A Pragmatist’s Approach to Sustainability: An Interview with Gensler’s Nellie Reid

Posted on 20. Aug, 2009 by in Clean Tech, Design & Culture, Interviews

It’s easy to be drawn to the flashiness of radically innovative design: imagine the possibilities of a futuristic community where every building is entirely self-sufficient and biologically integrated into the natural landscape. What could transportation look like? Spider web zip lines? Solar powered hovercrafts? The possibilities are endless. But here and now, the progress of sustainable design in “mainstream” architecture often comes down to making small incremental changes, both in terms of building practices and in the building codes that determine what is legal, safe, and economically feasible. Nellie Reid, Sustainability Leader for the southwest region at the architecture firm Gensler–a sponsor of the Opportunity Green conference–is quick to remind us that even though we may not be making gargantuan strides at lightning speed, there are many simple changes we can make right now that are not necessarily all that radical, yet still have far-reaching impacts. In other words, good green architectural design is often about implementing that elusive specimen in modern building and urban planning practices: common sense. And it’s not all up to legislators and architects. In Nellie’s words, “political, corporate, community, and individual will are essential to changing the industry.” My conversation with Nellie follows after the jump.OppGreen: What do you think of the new LEED v3 that the USGBC rolled out on April 27? The new guidelines specify careful performance analysis and require all new buildings to undergo re-certification every 2 years. Do you think this will stimulate or stifle innovation and participation?

Nellie Reid: LEED v3 is, without a doubt, moving the building industry in the right direction… and at a faster rate than ever before. And it will be continually updated every two years from this point on to adjust as the baseline in the building industry shifts. The requirement for ongoing building performance is right on target as we cannot just rely on the predicted performance of buildings. We need to know the real data in order to truly understand the levels of improvement. However, I am concerned that we are not moving the industry swiftly enough to have a significant, positive impact. We cannot expect one building rating system to be responsible for market transformation on its own. Political, corporate, community and individual will are essential to changing the industry, as are other rating systems and evaluation tools. The Living Building Challenge, developed by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, is a great example of a new tool that is raising the bar even higher. I’d encourage everyone reading this to take a look and check it out: http://ilbi.org/.

[Author's note: The Cascadia Region Green Building Council is one of the most innovative branches of the USGBC (also connected to the Canada Green Building Council), and is working hard to propel the imagination of builders and architects everywhere toward new heights of sustainable possibilities. Here, the dreaminess of a building that operates "like a flower", meets the technicality and expertise that go into every architectural endeavor.]

OG: Those who write building codes are considered to be a highly influential and powerful group of people right now in terms of moving sustainability forward. What message would you want to send to those who have regulatory power? Are there concerns that need to be addressed, or other suggestions you would make?

NR: Yes, definitely. Regulations vary by jurisdiction, so some of the items below have already been adopted by some and not by others. These are meant to be general recommendations instead of specific to any one jurisdiction.

  • Ban the use of drinking water for irrigation and flushing toilets. Allow for the use of graywater for these purposes instead. Also allow the installation of waterless urinals.
  • Allow for building and land owners to get paid back for the excess energy they are putting on to the grid with their on-site renewable energy (many utilities only allow for a credit, not cash back).
  • Require annual energy performance reporting of all existing buildings.
  • Mandate high performance new buildings, especially in the areas of energy and water performance. Rather than prescriptive codes, adopt performance targets (such as California’s Title 24 Energy Code).
  • Ban plastic bags (I had to get that one in there!).

[You can send your own feedback to the California Building Standard Commission here, or check out their Green California initiative here. Each state has its own set of regulations.]

OG: What are some of your favorite examples of green buildings and practices throughout the world and history?

NR: The projects that really catch my eye are the unexpected ones. This gives me hope that we can overcome barriers and evolve the building industry which historically tends to be an industry most resistant to change. The “if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere” types of story, such as a green roof on a retail store at a mall in Emeryville, CA or a mega-project on the Las Vegas Strip pursuing a LEED rating. They might not be the cutting edge of sustainability, but they took a leap and tried something different and that’s really what we are after: do something….differently.

There are numerous examples around the world of buildings that are raising the bar and are “greener” than the average building just 10 years ago. Of course, in Europe where energy prices have been consistently higher than in the US over the past few decades, they moved towards greener solutions before we had to. For long term sustainability, though, we can only get so far with these small changes and we really need to rethink the building altogether. It is only in the last century, and primarily in developed nations, that anyone has steered away from passively designed buildings and moved towards sealed glass boxes. The invention of air conditioning and cheap oil has made this possible. It is essential that we consider the natural environmental factors of the local climate when are designing buildings, especially in terms of the exterior envelope where there is a huge opportunity for change.

I do believe that we can move the building industry towards a new typology that relies solely on clean, renewable energy technologies and closes the loop on water and materials rather than depending on our finite natural resources.

OG: What do you estimate to be the value of networking in the world of sustainability today?

NR: Networking opportunities are essential to the continued integration of green thinking in our professional and personal lives. We all learn from each other and we can all have a positive impact on each other’s goals if we share what we have learned and inspire each other to take this to the next level…fast! We decided to join forces with Opportunity Green because it reaches beyond the building industry to a broader conversation about sustainability and green business. This opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue will be fantastic for us and inspirational to our world’s emerging leaders in a variety of business sectors.

OG: What message do you want to send to young people who are thinking about or are just entering the green design and green building fields?

NR: Be passionate about what you do. That passion will be what drives you to success. You will encounter many roadblocks along the path and some will seem to never go away, but remember, that is what you are here for. You are here to make these roadblocks go away. You must continue to identify these roadblocks and discover ways around them…or straight through them. And never forget the triple bottom line: sustainability yields value for people, the planet, and profits. Remember it every time you are making the case to a client, colleague or friend and align your approach to the conversation with what they value.

We look forward to continuing the conversation with Nellie in person at the Opportunity Green Conference, this November 7th and 8th at UCLA. Look for more pragmatic and insightful comments in our continuing conversations with Opportunity Green sponsors and speakers.

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8 Responses to “A Pragmatist’s Approach to Sustainability: An Interview with Gensler’s Nellie Reid”

  1. Dr. Laura Dempsey-Polan

    20. Aug, 2009

    Wow and great article!! Very proud to read such insightful words from someone we know and love well! Congratulations and thank you for this needed article–keep them coming!

  2. Yoshidad

    20. Aug, 2009

    Nice interview. I particularly like the convention that says “Oh, so you want to act on this now?…here’s a link”.. and “You want to know more about this?… here’s another link…” Twenty-first century journalism is interactive…

  3. [...] Opportunity Green Blog » Blog Archive » A Pragmatist’s Approach to Sustainability: An Interview … opportunitygreen.com/greenbusinessblog/2009/08/20/a-pragmatists-approach-to-sustainability-an-interview-with-genslers-nellie-reid – view page – cached [...]

  4. Dr.Ivy L. Dempsey

    21. Aug, 2009

    A helpful ‘inside view’ of the thinking about how to build for sustainability — the kinds of innovation to aim for, and the kinds of practical steps it will take to move toward ‘green building designs’. Of particular interest: the markedly innovative work of The Cascadia Region Green Building Council, and its efforts “to propel the imagination of builders and architects everywhere … toward ‘sustainability’. The writer’s mention of “a building that operates ‘like a flower’” — an inspiring vision.

  5. Andrea Pagliai

    21. Aug, 2009

    The first time feels nice– doesn’t it?! This article is well written, to the point, and elaborate enough when it needs to be. I love green-initiative and this article/ interview makes it possible for “regular people” (those who might not be fully up-to-par with all of the lingo or issues of the green movement) to understand what is under discussion. This hopefully promote awareness and encourage others to get involved. Bravissima

  6. Alex Alcala

    21. Aug, 2009

    Great article, I hope to meet Nellie at the conference. for what it seems there has to be a new trend towards products that are active and actually not just stop pollution passively, but products that actually clean the environment.

  7. Carol Pearson

    30. Aug, 2009

    It’s so nice to hear from someone with good, practical ideas of what we can do now to save our valuable resources. Nice article

  8. electroniccigarettes

    17. Sep, 2009

    Great Post. Thanks for the post.

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