|ENVIRONMENT | winter 2007
Women take the lead in building "sustainable" places to live and work
TO SEE WHERE IT’S “GREEN”
in Pittsburgh—the Steel City
with a polluted past— I take a
guided tour with Rebecca Flora.
We walk past emerald arborvitae
shrubs and flowering trees into the
newly transformed Pittsburgh Glass
Center, one of several local structures
that have transformed blighted industrial
wasteland into resource conscious
workspace. The native
landscaping surrounding the glass-art
center, located in a once seedy neighborhood,
is the least of what makes it
so impressive, though. Flora, an environmental
planner by education, instead
enthuses about how reclaimed
panels of corrugated glass, and even
old garage doors, were salvaged for
use in the building, and how the furnace
in the glass “hot shop” recaptures
enough waste heat to supply 90
percent of the building’s heating.
Downtown, Flora takes us to the
massive David L. Lawrence Convention
Center, whose striking, gracefully
angled roof takes advantage of
convection currents off the Allegheny
River to provide ventilation. The center
has become a highly visible symbol
of the city’s green renaissance.
Both buildings have achieved
Gold ratings under the Leadership
in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) standards set by the nonprofit
U.S. Green Building Council, which
assesses energy efficiency and environmental
friendliness. Flora, as executive
director of Pittsburgh’s Green
Building Alliance, has been instrumental
in moving and shaking her city
toward a LEED-endorsed future.
Moreover, she’s not a lone woman
in a green world; on the contrary,
green building, also known more
broadly as “sustainable design,” has
become a particularly fertile area for
women to make an impact, whether
in architecture and design, landscaping
and planning, or constuction. “It’s
a field where there’s an open game for
women to enter,” says Flora.
just a few of the pioneers:
- In Austin, Texas, landscape architect
Lucia Athens helped establish
the nation’s first green building
program in 1991.
- In Seattle, Lynne Barker co-chaired
the U.S. Green Building
Council that helped launch the
LEED standards in 1996.
- In New York City, Hillary Brown,
an architecture trained design guru,
worked within the city’s Department
of Design and Construction to
create guidelines for energy and
resource efficient buildings.
“If you look at the people who are
pushing sustainability and doing
great work, and you’ll find women
leading the charge,” says Janet
Stephenson, outreach and evaluation
manager of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD).
Seattle, a mecca for green women—
Barker is also now with DPD—was
the first city in the nation to adopt
the LEED standard, requiring at
least a Silver rating for all new major
public construction. (The LEED
rankings start with Certified and rise
up to Silver, Gold and Platinum.)
Seattle leads the nation’s cities in
Green-built homes are also boom-ing
in metropolitan Seattle, growing
at a rate of roughly 25 percent each
year in King and Snohomish counties.
Nationally, the green residential
market is growing too, with the National
Association of Home Builders
reporting a 20-percent jump in the
number of home builders focused on
environmentally sound construction.
REALTOR Magazine calls green building
one of the top new trends shaking
up every aspect of building design and
construction, even home furnishings.
Men dominated the early years of
the environmental building movement,
from the 1960s to the 1980s,
when the emphasis was on solar and
“appropriate technology,” according
to Susan Szenasy, editor in chief of
Metropolis magazine, which covers contemporary
design. The newer sustainability
movement, though, has been
more populated by women, despite the
fact that women are still in a distinct
minority in the fields of construction,
architecture and engineering.
For example, notes Kira Gould,
co-author of the forthcoming Women
in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design
(Ecotone Publishing, 2007), while the
members of the American Institute of
Architects are by and large men (88
percent), the percentage of women on
its Committee on the Environment is
double (24 percent) their percentage
of the overall membership. And
women comprise eight of 15 members
on the U.S. Green Building Council,
more than triple the percentage on the
AIA’s 52-member board.
Women have been drawn to the
field from a variety of different avenues—
some through design and architecture,
others through various
building trades. Patti Southard, green
building specialist with King County
(Seattle) Solid Waste Division, for
example, started out in wood recycling
and now provides technical assistance
on recycled, energy-efficient
and sustainably cultivated building
materials. “There are brand new opportunities
in the green-building
world because it is a new industry
with a new culture,” says Southard.
Aside from environmental and
economic benefits, much of what’s
driving the growth of the green-building
movement is a concern for
public health. Modern pre-green
buildings are known for having poor
ventilation and indoor pollution, arising
from toxic construction materials
that emit cancer-causing formaldehyde
and asthma triggering chemicals.
The women green builders, like
earlier social activists, are at the forefront
of concern for clean water,
clean air and more environmentally
appropriate sewage disposal.
But still, in most spheres of the
building industry, women remain a
distinct minority. “Time and time
again, I walk into a planning meeting
where I’m the only woman,” complains
Elizabeth Moule, who designed
the LEED-Platinum office building
(above) for the Natural Resources Defense
Council in Santa Monica, Calif.
“My hope is that more women will become
architects and engineers. That’s
the big void of women’s participation.”
Maybe it’s because women are so
underrepresented in the building
field that their entry into the green
zone has been so invigorating. Says
Cathy Amoroso of the Renovation
Company in Atlanta, which caters to
higher-end customers who favor
greener features and materials,
“Women in the building industry
tend to be newcomers, and with newcomers
come the change, modernization
and a willingness to do things
differently. Women challenge the status
quo and aren’t entrenched in the
traditional way of doing things.”
WHAT MAKES A BUILDING GREEN?
Here are some of the basic principles of sustainable architectural design:
- works in harmony with the natural features and resources surrounding the
- takes advantage of natural features such as wind and sun, thus reducing dependence
on artificial lighting and heating/cooling sources. It also is well insu-lated
to reduce energy loss, and thus energy usage.
- uses low-impact, nontoxic building materials wherever feasible.
- uses architectural salvage and reclaimed materials when appropriate, and
new materials that can be rapidly replenished, such as bamboo or cork oak.
- reduces waste material going to landfills and helps reduce the amount of
waste generated by occupants (such as by the use of composting).
- reduces the impact on wells or water treatment plants by using “graywater”
or collecting rainwater.
- uses longerlasting and better-functioning products that need
less frequent replacement.
Source: Wikipedia, “Green design”
The LEED Green Building Rating System judges site sustainability, water and energy
efficiency, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality—and gives extra credit
for innovative design. For further information, see www.usgbc.org.
FRANCESCA LYMAN writes MSNBC’s
award-winning “Your Environment” column
and is author of two books.