A Chat with the ‘Father of Earth Day,’ Reflecting on the Future of Sustainability

Raevyn West, Director of Demand Generation

During our final stop in Seattle on our Coast to Coast Sustainability Tour we visited a building so unique in its sustainable practice that it has been recognized as the “greenest commercial building in the world” – The Bullitt Center. It’s with little surprise that the same creator of such a futuristic space, Denis Hayes, is also the national coordinator of the very first Earth Day, and the man who subsequently spread Earth Day to more than 175 nations. Our ENGIE Insight team members and clients had the pleasure of touring the Bullitt Center, learning all about this net-positive-energy building with its passive heating and cooling systems, use of rain for all potable drinking water, and surprising foaming toilets. Then I sat down to catch up with Denis to further discuss the next steps for sustainable construction, what innovations are coming to the Bullitt Center, and why the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 is going to be special.

How do we scale buildings like the Bullitt Center into everyday?

Our initial hypothesis held that the major obstacle to ’living buildings’ was that most developers did not really believe they were possible. In fact, every developer we consulted prior to the Bullitt Center construction told us that, in Seattle, we could not build a true living building that was more than two stories tall, because that was the most building that could be supported by the sunlight and rain that fell on its roof. However, land is too expensive in commercial areas to construct two-story buildings; the land would be such a large fraction of the total cost that leases would be unaffordable.

Under the theory that ‘if it exists, it must be possible,’ we decided to build a deep green six-story building, bring it in on budget, and then successfully lease and operate it.

Along the way we discovered many additional obstacles. Banks don’t want to finance new systems. Regulators are slow to approve new approaches. Developers and contractors are very conservative — preferring, in general, to do no more on the sustainability front than is required by law. And some major tenants are much more interested in Carrera marble and granite countertops than in minimizing their environmental footprint. We believe the Bullitt Center is strikingly beautiful—but its beauty is rooted in its functional design and local materials.

So, to truly bring sustainable architecture “to scale,” to make them the new normal, I think we will need to change building codes to require more sustainable buildings.  That is the lesson of Brussels, Copenhagen, Malmo…

Where do you start when trying to incorporate sustainability into a building?

In the case of a living building, you must approach it holistically. A living building is not a building with some cool additional features bolted on. The entire structure must function as an integrated organism. So, you start by hiring a team of architects, engineers and a general contractor who will work together with a motivated developer for months to solve all the major problems before breaking ground. The architects are often the most environmentally visionary team members, and design is crucial, but you will fail unless everyone works together for a common purpose. You begin the process knowing the budget and carrying a small reserve for unexpected costs—but everyone knows that’s it. Nothing can be “value engineered” out of the project after the plans are completed since everything is connected. For example, our external venetian blinds are expensive. But, if we had decided at the last minute to remove them to save money, the heating, cooling, and daylighting would all fail without that essential component. The elements of a living building are like the organs of your body; if you value engineer out your liver or your lungs you will experience a complete system failure.

What’s next for the Bullitt Center?

The Bullitt Center has already had a remarkable global impact for a little 50,000-square-foot structure. It has been toured by more than 25,000 people from a few dozen nations. We’ve been visited by heads of state, mayors, national planning commissions, utility executives and utility regulators, and thousands of architects. There are now several other commercial ‘living’ developments at various stages of development, and at least a couple of them are very significantly larger than Bullitt. Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Living Building was inspired by Bullitt (and is using key folks from our design team). So is the proposed ‘living community’ at the Yale Divinity School.  At some point, we will cease to be iconic and special, and merely be a super-sustainable office building catering to tenants who employ cultural creatives.

What excited you about the future of sustainability?

The most exciting thing about sustainability is how much more attractive it is than unsustainability!

In an era—and, alas, it will be a long era—when our planet is plagued with fires, floods, droughts, rising seas, ocean acidification, etc., sustainable buildings can have a great positive impact. Buildings that are net energy positive, that obtain all of their water needs from rains that fall on the roof, that contain nothing that is carcinogenic, mutagenic, endocrine disrupting or is otherwise harmful to the health of their tenants (or the workers who built them), will increase in value faster than conventional buildings.

What drove you to create Earth Day?

Original Earth Day Add

Original full-page Earth Day ad.

Americans have forgotten that in 1969, the skies over Pittsburgh, Gary, Indiana and Los Angeles looked more like the skies today over Shenzhen, New Delhi, and Mexico City. Breathing the air was like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day! Polluted rivers were catching on fire. The Great Lakes were dying. The stunning beaches of Santa Barbara were covered with toxic goo. The bald eagle was endangered. There was a total disconnect between our rising GDP and our declining quality of life. And the very worst impacts of environmental degradation were falling on those who couldn’t afford high-priced legal talent to protect them. We were not building 10-lane freeways or siting coal-fired power plants, toxic waste dumps, or rendering plants in Beverly Hills. So, coming out of the social activism of the 1960s, the time seemed perfect to expand those concerns for health, peace, and social justice to a broader canvas. It all began with a bold proposal by Senator Gaylord Nelson for an environmental teach-in on college campuses. We renamed it Earth Day in a full-page ad in the NYT and expanded it into a campaign that spread to every city, town, village, and crossroads in America.

Touring the Bullitt Center was a memorable experience, to see firsthand the innovation and creativity that is happening within sustainable construction. But what really struck me about our conversation with Denis was hearing about the pioneering efforts, that came from leaders like him, to set the foundational sustainability legislation that we all still benefit from. Nearly 50 years later we are feeling the underswell of a similar revolution for climate action. However, it’s not driven by the government but by the demand of consumers, voting with their dollars. We see more businesses rising to meet this demand through establishing strong sustainability programs.

With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day upon us in 2020, the momentum is building to resurrect that same early fervor. Employing the power of grassroots efforts, and capitalizing on the passion of the masses, the Earth Day organization hopes to make this the most impactful campaign the world has ever seen. I know our team will be supporting!

 

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