Jan 28, 201310:00 AMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

Q&A: Brian Geller

Q&A: Brian Geller

My Game Changers profile on Edward Mazria focused on the nature of the architect’s activism. How does an organization of less than five full-time employees have such a big impact? Ed’s genius was in reframing the issue of climate change as a design problem, with easily defined goals (not easy to achieve goals, but with a clear path forward). Just as important, Mazria’s group, Architecture 2030 encourages organizations to take ownership of the issue. There are no better examples than the 2030 Districts popping up all over the country. Each is a local response to a global problem. Recently I talked to Brian Geller, executive director of the Seattle 2030 District about the birth of his organization and the way forward.

Martin C. Pedersen: Ed Mazria calls his group, Architecture 2030 a “seeding organization.” Your effort in Seattle is certainly a good example of that.

Brian Geller: It’s true. It’s interesting to note that when your “Architects Pollute” issue came out in 2003, I was in architecture school in New York, and it was something I vividly remember. That story had a big impact on me, on deciding where I wanted to go with my career.

MCP: How did the Seattle 2030 district begin?

BG: It started about three years ago. I was working as a sustainability specialist at ZGF Architects. I was working at the Seattle office. Bob Zimmerman, the managing partner of the office, had just come back from a conference in Chicago and was telling me about this de-carbonization study that Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill had worked on. Bob said: “It sounds fascinating. I’m surprised that Seattle hasn’t undertaken something like that.” I took that little nugget back to my desk and was thinking it over. It sounded like a great idea. But I thought that if we wanted to do something like that here, it seemed that a study was not the right approach. So I made this map. I started with Seattle’s steam distribution map. We’ve got a small district steam utility here in downtown. They were in the process of building a biomass boiler that would reduce the carbon footprint of their entire operations by 50 percent, and the heating-related carbon footprint of the two hundred buildings attached to them by half as well. There was other great stuff going on, too. There were a number of large building owners undertaking portfolio-wide certification, putting together important tenant engagement programs. The city was about to pass a disclosure ordinance, requiring building owners to benchmark their properties and disclose some of the data to the city. All of this stuff was happening, but it was happening somewhat siloed. So I took their map, put on the ten largest property owners and managers that I knew downtown, who were all doing cool things, and went to a few people in the city, and other architects and engineers, and said, “Look, this is what they’re doing in Chicago. They’re doing a study. But if we did something like this here, and instead of doing a study, invited these people on this map in, we would cover a lot of downtown. We could get all of these large entities measuring their progress the same way, united around one set of goals.” I told them, “You’ll get a lot farther together than you would on your own.” They’d learn a lot from each other. They wouldn’t be duplicating efforts. Hopefully, they’d be generating more work for everybody in the city. People liked the idea.

MCP: How did Architecture 2030 get involved?

BG: We were talking about uniting them around one common set of goals. Right around that time, Ed and the folks at 2030 expanded the 2030 Challenge to something they called the 2030 Challenge for Planning.  It was a nice, clean comprehensive set of performance goals. It wasn’t too big. It doesn’t get into waste, urban agriculture—all those other things that I think are incredibly important. I’ve worked on designs for vertical farms in the past. That stuff is great, but it’s very hard to measure. So the 2030 Challenge is three sets of goals that are still difficult but we can get actual data and measure them. We told them: “We can take an existing standard and apply it collaboratively to a downtown core for the first time.” People thought the idea was exciting. The property owners liked talking to each other, face to face, about what they were doing in this arena, because they didn’t have a forum. We met every two weeks through all of 2010, trying to figure out how to put this organization together, and it grew and grew, mostly by word of mouth. We won a $450,000 three-year grant from the EPA in the fall of 2010. We’ve since won a number of other grants.

MCP: So your next steps? To get more people and buildings into the district?

BG: Get more people into the district and bring more services to entice them to reduce the energy used in their buildings. We’ve got a whole process that we call Access Target Deliver, that helps them do that. We’ve got case studies on member buildings that have already reached the 2030 goals. We’ve got some high performers that did it on their own, within the realities of the market.

MCP: In terms of urban planning, Seattle is the relatively low hanging fruit. It has a temperate climate. I’m guessing this is easier to pull this off in Seattle than, say, in Phoenix?

BG: It sounds easier and means that there’s ways to make progress relatively easily. But in a way, it cuts both ways. Because energy costs here are about the lowest in the country, in terms of electricity. We pay less than a third of what New York City pays. There are also no peak demand charges. It’s hard to make energy efficiency projects pencil out here, whereas you can do all sorts of crazy things in New York that pencil out, because of how expensive power is. We feel like if we can make it work here, in a market of low energy costs, it should be able to work in other places.

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