them into the green building industry. I was on the original committee when it formed just over four years ago in February 2003 and as a result have seen incredible growth, energy, dedication and passion surrounding green building. Architects are trained within a fairly stringent and narrow curriculum, because there’s so much to learn during our formal education about putting a building together, and so few semesters in which to learn it. I’m not arguing that the academic part of architectural training is flawed (or maybe that's another discussion); there are critical things we need to learn before getting out into the real world (like how to make sure your building doesn’t fall down). But that being said, we haven’t traditionally been very well-rounded with regard to the world outside the building industry. Through my experience in EGB, however, I have been able to gain a different perspective on building, including the process and players, which I feel is vital for building industry professionals in the 21st century.
One of the more obvious things to note is that architecture is a profession steeped in tradition. We are one of the oldest professions in the world, and sometimes we act like it. I have been in multiple stereotypical Good Ol’ Boy firms, who mean well, and design and build buildings very well - - within their frame of reference. However, it is that frame of reference that is now shifting with the green building movement, prompting a reexamination of what it really is that we, as architects, are supposed to be doing. I’m currently participating in a program to create an ethics starter course for graduate students in design (all scopes including graphics, industrial, visual arts, landscape and architecture) and we’re hoping to address the next level of ethics that aren’t incorporated into the formal Codes that are published by professional organizations. What is it that we, as creators of future environments, are truly supposed to be impacting? Who and what are we really accountable to?
Shifting our frame of reference is very important and it’s starting to happen, not only in the profession but in academia as well. Shifting our thinking can mean looking forwards or looking backwards – or ideally recognizing the interplay of established and emerging ideas. Think forward and favor the way of emerging technology and developments like SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) and edible fabrics and hydrogen fuel cells. Or think backwards to natural building materials and bikes and locally grown produce. They complement each other, but they are still all a part of the same cycle. It could even be argued that some cases of “forward” are really “backward” and we’re just coming full circle, like natural ventilation in buildings and the use of local materials or choosing to live in close proximity to where you work. Given the right design and creativity, an amazing piece of architecture can reference past models and invite forward-looking perspective.
To get that shift, I would like to pose three challenges:
First, I ask you to think.
As architects, we are encouraged to be creative problem-solvers, but our creativity is typically bound by the established architectural frame of reference I mentioned above. It is our responsibility, as the current and future leaders of our businesses, families, and communities, to challenge the given frame.
Find a different way to think. We're all constantly showered with environmental tips and tricks for living lighter on the planet – what we throw away, what we choose to purchase, how we choose to live and where we choose to shop. In architecture, there are similar useful and simple approaches to make environmental responsibility easier, such as considering solar orientation, water reclamation and local materials. But don't stop at the simple steps. There's a vast opportunity for improvement when we move beyond the tips and tricks.
The Pocono Environmental Education Center building at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania gave a nod to Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio by using discarded tires pulled from a nearby river for its primary exterior cladding on the front façade of the building. Not only did they reuse trash that had been harming the environment, they made it incredibly beautiful. Think outside the established frame of reference. Northern Guilford Middle School in North Carolina not only collects and provides water for the middle school itself, but also the adjacent high school. A 360,000-gallon rainwater catchment tank sits beneath the basketball court, and makes the middle school an exporter of 5.7 million gallons of water annually. Reaching beyond your immediate problem, in this case the middle school, and intentionally expanding your influence, goes beyond the typical scope and should be applauded.
There are nearly 90 local Emerging Green Builders groups scattered around the United States and beyond, each addressing green building in the way that is most appropriate to their location and population. The New York City group caters more to young professionals, while the North Carolina Triangle group has a healthy dose of student participants from Duke, UNC and North Carolina State University. But what they’re also doing is thinking differently about who is involved in green building, and further broadening their scope. There are the usual suspects in the building industry: architects, engineers, contractors clients. Depending on your area, developers may come into the mix. But before EGB I would never have thought about targeting MBA programs to be involved in a green building initiative, and yet some of the most amazing and passionate people I’ve met in the building movement come from a business background. Our NYC EGB group is hosting a Green Fashion show April 19. Who previously regarded fashion as falling within the realm of the building industry? Another of our groups had a sea turtle expert from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment involved in getting the group up and running. That is most definitely not typical in green building – but the diversity is fantastic.
The second challenge: Get out.
We need to get out of our ruts and get out of our comfort zones. Get out of our safe spots. Get out of our contentment with the way things are simply because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Get out and do something, because we all know that there’s plenty to do. And we need to take someone with us as we break out of our traditional frames of reference. We all know someone that is stuck, that is taking for granted the scope that they’ve been given and are not questioning it. See if you can engage a neighbor or a friend or a family member in making a move.
As an architect by training, I recently surveyed established green building leaders around the country and asked how they got involved in green building and the environmental movement. For better or worse, it didn’t have much to do with their formal education at a university, which was what I was looking for; but the interesting thing was what did influence them. Everything else. And I mean everything else. It was a book they read, or someone they heard speak or a co-worker or a movie or a TV show or the fact that they were in Girl Scouts 25 years ago and their parents took them hiking. They got out.
Even if you’re already out taking action, composting in your non-irrigated lawn and driving your biodiesel car to the farmers market, you can look to the places and people who still are moving. It's about engaging community and inviting participation. Bring someone else out of the box. Reach out to someone. Bring them into the fold. Help ignite that spark and help them get out, too.
The third challenge is the common denominator between the two: Influence.
This goes beyond what we’ve been hearing regarding our personal choices and responsibilities. It will be a fantastic day when everyone becomes more conscious of their choices and daily actions, but we can and must take another step. We all possess the power of influence, whether we recognize it or not. Think about who you contact and connect to on a weekly basis -- your clients, your vendors, your peers. We all have influence.
Twenty of our local EGB groups are hosting their own local design competitions for green building and development that is important to their community. The Chicago group is addressing Chicago’s new African-American Firefighter’s Museum that is to become a landmark and community center for the local neighborhood, while Wisconsin is concentrating on the University of Wisconsin campuses and educating the student population. Indiana and Kansas City are partnering with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliates to bring green building to low-income residents. Minneapolis and Houston are tackling mixed-use developments while others, like Cascadia and Arkansas, are addressing single family homes in traditional developments, with the goal of educating both developers and consumers. Cincinnati, New York and South Florida are advocating for community education with environmental centers and park buildings, with Los Angeles targeting an environmental educational facility entirely off the power grid. These projects are not only reaching out to the future leaders of the building industry, but also to the greater community in a variety of ways.
Ray Anderson of Interface is an incredible and frequently noted example of working powerfully within one's own sphere of influence. By shifting the focus of his company, he caused a widespread shift in the commercial carpet industry. It all started when one of his employees gave him a copy of Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. He reevaluated the process his company used to make commercial carpet, looking at PVC backing and the chemicals in the dyes and even the disposal process. After changing the way Interface did things, may other competitors followed suit, and now you’d be hard pressed to find commercial carpet that does not address its environmental impact.
All of this because someone handed him a book.
Majora Carter, founder and Executive Director of Sustainable South Bronx, has enabled her community to come together and create an incredible, ecologically sound, profit-making, job providing benefit and opportunity for her community. Because of an idea she had to improve a forgotten plot of land in her neighborhood. Just an idea that she acted on and took to others.
So put the three together. Think about your position, get out of your comfort zone and encourage the people you know.
Offer your employees benefits to ride share or take alternative transportation. Engage in something completely free, like a tree-planting extravaganza or Habitat for Humanity. Bring in people for lunch presentations to boost environmental awareness – it doesn’t even need to be directly related to your field. If you’re in a traditional neighborhood, advocate for a community garden and donate some of your back yard. Not only will you have fresh produce and teach your children how to care for the land, you may even make new friends and find someone to watch the dog when you leave town for a few days. Talk to your children. Go on hikes. Sponsor your parents with carbon credits from Terra Pass. Ask your homeowners association how to set up composting or to get rid of that stinky chemical that they spray on your lawn every few months. And chances are, if you’re influencing someone, somewhere, with a little twist of effort you can influence a whole new group of people. EGB groups are showing that those people want to be involved, they’re just waiting for an in.
It is all in your realm of influence.
What we have to do is immense, agreed, but not insurmountable. Really, it’s not. So make a move. Make it a good one. And bring someone along.
image: Ballard Library, Seattle, WA