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The Field Paoli Forum: Roundtable with Author and Environmental Activist Hunter Lovins

By ArchNewsNow
April 30, 2007

On May 2, Field Paoli, a San Francisco-based architecture and planning firm, will host its fifth annual Forum. The Forum focuses on how architects, developers, planners, and public agencies can improve our quality of life through the built environment. This year’s speaker is Gordon Price, the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. He will speak on his experience helping transform Vancouver into a dense yet highly livable environment.


Last year’s presenter was Hunter Lovins, a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Lovins spoke about strategies for turning the tide on the runaway climate change that many predict will wreak havoc on the environment, the economy, and our way of life. She emphasized not only individual responsibility, but also the potential for individuals to effect significant positive changes.


Following Lovins’s talk, a panel discussed some of the implications of her ideas. The panel included:


-- Frank Fuller, principal of Field Paoli, an architect and urban designer.

-- Richard Springwater, principal of Springwater Investments, an investment and development firm focused on commercial and residential markets.

-- Susan Hildreth, state librarian of California.

-- John Weis, deputy executive director of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency.


This is a brief excerpt from the Forum 2006 conversation:


Frank Fuller:            What’s so inspiring is the idea that while you might not know where you're going, you might not know exactly the question to ask, you might not know really much about anything, you still need to have the courage and the vision to go somewhere. I’m especially impressed by the slide showing that 90% of the effect of what happens in a building project occurs in those first thoughts and visioning. That's an idea that we try to advance in urban design and the early part of any building project, and Hunter’s talk underscored its importance.


                                    In preparing for today’s forum, we had a very good discussion about the role of the United States Green Building Council [USGBC], its LEED criteria, and how the program is evolving. Hunter said, "You know, USGBC got started by people sitting around a table just like this, a few of us talking about what we could do to make a difference, and it took off so fast that it is hard to know where it is going."

I'd like to hear more from Hunter about where USGBC is going and what part we should play in shaping its future. We’ve heard today that collaboration and cooperation are going to be essential. I’d like to hear more about what such an integrated practice might look like and how our work together might change.


Hunter Lovins:        A few years ago, I was flipping through one of those airline magazines and came across a big story about the USGBC, and it didn't mention any of the people who helped create it. And I thought, "Hey, we're here! We're real." Now I'm hearing people whining about how terrible LEED is, how it is a poor and stifling innovation, and I think, yes, that could be true. So what do we do about it? We invented it, and it was the best that we could do at the time, and we can change it.

I say this about the concept of natural capitalism as well. People are trying to make it into some kind of religion, but it wasn't conceived as a religion. It was just the best the three of u
s could do at the point where we [co-authors Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins] wrote the book, and the ideas and the context in which they play out are still evolving. This whole sustainability movement – we're making it up as we go along.

I say to my students, "If anything I say seems to you to be wrong, please tell me. This is only the best information I've got at the moment, and I need your help. For the next two years, you're my students; after that you're my colleagues. So let's start working together right now."


                                    This leads into your next question of how the hell do we do that, how do we work together to meet these challenges. We're going to need to essentially rethink every institution on the planet, how we govern, how we run companies.


                                    The institutions that we take as they are given to us corporations for example – are relatively recent in the span of history, let alone the span of life on earth. So if it's not working – and there's a lot right now that's not working – you have to ask, how would you like to see it work? Let’s step up and start putting some ideas forward for getting over, around, or through the obstacles to real, substantive change.

Among other things, I'm a lawyer, and as soon as lawyers get in the room, innovation stops. So kick us out and figure it out and find clever lawyers who are good at getting around hurdles rather than throwing them up. And let's figure out how we can integrate the practices. How can we come up with new forms of coalitions, joint partnerships, shared ownership, shared value in a value chain, so that everybody can get a piece of this?

A friend of mine recently went to the Denver Statehouse in Colorado and looked up and asked, "Why are you using all these incandescent bulbs?” And one of those state legislators said, "Because it would cost $1,500 to change it out and it's not in the budget." So she wrote a check, and the change to fluorescent bulbs will save the taxpayers of Colorado $90,000 for the lifetime of those bulbs. And why didn't the state do that? Because they could only see the higher upfront cost. Give them a share of the savings, give all of your participants a share of the added value that we create by doing things in a different way, and then they might want to play nicely. By the way, they're now replacing the light bulbs in statehouses across the United States.


Richard Springwater:       We all know that we've passed the tipping point and that there's probably one or two people left in Washington who don't get it, but that's about all there is. And so we find ourselves in a situation where we're looking at the big picture, we come to conferences, we go to movies, we get our batteries charged, and then we're left asking, "Okay, what do I do?" Luckily for design professionals there's a lot to do, and in particular, I point to the powers of persuasion that the design professional has in the course of the design project itself. As a consumer of design services, I rely on my architects and engineers to first of all make the case for good design, and secondly for energy efficiency and for green-building features. We are at a point where the answer to the question, "Is it going to be LEED?” leads to a fundamental judgment that a developer makes at the outset of a project. And again, architects, engineers, and builders are the folks who developers will ask whether this is something that they should pursue. You’re the repository of judgment, skill, and expertise in this area and it's in your hands to be as persuasive as you possibly can be. Never underestimate your power in that discussion.


                                    I want to add one factor that hasn't been mentioned, which is cap rate. Developers think about cap rate a lot because it is a critical component of the project pro forma. It could be a short-term cap rate for a merchant builder, who will sell the project right away, or it could be a long-term cap rate for an investment builder, who is looking at returns over time. But if you were to look at the map of a developer's brain, pro forma would be a big section of it and cap rate would be a pretty big section of that. I refer to this because all designers should understand that cap rate is basically the relationship between the current net income produced by the building and the cost of the building, all things included – land, construction, soft costs, and so on.

To put it another way, "How much should I be willing to spend on an enhancement or innovation that will save some money on operating expenses or increase my rents?" Architects should be able to answer that question. If I can increase the annual rent by a dollar per square foot on a 100,000-square-foot building, I've created an extra $100,000. In today's market, that's worth $1.5 million. So I should be willing, as a developer looking at a pro forma, looking at all my costs, to spend $1.5 million to increase my rent by $100,000 a year. And architects accomplish that by designing a better building and enabling me to enjoy the profitability that's derived from excellent design, from appealing design as described by Hunter, or by helping me to save on maintenance costs, energy expenses, and other utilities. Sometimes these costs become the focus of that dreadful value engineering exercise. But again, it's partly your responsibility as the advocate for the environment and design, to highlight the long-term value.


                                    My question for Hunter relates to the relationship between green building and design. I think a lot of what Hunter was talking about is what we used to call consciousness-raising. It has to do with not just saving people energy, but letting people know that they're in a building that's good for them. I’m interested to know whether there are resources to help build our case. There's a lot of talk about increased productivity, but quantifying this increase remains a kind of Holy Grail in architecture.


Lovins:                      The productivity numbers I cited came from a set of anecdotal studies that were not always intentional. Productivity was being tracked when a building change occurred, so it was possible to compare rates before and after. We desperately need better measures of this phenomenon and to define good metrics. We're starting to have some pretty decent metrics for measuring the financial return and the reduction in environmental harm associated with this design element or that energy device, but what does it do for the people, the building users? Does it enhance innovation, creativity, congeniality, and fun? Other than the anecdotes, there's not a lot of good information.


                                    Now as to the question of how you raise awareness, that's incredibly important. People who don't believe that they're getting a benefit won’t be willing to pay something upfront. And if they don't see it with their own eyes and they can't feel it, they may not be aware of it. There are new technologies coming up that will help, particularly things like “smart readers” that allow you to understand in real time what you're using in terms of resources and the associated real-time price. When you have feedback, particularly visual feedback, people start making dramatic changes. A good example is the hybrid car drivers, who work to get the highest fuel efficiency because the instrumentation gives them real-time feedback.


                                    So how do we do the same with buildings? Among other things, we can tell building occupants what the building is doing. Architects typically design a building without ever really seeing the people who use it. And if the occupant comes in and doesn't understand the building, doesn't believe in it, and does something totally different, then the building doesn't perform. You need an integrated team to deliver a complete process that includes education. Permanent visuals and other resources explaining what the building can actually deliver help occupants and operators sustain performance levels over time.


Susan Hildreth:      I’d like to offer the perspective that the public library is a component of sustainability. The public library is the community's living room, the place where you can really connect with your community, and about the only public amenity that is still free to use. In this sense, libraries have been working on sustainability for many, many years in terms of creating partnerships in their community. Because of this role, I would hope that our public buildings, particularly our public libraries, could be considered as models of the kind of sustainable principles that we've been talking about today.


                                    The San Mateo Public Library just opened, and it's one of the highest LEED-certified buildings in San Mateo County. There's a new library opening in the city of Alameda in November. And the San Francisco Main Library was one of the first green buildings in the city in the country. It has many, many green features, and we could do more to make sure people understand how that building is functioning and what goes on it. San Francisco is also renovating a lot of its branch libraries and is trying to make them as green as possible, which is more challenging than with new construction, but just as important.


                                    I also want to make the pitch that public libraries can be a venue for organizing all of the information that we've all been talking about, making it accessible and fostering broader community discussion.


John Weis:               I want to touch on China, where their oil demand will exceed possible limits of oil production fairly soon. Do you see reason for hope there and is the conversation as intense there as it is here?


Lovins:                      Yes, absolutely. The Chinese are an ancient and wise culture. They know that they are going to have to change in dramatic ways, so they’re asking, what works? And they're in search of an ideology. They're trying to evolve a new way of doing business. They'll almost certainly beat us to hydrogen cars, though I'm not sure hydrogen is the way of transportation of the future. They're working very hard with a number of solar entrepreneurs on new ways of producing solar energy. And they're starting to have results. They have serious land-use issues and health problems in the cities, a serious pollution problem, but watch China. The amount of new ideas and the speed of change are on an upswing, and they are engaged in a very intense conversation about what the future should look like.


Weis:                         I’ve been very interested in the question of how do we make our cities more energy efficient. San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland are dense enough that they will be energy-efficient, but cities like San Jose, where I work, and Sacramento are a battleground.


Lovins:                      In the U.S., cities are exploring a range of incentive programs performance contracting that pays design team members in part from the energy-related cost savings that the project achieves, or expediting permitting for super-efficient building designs. The common thread is the added collaboration from the outset that these programs demand.


                                    Other strategies work to promote other kinds of change. For example, London has congestion pricing. You can't drive in downtown London unless you pay a big fat fee, and if you drive an SUV, you pay a fatter fee. So you only drive a car if you have to. Otherwise you take the bus or you walk. But these kinds of measures require all of us to have a conversation about how much is enough and what kind of life do we want to live.


                                    Elected leaders are also crucial. In the last election, some of us worked to elect smart-growth advocates to two of the three Boulder County commissioner seats. So when the county’s new sustainability ordinance, which is pretty much everything that I would wish for, came up for consideration, the support was enormous. We put in place leaders who believe in this stuff and, equally important, we educated a sufficient number of people in the county to know that this ordinance will sustain our community and quality of life.


                                    We’re at a very, very interesting juncture now where many of us have been working on these issues. We’re learning as we go, and time is very critically short. But we've gotten to a point where we’re winning places like Boulder, villages in Europe, and cities like London. And now we should be really standing up and saying, "This is better. This is the way that we want to live. Tell us what you think is wrong with it, but let’s have that conversation.”


 Excerpts from the 2007 Field Paoli Forum with Gordon Price will be forthcoming.


© 2007