In nominating this year’s Evergreen Awards Perspectives winner—Steven Winter, principal of Steven Winter Associates, in Norwalk, Conn.—the firm’s director of sustainability consulting, Andrew Zumwalt-Hathaway, noted, “Many professionals have made names for themselves over the last 10 years as green building and sustainable design experts; and while the merits for their acknowledgements are well deserved, few of them can attest to being a leader in the green building movement over the last four decades.” Indeed, after nearly 40 years in the profession, Winter himself jokes that “I’m an overnight success, but it’s been a long night.”
Since founding his eponymous buildings systems consultancy in 1972, Winter has worked with architects, developers, and builders, as well as local, state, and federal agencies, to champion and push forward energy efficiency and resource conservation in the built environment. In the 1970s and ’80s, he wrote a number of publications on energy-efficient lighting, thermal massing, affordable housing, photovoltaics, and indoor air quality, among other subjects, and taught at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. During this time, Winter also served as chairman for the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Building Energy Performance Standards Committee on Commercial and Multifamily Buildings, and sat on the board of directors for the Passive Solar Industries Council.
A past chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council and the current chairman of the LEED for Homes committee, Winter helped develop both the LEED rating system and the LEED Accredited Professional program. Under these initiatives, his firm, which also manages the Sustainable Building Industry Council, helped develop numerous LEED-certified projects across the country that were the first of their kind, including the Solaire, the first LEED Gold multifamily building; the Hearst World Headquarters, the first LEED-NC Gold building in New York; and the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, the first LEED-NC Silver project in Arkansas.
In recognition of his Perspectives award in the 2009 Evergreen Awards, Eco-Structure recently spoke with Winter about the past, present, and future state of sustainable building.
What sparked your interest in sustainability?
While I am an architect, my entire career has focused on consulting and research in the area of building science and performance improvement. I’ve been working on that for 40 years and along the way, those endeavors led to us getting involved in energy efficiency research, consulting, and analysis. With energy being one of the largest components of the sustainable arena, that, in turn, naturally morphed into being involved in the sustainability movement.
In terms of environmental impact and sustainability, what do you consider to be the most pressing concerns facing the built environment today?
The world has been practicing sustainability and green design practices for perhaps 15 years. It’s a fairly new endeavor, with most of it being ramped up in the past five years or so. What we don’t know yet are the results and ramifications of all this greenness we’re producing. The long-term effects, both good and bad, of green building decisions have not yet been realized. … We don’t know the long-term impacts of sustainable design, and we sure as heck don’t know how it's going to change the planet—that’s going to take a very long time. That is the big issue.
What can—or should—the architecture, design, and construction communities be doing to address this?
The big missing component in much of the green building world is measurement and verification. Go out there and measure and verify green buildings. Yes, we commission them, but that’s before they’re in use. Go back a year later and see if they’re as healthy as they’re supposed to be. Go back two years later and see if the equipment is operating the way it is supposed to be. We need to measure and verify all projects, claims, and other things we anticipate during the design phase. Because this is missing, there is a lot of debate about whether standards like LEED actually result in a verifiably greener building. The real answer is we really don’t know.
Having been instrumental in the development of the LEED program, what do you consider to be the biggest benefits and challenges of the program?
Before LEED was developed, people could claim to have a green building but there was no way to verify it. The program gives you a way to quantify or benchmark a building’s greenness. By having a benchmark, there is a way to say it meets this set of criteria and according to that set, it is a green building.
There’s no question that none of the green building standards are perfect. Since launching, they all have gone through changes, tweaks, and revisions, and that’s the natural course of things. They’ll continue to undergo more and more refinements and improvements. However, even though they’re imperfect, they’re a good measure.
What do you consider to be the most exciting sustainable developments since you started in the industry?
The universal acknowledgement and buy-in of green and sustainable buildings. I used to be on the AIA Energy Committee, now called the Committee on the Environment, and back then, it was all we could do to have someone listen to what we were trying to accomplish. No one would listen to us and that was among our own peers, the architects. Certainly none of our clients gave a hoot.
What has really changed now is no architect can practice without being green, and no building gets built without it being green. Yes, many of them are greenwashed, but the fact is that builders, developers, consumers, lenders, and insurers now get it. There’s a total universal buy-in that buildings—and our lifestyles—have to be green. This acceptance and appreciation of sustainable concepts is the biggest development, and it has radically changed the landscape of building design and construction.
Do you worry that this focus on green building will become a passing fascination? Do we risk suffering from green fatigue?
I think it’s here to stay. It’s become institutionalized in everything, from financing to codes to understanding and appreciating green concepts. I think it will become so institutionalized that it will be impossible to build anything other than green and, eventually, this will make it invisible. There will be green buildings or no buildings.
Looking into the future, what are you most excited about?
Over the years, we started by making buildings more energy efficient. Then, little by little, through LEED and design practices, we began expanding the sustainability process to make groups of buildings, like a campus or an entire subdivision, more efficient. What excites me about the future is to expand this to community-scale sustainable conversions or developments. Can we make an entire town or an entire community sustainable? Can we expand sustainability beyond a singular building or a group of buildings to an entire community? When an entire city is sustainable, we can make real impact on its inhabitants and on the environment.
Who do you think will drive this movement? Is it a public figure like a mayor declaring a city-wide initiative, or will it be individual citizens? Is this an opportunity for the building and design community to step in?
It’s going to have to be driven by the financial and political decision makers and then executed by the architecture and design community. New York has just introduced legislation requiring all buildings—all of them—to undergo energy audits every 10 years. When the entire city of New York becomes green, that has a huge impact. It has to either be a requirement or there needs to be some kind of incentive to have the public go along with it. Once the mayor or the government mandates something or incentivizes it to happen, then the design community can step in and execute it to make sure it happens properly.
A second thing in the future that I find exciting is this genre of residential and commercial buildings that are zero-energy structures. In the future, these buildings and homes that utilize net zero energy on an annual basis are going to be what really provide a major impact. Putting up a building that produces more energy than it utilizes—that’s pretty exciting stuff. This movement is getting stronger and more incentives are appearing for it. The idea of getting a significant number of these kinds of buildings in the future is a pretty exciting concept.