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Keynote Message: Building Sustainability Conference

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I have developed a sneaky way of choosing keynote speech topics:  I put off sending the organizers a title, so that they make one up and I can see what they really have in mind.  Making a Living While Making a Difference is a book I’ve written 3 times over 15 years, a guide for folks who want to leave the world a little bit better than they found it.  The life lesson that gave rise to that book was my opportunity to compare two jobs I had in a short sequence.  First, I tried to be computer programmer because it was a no-fail, growth industry. I couldn’t drag myself to work.  Then, I tried to be a freelance journalist with $50 in my pocket and a mattress on the apartment floor in Boston in 1980.  I succeeded.  The difference between those two gigs was not my intrinsic talent, not the capitalization of the job or the market, but the juice I brought to the game.

The 10% Challenge is our flagship campaign at Sustainable Hudson Valley, an invitation to communities to cut energy use 10% and get 10% of their people involved.  That goal has been embraced now by 14 municipalities representing a little over 100,000 people.  The participation has been the exciting dimension.  Communities have got kill-a-watt meters for loan at the libraries, school teachers dedicated to outreach, and all sorts of other creative tactics.

The common theme in those two pieces of work is human potential and the value of setting stretch goals.

What is this chick talking about stretch goals for, when it is a stretch to be here and not cleaning up wreckage from the recent storms?   We have all been slammed one way or another by the weather, the economy, and life.  And yet the current environment of instability is kind of an equalizer – whether you are well off or struggling financially right now, you are part of a community that’s increasingly aware of our shared vulnerability.   If you have survived in the building trades, or in green building business development, or in conservation, I don’t need to tell you about stretching yourself and being a renaissance person. It’s a condition for survival.   When we wake up to the fact that the world isn’t fair and that much worth doing is nearly impossible – and we make a decision to surrender to the possibilities – something happens in us as human beings that makes all the risk and uncertainty worth it.

Let me illustrate this with a story from Making a Living While Making a Difference.  David Griswold was a business major with a low-key curiosity about environmental issues and social justice.  He put in a stint as a researcher for a Washington DC foundation and found that pretty interesting.  Then he reached a crossroads when his wife decided to spend a year in rural Mexico working for a nonprofit, and he had to keep busy and look useful as her spouse.  He found a fair trade organic coffee plantation that would let him help pick beans — for a few days, until they saw how bad he was at it.  They said, “We have a lot of tough people who can pick the coffee beans all day.  What we don’t have is help in marketing our product.”

Next thing he knew, he was flying on airplanes as their marketing representative — and being turned down by over 100 prospects.  Finally, he did the deal that brought these beans to Ben & Jerry’s for their coffee ice cream.  In the process, he quit the job regularly.  He said later, “It was more than I bargained for. I thought I would pick beans for a few months and then bag it and go to graduate school.  But at the hardest point, a Mexican peasant named Arturo Zavaleta grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Look, gringo, down here we have a saying.  In the rainy season, when the rivers flood, you can be in the middle trying to cross, and lose your bearings. But if you turn back, you won’t make it.  You have to keep going and get across.”

Griswold ended up a business partner in an organic fair-trade coffee company.  I am guessing you can relate to those risk and struggle factors whatever your business.  Risk is certainly real for anybody building anything right now, nevermind building high-performance, long-lived, or innovative buildings.  Think about the exciting structures that have come into being in this region and Metro NYC – 4 Times Square and 1 Bryant Park and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living and the Common Fire Foundation’s greenest home in the northeast in Tivoli.  Every one of them  took deep faith and over-the-top effort.  And I don’t think any of the builders or owners regrets taking those risks.

This morning we are going to hear some very concrete presentations about building techniques that save energy and create building investments for the long haul.  That is inspiring.  Whether you are an environmental preservationist or a community developer, it’s apple pie to support buildings that work and endure.   All the more when you consider the supply chain for green building and the jobs that are created as it scales up:  in landscaping and framing materials, windows and appliances, insulation and lighting.  One of my favorite things to watch for is the annual press release from Environmental Building News on their top 10 green products – for quality, innovativeness and solutions to pressing problems.  This year’s selections include a packaged graywater system facilitating landscaping water efficiency, a pioneering solar thermal system using water as its heat-transfer medium instead of glycol for increased efficiency, an air-to-air heat pump system with integrated tenant submetering—key for multifamily applications— and a durable, PVC-free resilient flooring.  It’s a reminder of how sophisticated with green building movement has become.

If you are in the biz, or approaching it, how can you find your next opportunity?  My thoughts:

Be a bolder builder.  give those who want to live greener, save money and invest in a home or business site of durable quality, a lot of options for doing so. This includes options for justifying any higher first costs, if there are any. It also includes making decisions about safety – such as not to use toxic insulation – as a matter of professionalism, not leaving obsolete practices on the table for consumer choice.   Consider energy paybacks, health paybacks, quality of life, real estate value.

Get really good at a few green things.  Timber framing…..  zero-waste homebuilding…  the Passive House…  siting for solar gain…  indoor air quality…  interior design to maximize functional space… water-efficiency…  Be a go-to person for best practices you care about.

Identify a “community of practice,” of people in your area of specialization, or maybe your geography, who want to push each other forward in building for the future with greener methods, and to build support among other builders in their networks.

These factors – excellence, passion and a support system — are necessary, but in a hostile economic and policy they are not sufficient. And so I prescribe a 4th strand in the web.

Accept citizenship as a necessity.   Choosing your battles, of course, advocate for building codes, zoning and other aspects of the regulatory playing field that make it easier to do the right thing.   And understand the connection between local opportunities and the state and national policy arena.

Whatever your politics, please realize that public investment in public infrastructure has been with us since the dawn of the interstate highway system, and public policy is not neutral in its favoring of technology. Building codes set a high or a low bar for energy and health performance in our buildings.  Zoning makes it easy to create livable efficient affordable neighborhoods, or more difficult.  Part of the peak performance we need is to get really inventive about incentivizing and financing energy efficiency and other green practices in ways that are also efficient with public dollars, as we will see illustrated later in the program.

Certainly the Obama jobs proposal will do its part to create green building jobs, in both school and infrastructure upgrades.   If you are not a fan of direct federal investment in any of these arenas, consider how state or local money can be used for leverage to support energy efficient building, such as loan funds and interest buydowns from our local banks.   The American Institute of Architects catalogues a number of good proposals in its Architecture 2030 framework, which is all about using a little public money to leverage a lot of private investment.

If we want to get ourselves and our neighbors fully employed, make our communities livable and vibrant, and build resilience in the face of the next storms to come, we need to create a culture of high performance building, high performance people and high performance workplaces.

I think, for example, of South Mountain Company, an employee-owned design, building, and renewable energy company on Cape Cod that’s committed to responsible business practice. Started by the seat of the pants in 1975, today South Mountain has annual revenues of $9 million and 17 owners among its 33 employees. In 2005 Business Ethics Magazine awarded South Mountain its National Award for Workplace Democracy.  In his book, The Company We Keep, co-founder John Abrams says, “We think about our work as the cathedral builders thought about theirs. We try to think for generations, as we try to design and build for generations.”

We’re here today to be inspired and build community toward just that vision.


Keynote speech: Building Sustainability conference, Oblong Land Conservancy, Dover Furnace, NY Nov. 5, 2011


Written by melissaeverett

November 5, 2011 at 1:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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