Bob Berkebile is co-founder of Kansas City, Mo.–based national architecture firm BNIM, and he’s the winner of this year’s Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainability. The Bob Berkebile we honor as a giant in sustainability and the Bob Berkebile who started his career as an architect in the mid-1960s are one and the same. What drives him, however, and what he obsesses about and delights in are profoundly different than before. That’s because his professional biography contains a flashpoint instant—an epiphany.
A pioneer, a revolutionary, and a mentor, Berkebile has made a career of crusading tirelessly to reverse the building industry’s most destructive beliefs and practices while earning admiration and love from virtually everyone he encounters. His career and the passions that fuel it pivot around a defining moment, and a tragic one at that.
Berkebile designed the Hyatt Regency Crown Center in Kansas City, where a walkway collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 in 1981. He spent the night of the collapse recovering bodies from the wreckage and wondering if he had caused the devastation. Ultimately, he was cleared of any responsibility. Still, the catastrophe altered him. He took it personally.
Over the next couple of years, while caught up in a tangle of lawsuits, Berkebile questioned everything he thought he knew about his profession. He called six visionaries he had found in a Smithsonian article and struck up transformative friendships with Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Wes Jackson of the Land Institute. Convinced that it was up to his firm to redefine how architects design, Berkebile began corralling various forces and factions of the building and development industries into the organizations that today shape the sustainability conversation.
Berkebile was instrumental in founding the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Committee on the Environment, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and the Living Building Challenge—a strident standard that he once hoped would replace the USGBC’s LEED Platinum certification. He’s greened the White House and the Pentagon and helped with 12 major post-disaster recovery efforts, including New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Greensburg, Kan., the first city to make LEED Platinum the standard for all city buildings after a devastating tornado. Through his Urban Acupuncture initiative, Berkebile is turning blighted city neighborhoods into vital, resilient communities.
In recognition of these efforts—and countless other accomplishments that he’s far too humble to take credit for—Berkebile receives the 2014 Hanley Award.
“Bob’s vision and leadership—his 40-plus years of accomplishments—led the judges to unanimously select him as this year’s Hanley Award recipient,” says Michael J. Hanley, president of the Hanley Foundation. “Bob has a lifetime of major sustainability accomplishments, and he continues to be a positive influence and a strong voice in the industry.”
As it turns out, accolades make Berkebile blush. “Life is so good,” he says. “I tend to receive too much recognition because I’m the oldest guy around, but I’m a stand-in for literally thousands of brilliant people who deserve awards.”
Cultivating Others’ Genius
Always humble, Berkebile deflects credit for his successes to others, including his “perfect parents.” His father was a German craftsman and contractor, and his mother was a nature-loving schoolteacher who took her two sons into the woods and taught them how to find the best morel mushrooms, blackberries, and gooseberries. “Our mother taught us to be observant,” Berkebile says. “And that was a blessing.”
He also credits a stint as one of 15 students chosen to study architecture with Buckminster Fuller at the University of Kansas as life-changing. Berkebile often recites Fuller’s contention that everyone is born a genius but is gradually “degeniused” by parents and teachers, and he’s brilliant at helping people rediscover their genius.
Jason McLennan, who started his career as an intern at BNIM and worked with Berkebile to develop the Living Building Challenge, says Berkebile can bring out the best in anyone. “He elevates the thinking,” McLennan says. “He creates conditions for people’s genius to emerge, and he cultivates and supports it.”
Berkebile’s collaborative leadership was crucial to the USGBC during its formative years, says USGBC president Rick Fedrizzi. Berkebile acted as elder statesman and mentor for the group of young revolutionaries and facilitated important conversations with the AIA following a year of contentious relations. Fedrizzi counts Berkebile among the few people he knows who simultaneously can be both sharply critical and gentle. “He looks out for us. He wants us to be better people and better organizers,” Fedrizzi says. “He’s a wise man who makes you come up with the answer on your own, though he’ll give you inspiration and a little corrective now and then.”
Berkebile is again reluctant to take credit for this gift, citing a simple philosophy. “I think people respect raw honesty, care, and candor if you say what you feel in a loving way,” he says.
Well past retirement age, Berkebile sold his company stock years ago and now focuses mostly on “celebrating the brilliance” of BNIM’s younger staff members, whom he describes as “more diverse, capable, and inspiring than anything I could have imagined when we founded this firm in 1970.”
He’s carving out more time to focus on Urban Acupuncture initiatives such as Kansas City’s Manheim Park neighborhood, where BNIM collaborated with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation to turn a dilapidated school into a community center that offers healthy, affordable housing units. The neighborhood, which the Kansas City Star once referred to as “the killing ZIP code,” has seen crime drop by 26 percent while jobs, income, and property values have increased.
The Urban Acupuncture effort “is about being strategic,” Berkebile says. “It doesn’t necessarily require massive investments of capital or federal support. It’s about creative community capital generated by the collaborative dialogue of discovery.”
He cites Mind Drive, a Manheim Park–based organization he helped found to inspire at-risk students in Kansas City’s urban core through experiential learning, hands-on teaching, and one-on-one mentoring, as an example of Urban Acupuncture’s positive vibrations. Mind Drive students, who all originally hailed from the rough neighborhood, have designed and built seven fully functional electric cars, and kids who had been told they’d never graduate high school have gone on to college.
“This program is not for the faint of heart,” Berkebile says. “It’s not uncommon for mentors to get calls from students who are in jail, even before the kids call their parents. It’s a very real and really transformative experience. But given the right environment, nurturing, and support, these students are recapturing their genius.”
Strong, Sustainable Future
In the foreword to McLennan’s 2004 book, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, Berkebile declares that there “are many reasons one could be pessimistic about the future.” During the two decades that Berkebile spent exploring the impact of human lifestyles and community designs on health and productivity, he wrote, every key environmental indicator had declined. That decline has spiraled exponentially in the past decade since he wrote those words, but Berkebile says he’s “optimistic even though the science is depressing.”
“Clearly we haven’t been brilliant and compelling enough yet for people to just buy into the whole sustainable development thing,” Berkebile adds. “We compromised and tried to prove that sustainable development works economically—which is true, but not good enough.”
Across the planet, “all hell is beginning to break loose” climatically, he says. Social systems, public infrastructure, and public resources are breaking down. And Berkebile believes humanity is on the cusp of waking up to our own “ignorance and arrogance” and seeking different solutions. When that happens, he says, “our job is to have sustainable models that are so compelling that we don’t have to sell them.”
Getting there can be messy, Berkebile admits, but there’s no reason to give up hope. “I’m seeing transformation, while at a small scale, and it’s pretty easy to visualize how scale can change,” he says. “We’ll probably get a little warmer and drier in the meantime, but I’ll keep planting the tree.”