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Building Abundance #6: An Interview with Dr. Harvey Stenger, President of Binghamton University

"We have the solutions to climate change and they can be implemented right now." So says Stenger. Read on to learn more about his hopeful prognosis for the climate crisis.

By Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
January 16, 2020

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series on abundance created and curated by Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, founding partner and chief executive officer of Ashley McGraw Architects. See previous features by McGraw, Plaut, Fedrizzi, and Angarano at the end of this column.



With a focus on research, learning, and discovery, institutions of higher education are amazing catalysts for creating abundance. One prominent example of this is Binghamton University-SUNY, a public college in Upstate New York.


Binghamton President Dr. Harvey Stenger recently sat down with Ed McGraw, founder of Ashley McGraw Architects, for a conversation about sustainability, climate change, and the university’s Nobel Prize.


Ed McGraw: First, congratulations to Binghamton University’s Distinguished Professor M. Stanley Whittingham for receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Dr. Harvey Stenger: Thank you, Ed. We’re just back from Stockholm and are so proud of Professor Whittingham and his work with lithium-ion batteries. Our world-class laboratory to design and test these batteries is one way we demonstrate our leadership in sustainability through research.


EM: We’re living in a time of monumental and rapid change to our environment and climate. What are the biggest opportunities for university presidents to fight climate change?


HS: Funding for hiring faculty in research areas is probably the single biggest place a president can make an impact. He or she can also make sure that building projects meet ambitious energy goals.


On a more global level: We have the solutions to climate change and they can be implemented right now. Simply put, these solutions will require as much energy as possible in the form of electrical energy generated with the least amount of CO2. However, the costs are enormous (Morgan Stanley estimates that it will take about $50 trillion dollars of capital, or about 75% of the world’s annual GDP, to suspend and reverse global warming). Also, people don’t seem to take the threats to life as seriously as they did with, for example, the hole in the ozone 30 years ago.


Back then, when lives were at immediate risk from toxic pollutants from coal power plants, auto emissions, fluoro-chlorocarbons, and other culprits, we implemented solutions that addressed and reversed the problems. We knew the solutions: filter gas emissions from power plants; substitute refrigerants that would not decompose ozone; strip mercury and sulfur dioxide from gas emissions; put catalytic converters on cars; find alternatives for coatings containing lead; develop new methods of agriculture that are organic and don’t require heavy doses of pesticides and herbicides; and require chemical emissions to be reported, tracked, and penalized. These all made costs of products and services rise in the short term until new technologies were optimized, and all of them required legislative action, rules, and laws. The Montreal Protocol, where nearly all nations agreed to phase out the use of certain refrigerants, required an international agreement.


I am convinced we can and will do the same for climate change. But first, the major players – China, the U.S., and, India – need to acknowledge that lives are in imminent danger. The solution is neither impossible nor complicated. It will require international agreement, decades of infrastructure replacements, and a ton of money. Having said all of that, I predict that by 2050, we will have stabilized and reversed significantly the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere. I am an optimist!


EM: Binghamton University and Ashley McGraw are creating a Living Building – one of only around 15 such buildings in the world – at the university’s Nuthatch Hollow nature preserve. What motivated you to take on such a big challenge?


HS: The challenge was irresistible! I visited a Living Building in western Massachusetts and knew we could do this and do it better than others. Ever since I met Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, kind of the father of sustainable architecture, I have always wanted to do a project like this. So, I found a source of funding and put together a great team. I also knew it would be important that I stand back and let the team have ownership of the project. It is the first Living Building built by a public university, using public funds, which creates challenges. But it’s been gratifying to watch the team – which includes Ashley McGraw Architects and many Binghamton students – navigate any hurdles they encounter. We’ve even incorporated aspects of Nuthatch Hollow into our curriculum and it’s very popular with students.


EM: Sustainability is a major focus for Binghamton. What are some of the most effective initiatives you’ve implemented?


HS: The creation of our transdisciplinary area of excellence of Smart Energy; managing the state’s annual competition on Clean Energy startups; supporting our lithium battery program; and making sure all our building projects exceed expectations with respect to sustainability.


EM: Binghamton researchers are developing innovative solutions to address climate change. Please tell me about some of the research you’re most excited about.


HS: Energy storage will be an important component of how we balance renewable energy supply with peak energy demand, as will the intelligence of the electric grid. The supply of renewable energy (wind and solar) does not always align with demand. A variety of research projects in our engineering departments are addressing this problem, and making progress in storing excess energy when supply is greater than demand, and delivering that stored energy when the demand is greater than the supply (a process called "levelizing").


EM: Knowing your background – particularly your research on detoxifying chemical solvents that contaminate our soils and water supplies – I’d like to learn more about you and your thoughts about abundance. What first sparked your interest in sustainability?


HS: In the 1970s – before people were even thinking about sustainability – my father became a consultant focused on energy conservation. He hired me as a subcontractor when I was in college, and I fell in love with the work. A tipping point for me occurred when President Carter created the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation in 1980, just as I was graduating from college and starting my doctoral work at MIT. Unfortunately, it never took off because oil prices dropped quickly in the years following its formation. However, it did make me believe that sustainability was extremely important for our environment and national security, which meant research in this area could not only save people’s lives and our planet but it could also help protect our country.


EM: Why did you choose to study chemical engineering?


HS: Prior to consulting, my father was a mechanical engineer in Syracuse, New York, and he encouraged me to be an engineer. In high school I worked for a civil engineering company that designed water and waste water systems. I thought I would go into civil engineering to be connected to environmental topics, but a professor encouraged me to think about chemical engineering, as it would have a closer connection to the environmental problems of the future. He was certainly correct!



Ed McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is founding partner and chief executive officer of Syracuse-based Ashley McGraw Architects. He is a nationally recognized authority on sustainability and high-performance buildings, and speaks frequently on the subject. Among the organizations he has addressed are the American Institute of Architects National Convention, Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, New York State Green Building Conference, Council of School Superintendents and School Boards Association, and the Eastern Region of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators. He holds a Master of Architecture degree from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree in business from SUNY Binghamton.


See also:


Building Abundance #5: Small City Rejuvenation and Architectural Abundance

Schools are more than conduits of knowledge - education is critical to both social and economic stability. Through regenerative design, architects can rethink of how learning is delivered that emphasizes its importance to small cities and rural areas.

By Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C


Building Abundance #4: Abundance from Regeneration - Our Opportunity as Designers
Design strategies that are driven by an understanding of place, community, and full intentionality can achieve abundance.
By Susanne Angarano, ASID, CID, NCIDQ


Building Abundance #3: Abundance in Architecture Starts with Abundance in Human Health

Just as buildings became an incredible tool in the movement for environmental sustainability, they can and must become our greatest asset when it comes to human sustainability.

By Rick Fedrizzi


Building Abundance #2: Three Keys to Abundant Design

Hint: Designing for less bad won't get us there. Aiming for abundant design requires seeing and working in new ways that are largely unfamiliar, challenging - but oh so worth it!
By Josie Plaut, Colorado State University Institute for the Built Environment & CLEAR (Center for Living Environments and Regeneration)


Building Abundance #1

Creating abundance is more than sustainability or resilience, and should be a driving force in architecture.

By Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C





(click on pictures to enlarge)

Ashley McGraw Architects

Google defines abundance as “plentifulness of the good things in life.”

Ashley McGraw Architects

Binghamton University and Ashley McGraw Architects are working together to build Nuthatch Hollow, designed to achieve both Passive House and Living Building Challenge certifications. It would be one of only a handful of buildings worldwide to achieve both.

Ashley McGraw Architects

Nuthatch Hollow will include an approximately 2,500-square-foot classroom and research facility. The building will symbolize Binghamton University's core values and mission, especially as they relate to helping students create a more sustainable, resilient world.