The Early Years
Rashkin, 60, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but at an early age moved to Long Beach, Long Island, then one of the nation’s emerging suburban communities. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, he says he was surrounded by “suburban sprawl of the highest magnitude.”
“It’s not that suburban development is bad, but Long Island was aesthetically a beautiful area that became substantially paved over,” says Rashkin. “It was exposed to a lot of ugly infrastructure, and the roads became difficult to maintain. There wasn’t a lot of open space.”
“I was very conscious when I went to places [in New York] like the North Shore or West Chester where the natural aesthetic was better maintained,” he continues. “Even as a kid, I could tell the difference.”
Rashkin attended the State University of New York at Stonybrook on a scholarship to study engineering, but transferred to Syracuse University to complete a degree in architecture in 1974. Upon graduation, he went to work for a large commercial architecture firm in New York City, and after passing the licensing exam three years later he left to pursue his passion.
“I was really excited because I was going to do energy-efficient homes,” he says. “I took some courses in energy at the end of my time at Syracuse and got the bug.”
But when the young architect began his practice in 1978, mortgage interest rates soared to 18%. “My residential clients were dropping like flies, so I was designing an animal shelter, urban renewal projects, doctors’ offices, and government-funded projects,” Rashkin recalls. “But my passion always was energy-efficient homes.”
Rashkin, who also completed a master’s in urban planning studies at New York University, says he would try to only collaborate with builders who constructed efficient homes, but efficiency didn’t resonate with many even though energy prices were rising. So, he moved to progressive California to manage energy-efficiency programs for the state’s Energy Commission.
Energy Star Days
After 13 years in California, Rashkin came to Washington, D.C., at the end of 1994 to manage the fledgling Energy Star for Homes program—but his tenure got off to a rocky start. On his very first day, high-ranking officials from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Edison Electric Institute, and the American Gas Association came to his office for a meeting. The three groups vehemently opposed the new homes labels (the NAHB thought the voluntary program would become a national mandate its builder members could not afford) and “made a proclamation to shut down the program,” Rashkin says. But the quick-thinking director and his staff won them over by showing it would not become mandatory and that it was a competitive advantage for participating builders.
One of the program’s many initial challenges was—and continues to be—the relatively low cost of energy. “That makes it hard to make a case to builders who are first cost driven,” he contends. “Sure, production builders can attract a few more [customers] with energy-efficient houses, but they were not driven like other leaders in the industry.”
So, the tenacious salesman began traveling the country proclaiming the virtues of Energy Star. “He told me he was a used car salesman,” says Lee. “He could get builders excited about anything. He was a one-man show.” Adds Wilson: “I wouldn’t want to get on the other side of Sam if he is pushing something.”
Supporters also call the loquacious Rashkin the Energizer Bunny because he just keeps going, and going, and going. Others say he’s like the legendary Johnny Appleseed who sowed the seeds of Energy Star coast to coast.
Another reason for Energy Star’s success was Rashkin’s ability to create a vast empowered network. “He connected with people and had them go back to carry that message that Sam imparted to them,” Lee says.
Although he had limited experience in business, Rashkin crafted very persuasive messages. “He brought an entrepreneurial side that government isn’t used to,” Lee observes. “We would never go out with a dry, humorless memo. He was always trying to find ways to appeal to builders, but not as a government bureaucrat.”
Rashkin, a fierce competitor who hates to lose, not only was a champion for Energy Star, but for all sustainable construction. He served on the national steering committees for USGBC’s LEED for Homes, NAHB’s Green Builder Guidelines, and EPA’s WaterSense program, and wrote many papers on the topic.
He also published a book titled Retooling the U.S. Housing Industry: How It Got There, Why It’s Broken, How to Fix It that presents a blueprint for transforming the five key components associated with home construction.
“Most people are just concerned about themselves, but Sam is rare because he does the right thing,” says building scientist Mark LaLiberte, who has known Rashkin since he joined Energy Star. “In almost any industry, that’s so unusual.”
Besides the architect’s commitment to sustainable building, LaLiberte notes that “he’s technically grounded. But at the same time, he can get out of the weeds and take the big view.”