I witnessed a lot of hugging. In my career, I’ve been to varied conferences - serious meetings of people presenting projects from behind the security of that black hotel tablecloth fabric and fake woodgrain podium. Suits and polished shoes trying to get that pesky embedded video to play. While these are the reliable immutables at every conference, Greenbuild always feels different to me.
In November, more than 20,000 people came to Boston to attend Greenbuild and Architecture Boston Expo (ABX). It had the feel of a family reunion, seeing past and present friends and collaborators and meeting new family members. It’s a tribe in the most convivial and life-passion sense, hence the rampant hugging. With dangling conference lanyards akimbo, we catch-up and scheme about our little piece of The Mission.
The theme this year was “ALL IN” − which is meant to reinforce the commitment and optimism needed to confront climate change head-on. The global green movement is literally saving lives and is unstoppable. This commitment means every project, every day, starting with you and me.
My conference highlight was hearing President Bill Clinton’s plenary along those same themes. It was a sincere pep talk of sorts, from a man with decades of global environmental and political perspective. He underscored how we are the lucky ones, to be “present at the creation” of a whole new green economy. Playing to the local crowd, he referenced Harvard professor and legendary environmentalist, naturalist, biologist and author E.O. Wilson. Echoing Wilson’s work, President Clinton cited that the most successful organisms on earth that collaborate are honeybees, termites, ants, and humans. While there is a lot of work to do, we need to celebrate the fact that millions of people are cooperating to solve global problems. Scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, and designers are sharing and collaborating like never before.
The leadership force of women was also evident throughout the conference. While there were sessions like the Women in Design Symposium highlighting the specific achievements of women, it was more organic than that. At the risk of singling out one of the several deserving USGBC Leadership Award winners, please google Dorothy Stoneman. As the poverty-cycle busting founder of YouthBuild, she is my new personal hero. Judy Nitsch is a well-known local advocate for women in the engineering professions and was a tireless organizer for Boston support of a successful Greenbuild. Mary Ann Lazarus (Chair of National AIA Committee on the Environment) and Dr. S. Atyia Martin (City of Boston Chief Resilience Officer) and Gensler’s own Kirsten Richie were other women leading by example at Greenbuild−and too many others to list here. In their keynotes, Bill Clinton and the perpetually-smiling USGBC President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam cited the debt we owe to women leaders. In the recent best-selling book Drawdown, Paul Hawken notes that “climate change is not gender neutral”. Educating and empowering women and girls around the world is among the top imperatives that will have the most impact on the climate crisis.
Gensler had a strong showing at Greenbuild again this year, with David Briefel presenting healthy materials and biophilia lessons from the Living Building Challenge petal certification of Etsy’s Headquarters in Brooklyn. Len Sciarra outlined important changes to ASHRAE 90.1, and Kirsten Richie reviewed how to guide healthy and safe building material decisions. Amanda Langweil was a behind the scenes volunteer helping to select speakers and review session topics. I was particularly proud of our Boston based team of young designers who won the “Quad” competition to create a Sustainable Social space. Gensler took first place among 60 competition entries with an inventive wood structure built on the ABX floor.
I attended Greenbuild when it was in Boston in 2008, and it is interesting to see how far we have come in those nine years. Among the most notable aspects of many of the sessions was the evolving role technology and big data (of course) within the broader green building movement. The number of websites, databases, and online tools have exploded, and each is trying for the tri-partite holy grail of reliability, scalability, and user-friendliness. Smart cities, health and wellness, materials transparency, and transportation are being transformed by easy access to free data.
Another recognizable thread in the conference was Net Zero energy, water, and waste. Nine years ago we heard Net Zero goals and intentions. Now we are seeing the built projects and the data, still with some nagging asterisks that will hopefully disappear as the data fidelity and transparency improves. It left me wondering what the landscape will be in another nine years as machine learning and artificial intelligence help us solve the world’s most complex problems.
Noted astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson closed the conference with a predictable cosmic view. He talked about light hitting the earth in various ways, from the urban heat island effect on city roofs to sunsets in the canyons of New York City and the arches of Stonehenge. Dr. Tyson noted our “atmosphere thickness is to earth, as the skin is to an apple” and our everyday actions matter. He ended with the photograph of earth from the Cassini spacecraft as a “pale blue dot,” noting that the entirety of human existence as we know it - all the generations, wars, elections and triumphs occurred wholly on this spec in the universe.
This left me encouraged in our future, reminding me that despite the noise and political disagreements, there are millions of people who are ALL IN, like me. It’s personal and it’s real. We need to collaborate more than ever before and even if you’re not a hugger or aren’t sure where to start- that’s OK- there’s room for everyone in this movement and on this pale blue dot.