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Q&A: Green Building

Real-world application is a key characteristic of work that takes place in every corner of the College of Natural Resources. Q&A is a new Breakthroughs department that provides snapshots of various professions through the lens of our alumni. Want to suggest your profession? Write breakthroughs at berkeley dot edu.

Taylor Keep
M.S. Energy and Resources Group ’10
Principal, mechanical engineer VITAL Environments, Inc.

Ten-cent definition: A green building is one that adapts and grows to better reflect individual, organizational, and societal wants, needs, and aspirations. The building’s “greenness” is a process that must be maintained rather than a status given at the end of construction.

Next big thing: Currently most buildings treat everyone as a static, “average” person, and people have few, if any, ways to communicate their unique needs. We need ways to measure, understand, and act upon people’s changing preferences, wants, and needs. I hope and expect that in the future green buildings will be able to “listen and learn” from what people change about their environment.

Motivation: I love that my work product is so intimately linked to the human experience and is important in both expressing and shaping society; if we are to grow and change for the better, we will do so in, and in conversation with, the buildings we occupy.

Role model: My first job out of college was at a firm started by Sir Ove Arup. In 1970 he delivered a key speech that discussed everything from how work fits healthily into life to the prescient concept of “total architecture,” which is at least as refined as our best attempts at explaining a holistic approach to sustainability today.

Biggest challenge: To extend the responsibility of the design team beyond the construction phase. The first few months of occupancy should be an active partnership between occupants and designers to adapt the building to serve people well. All too often the design intent fails on day one, and the “green” process ends before it begins.

Matt St. Clair
M.A. Energy and Resources Group ’03
Sustainability manager, University of California Office of the President

Source of pride: The University of California system has 85 certifications through the end of 2011, which is the most of any university in the country. Also, all new buildings have to outperform California’s strict energy code by at least 20 percent.

Next big thing: Developers of leading green buildings will increasingly consider the entire life cycle of building materials and of the buildings themselves. Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is only starting to mature and catch on, but the incorporation of LCA into LEED credits in the next version of LEED will greatly accelerate the use of LCA and the impact of its use throughout the supply chain. Also, various factors are likely to force energy costs up across the country and the world. The higher the price for energy, the easier the business case for building green becomes.

Motivation: Universities have an incredible opportunity and a tremendous responsibility to train future leaders to address sustainability challenges and to model sustainable solutions like green buildings to their many stakeholders, from their students and alumni to their surrounding communities. I want UC students to be agents of change for green building and sustainability wherever their careers and lives lead them.

Shining example: With limited building budgets and in a region with almost no experience with green building, it would have been easy for UC Merced to build buildings that met minimum environmental standards. Instead, Merced is the only campus in the country where every building is LEED-certified.

David Warner
Conservation of Natural Resources ’76
Founder, Redhorse Constructors

Ten-cent definition: Green building should exemplify three major concepts: (1) Does the process of building result in an improvement to the social and physical environment? (2) When the building is complete, does it demonstrate a long life cycle and require the least amount of energy to sustain it over time? (3) Are you building with products/materials that have the lowest possible carbon footprint associated with their production and delivery?

Source of pride: I really believe in the concept of convergence. If you have pushed the envelope in your profession, then at some magical point you can leap-frog into creating social and environmental benefits. I’m involved in a project in Africa called the Human Needs Project, where all my building practices in green technology and sustainable structures are going to benefit thousands of people in Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. My sense of accomplishment comes through those kinds of associations, where 30 years of experience can create paradigm shifts for struggling communities.

Next big thing: Currently the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is generating a policy that will shape how California develops its built systems. It even includes planning policies that will not allow towns to expand into raw space without doing carbon analyses that preclude building outward rather than inward to accomplish the same goals. CARB needs to be given the biggest teeth possible to allow for the best building practices to occur.

Role models: Initially I was motivated by the work of Sim Van der Ryn, and by the understanding of the global ecosystem I got from professor Arnold Schultz at CNR — especially his class on ecosystemology.

Crissy Tsai
Environmental Economics and Policy ’04
Sustainable building analyst, Environmental Building Strategies

Ten-cent definition: A green building is both resilient and regenerative. Resilience is a concept gaining traction in the green building community, with architectural designs that are smart and simple and incorporate passive design over active technology. These buildings are designed to last longer and withstand environmental shocks and stresses caused by climate change. Regenerative buildings also incorporate strategies and technologies to restore the natural environment. Some examples include concrete that absorbs air pollutants and bioswales made from native landscapes that filter storm water and remove pollutants.

Source of pride: The EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco is a cutting-edge building that acts as a green building model for the surrounding low-income community of Hunters Point. I worked on the LEED and the Living Building Challenge certifications. It is the first off-the-grid, net-zero-energy environmental justice educational facility. The building has solar hot water, photovoltaics, a green roof, and a wastewater treatment system that recycles wastewater for use in landscaping.

Next big thing: Net zero energy buildings — buildings that must produce the same amount of energy as they consume, such that their total annual energy use is zero. California’s AB 32 legislation, passed in 2006, mandates that new residential buildings achieve net zero energy by 2020 and new commercial buildings by 2030.

Biggest challenge: Overcoming the perception that green buildings cost more. Studies have shown that, with a knowledgeable project team, a “moderately” green building can be built with existing, proven technologies and methods at no increase in cost vs. a traditionally built structure. Furthermore, as green building becomes increasingly common practice in certain areas, we should see economies of scale develop that make “going green” even more economical.

Mark Molofsky
Environmental Planning (emphasis on urban planning) ’77
Owner/CEO, Molofsky Builders Incorporated

Ten-cent definition: Green building should, to me, be characterized by the use of local resources, including labor and vendors, and of real materials with inherently sustainable characteristics — those that will last for decades or which can be easily recycled — and some forethought as to energy consumption within the built environment.

Source of pride: Having built a midsize company that has always stayed true to the value of quality in the final product we hand over to our clients. Also that the business has sustained all of these years in a very tough industry where the bottom line is generally the final word.

Next big thing: Buildings need to be smaller, with higher-quality products that last. I would consider this a cultural shift in this country, but I think it is happening slowly.

Motivation: That has changed over time. I started as a carpenter. I wanted to learn a skill and work hard outside. It was clean and, I thought initially, harmless. Later I began to realize that a large percentage of the materials we were building with were highly toxic. This was a long time ago, and indoor air quality was just becoming the buzz. Later on I believed I could give my clients a positive personal experience, which wasn’t what you generally heard about from people who had built a house.

Pet peeve: The whole concept of calling something green. It has been co-opted into just another marketing gimmick. It’s meaningless, like saying “quality construction.” The building industry just needs to do it. Stop expecting all the little gold stars and awards and just do it.

Mike Moore
Conservation and Resource Studies, ’93
Founder, architect, general contractor
Tres Birds Workshop

Ten-cent definition: I define genuine green building as the practice of lowering the embodied energy of making and operating places of habitation. I believe this is the true measure of a project’s global environmental impact. Embodied energy [where the energy required to extract, manufacture, and transport building materials is tallied into the sum of a building’s energy use] is a concept I learned at Berkeley while studying the flow of energy in our cities and global community.

Your motivation: I have had the opportunity to spend time in natural places that have not been affected by humans. In these places I have felt clear, open, and connected to a great power. I do not want these places to be developed or have their natural resources extracted. Tres Birds Workshop’s consistent use of reclaimed materials to build our projects gives us independence from natural resource extraction, thus preserving existing natural places.

Role models: Jim Logan, my architecture mentor, has spent his 30-plus-year career developing a process for making carbon-neutral homes. I spent five years learning the practice of carbon-neutral design, non-toxic building, site-specific homes, and mixed-use projects with him. Peter Zumthor has been a role model of mine since I visited most of his projects in Europe and interviewed him at his studio in Switzerland. His buildings connect people to natural cycles through the senses, ultimately creating respect and value for the natural world.

Pet peeve: Building products that are marketed as green because they contain a recycled material but in reality use huge amounts of transportation and manufacturing energy, giving them higher embodied energy than the “non-green” locally made products.