Empathy, Transformation, and Leadership: A Brief Reflection on AASHE 2012

Posted on October 16, 2012. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For the past 48 hours, I’ve been taking a deep and nourishing drink from the campus sustainability firehose at the AASHE 2012 conference.  Going all the way back to the very first AASHE conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2006, I’ve found these gatherings to be both educational and inspirational.  Other than that magical first gathering on the Arizona State University campus six years ago, this year’s conference in Los Angeles might very well have been the best one yet.  As I pour over my pages and pages of notes and reflect on the experience, I find that three themes emerge from the pages: empathy, transformation, and leadership.

First, empathy.  This was the theme that caught me by surprise.  The moving keynote performance by Dr. Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet humanized our collapsing environmental systems in a collage of images, music, and scientific data so effectively that many in the audience were in tears by the end.  I had to spend a few minutes gathering myself after the session, reminding myself that this is why I chose this profession, that this is why I – and so many others – continue to fight for a better future.  As Monty Hempel observed the next day, human empathy is the gateway to sustainability.  This led Dave Newport to ask a most important question: “How do we turn our human empathy back on?”  I’d like to think that if we can an answer to Dave’s question, we might actually transform the world.

Yes, transformation.  From the opening keynote to the closing awards ceremony, transformation was interwoven throughout the conference.  Hunter Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in higher education.  Unfortunately, aside from Hunter Lovins, there were to my knowledge no further serious discussions about online education and sustainability in any of the conference presentations.  If the same holds true next year, I will truly be shocked.

Numerous sessions explored transformations in how we design and construct buildings for university campuses, including experiences with net-zero energy buildings as well as those that meet the stringent guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).  But even the LBC was itself challenged as not being sustainable, with restorative design identified as the next milestone on the horizon.  Steve Baumgartner of Buro Happold suggested that next year at AASHE, we need to discuss what the word living actually means when applied to a building, because the “living building” designation of the LBC is in itself misleading.  The state-of-the-art has progressed dramatically since the first AASHE conference in 2006, but whether the average new campus building has transformed all that much in the past six years is another question altogether.

That 2006 conference witnessed the announcement of the founding of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, a truly transformational moment in sustainability education in higher ed.  Far too few schools have followed ASU’s lead, although the number of majors, minors, and certificate programs related to sustainability has blossomed.  Shirley Vincent of the National Council for Science and the Environment presented a detailed census of such programs, reporting that there are now 143 sustainability degrees, 298 sustainability specializations within degree programs (such as civil engineering or architecture), and 294 minors and certificates in sustainability.  The numbers look impressive – until you realize that there are about 3,400 two-year and four-year institutions of higher education (not including the for-profits).   In other words, there are only 0.2 sustainability major, minor, specialization, or certificate programs per college.  The transformation might very well come from online programs, because the pace of change at most schools to date – including my own – has been far too slow.

The final emergent theme from AASHE 2012 was leadership.  Mike Shriberg presented a compelling sustainability leadership program at the University of Michigan, with a limited and tightly-knit cohort of 25 students admitted per year traveling together through an 11 credit sequence to equip them to become leaders for a sustainable future.  But what does sustainability leadership mean?  A team from Portland State University led by Dr. Heather Burns posed this question in a workshop at the end of the conference, and the responses from the participants included the following:

  • “Sustainability leadership is a change of heart… beating in rhythm with the world” [there’s that empathy theme again!]
  • “It’s leadership embedded in natural systems, educating and communicating to bring others to that frame.”
  • “It’s setting the example.”
  • “It’s being humble and knowing when to ask the right question.”
  • “It’s being a catalyst, a change agent, a co-creator, a collaborator.”
  • “It’s the ability to reimagine the world, and to motivate others with that vision.”
  • “It’s an emergent quality, shared for a period of time, and then passed on to others.”
  • “It’s showing instead of telling.”
  • “It’s a burden!”

Empathy, transformation, leadership… these were the threads that tied together the AASHE 2012 experience for me.  As Robert Davies instructed, “It’s now time for us to believe what we know…  None of our efforts are enough just yet…  We must transform, or collapse.”  Sobering words.  If ever there was a time for empathetic and transformational leadership, now is the time.  But this is not a task to outsource to others; it’s one to take on ourselves.  As Gandhi observed, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

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Cloud 37: Lessons from LEED

Posted on August 16, 2009. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

Last week, one of my colleagues exclaimed that she was on Cloud 9, or rather, Cloud 37.  She’s not come down since.

Over the last several years, Rice has undertaken an ambitious $1 billion construction program, and the bulk of these facilities are now open.  We’re in celebration mode.  Almost all of our new buildings will be submitted for certification under the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, the industry standard for green building in the US that recognizes buildings based on their environmental performance at the increasing levels of LEED-certified, silver, gold, or platinum.  Earlier this month, we learned that one of our new buildings – the Rice Children’s Campus – had achieved certification at the level of LEED-Silver, scoring 37 points (almost gold!).  This marks the very first building at Rice to earn LEED certification at any level (although we expect many more to soon follow).

To date, I’ve worked on approximately a dozen LEED projects for new construction, and not all of them have left me on Cloud 9, or Cloud 37 as it may be.  In fact, there have been a number of dark clouds too.  My experiences – positive and negative – have taught me several process-oriented lessons about LEED that I believe are of value to other campus sustainability professionals as they participate in LEED projects on their own campuses.  They are as follows:

1. Commit from the beginning. Our biggest LEED train-wreck came when we decided to “do LEED” late in the design process of a project.  The project team had not been selected based on LEED credentials, and we quickly discovered both a lack of experience and interest amongst key team members.  After several difficult months, we abandoned the LEED process, although it wasn’t a complete loss as several design improvements were directly attributable to our flirtation with LEED.  The confusion led us to adopt a Sustainable Facilities Policy that clearly outlines our department’s LEED goals for future projects, a remedy that should prevent this sort of problem from occurring again.

2. Seek experienced consultants. Commitment to LEED by the university is just the first step.  The composition of the project team is very important, and prior LEED experience matters, although a lack of experience is not an insurmountable obstacle.  As the university interviews potential architects, contractors, and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineers, they should review not only the LEED experience of each of these consultants, but also (and this is important) of the individuals who will represent these firms on the project team.  Prior LEED experience by the civil engineer and landscape architect are of course helpful too, but not as critical as with the aforementioned team members.

3. Designate the LEED-er. The LEED process needs a steward, and it shouldn’t be the university.  In fact, my preference is to hire a consultant specifically to lead the LEED process, one with a lengthy resume of prior LEED projects and a deep knowledge of a variety of LEED ratings systems and the associated rulings and intricacies of those systems.  This LEED-er can be the commissioning agent, which yields the benefit of engaging the commissioning perspective throughout the project’s design.  However, if the LEED responsibilities lie with one of the primary consultants, such as the architect, MEP, or contractor, then my experience is that the busier they become in the project, the greater the tendency to let their LEED responsibilities slip.

4. Set priorities. It’s not enough for the university to state an expectation that a project will achieve a certain level of LEED certification.  There are numerous pathways to certification, and the consultants need to know what aspects of LEED are of particular importance to the university.  For us, it’s typically energy conservation.

5. Assign responsibility. From the beginning, each project team member should understand their LEED responsibilities.  This includes the credits that they will be expected to complete and the data that they will need to collect either to support their own submittals or those of other team members.

6. Set deadlines. Hand-in-hand with assigning responsibility is the need to set deadlines.  I’ve spent countless hours in meetings where we’ve spun our wheels going down the LEED checklist, listening to consultants say “oh yeah, I need to get to that.”  Procrastination has consequences, and opportunities will be lost.  The following two points highlight the importance for the LEED-er to connect responsibilities with deadlines.

7. Fast-track the energy model. From my perspective, there is no component of the LEED process more important than the energy model, which quantifies the proposed building’s energy consumption and expresses savings in comparison with a baseline “to code” alternate.  If the energy model is prepared in a timely fashion, it serves as a powerful tool that enables the project team to understand the best opportunities for improving their design to save energy.  I’ve participated in meetings where hundreds of thousands of dollars of expected annual utility costs were shed, based on insights and scenarios from a timely energy model.  On the other hand, some of my greatest moments of frustration engaging in the design process have come from MEPs who drag their feet in preparing the building’s energy model.  In fact, with one project, the energy model was nearly a year late, so late that the building was already close to completion.  Any opportunity to use the energy model to improve the design had long since evaporated, and with it the chance to save significant money for the university.

The need for a timely energy model goes beyond just influencing the project’s design.  Up to 10 LEED points are available for energy conservation – potentially a sizable share of the final point total – and uncertainty over the number of anticipated energy conservation points makes estimating the project’s overall LEED point total and level of certification difficult.  On several projects, if we had known the results of the energy model sooner than we did, we might have targeted (and ultimately achieved) higher levels of LEED certification.  My conclusion is that there are numerous compelling reasons to fast-track the energy model (and conversely, no clear reasons not to).

8. Submit the design credits early. For a small fee, the USGBC allows project teams to submit design-related LEED credits early, and then follow-up with construction-related credits (and deferred design credits) at a later date.  I find this opportunity valuable for several reasons.  First, as many of the LEED prerequisites are design-oriented, if there are any potential problems with these mandatory credits, the issues will be identified early enough such that corrective action can be incorporated into the project’s construction.  Second, a two-stage submittal tends to prevent procrastination.  Rather, it has the effect of spreading the work more evenly across the project’s timeline.  Third, early knowledge of expected design credits adds certainty to the project’s final LEED outcome, and could even embolden a team to “stretch” for a higher goal.

9. Want it! Implementing the previous eight recommendations will in my view significantly improve the LEED process for a new building, but there’s still something missing here, and that’s setting the right tone.  You have to want it!  In my experience, there is a noticeable difference in the performance of the project teams that are genuinely enthusiastic about pursuing LEED certification and those who think it’s just one more requirement.  The university’s team members need to convey a consistent desire to achieve the project’s environmental goals, and likewise should choose those consultants who also demonstrate a similar attitude.  LEED can be fun with a motivated team, and a nightmare with those who would just as soon not be bothered.

With these nine lessons, hopefully we’ll have more of our campus sustainabilty professionals on cloud nine celebrating successful LEED projects.  Of course, no project is perfect, and problems always arise.  However, by carefully constructing the LEED process, the campus sustainabilty professional can at least ensure that when dark clouds appear, they’re more likely to have a silver (or gold, or platinum) lining.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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