Lucia Athens, senior sustainable futures strategist at CollinsWoerman.
Karen Moskowitz Lucia Athens, senior sustainable futures strategist at CollinsWoerman.

In her book Building an Emerald City, Lucia Athens guides readers through the process of developing a municipal green building program. She speaks from experience: An early advocate of sustainability, she was part of the initial development team for the City of Austin’s Green Building program in Texas, and spent 10 years overseeing the creation and operation of Seattle’s Green Building Program, the nation’s first LEED-specific municipal program. Now a senior sustainable futures strategist for CollinsWoerman, a Seattle-based planning, architecture, and interior design firm, Athens recently spoke with Eco-Structure.

Given your municipal experience, how can the design community work with local governments to push sustainability forward?

Try to build a positive relationship. It’s worth thinking about how to forge long-term working relationships that are constructive, forward-thinking, and solution-oriented. Think about how architecture and design firms can be involved in government affairs and public service. You can attend public meetings to give feedback on proposed projects. If there’s public comment on proposed energy code changes, think about how that public commentary can include constructive critique as well as ideas about how to solve the problem differently.

I also encourage people in the design profession to run for public office. We’ve had some very effective public leaders in Seattle who had a design background. Former Mayor Paul Schell was a developer and the dean of the architecture department at the University of Washington before he took office, which he occupied when we adopted our green building program.

What are some key steps to building support for green design and construction?

Building support has to happen on multiple levels. There needs to be broad education that is accessible. When I was at the City of Seattle, we developed Green Home Remodel Guides that were accessible by anyone. They explained green building concepts and how they could be implemented, and broke it all down into easy steps and digestible information. We also partnered with Whole Foods to put on local workshops to connect with community members who were interested in natural foods and might have crossover interest in green building.

It’s also important to educate elected officials—such as mayors, city council members, and department heads—so they are fluent in what’s possible and what’s happening elsewhere. We can bring together public and private entities to develop pilot projects that test the boundaries. The lessons learned [from these projects] can then be cycled back into the design process, building codes, and development processes.

We also have to give ourselves more permission to experiment—not at the cost of public health, welfare, and safety, but to explore new solutions. We have to be honest about what works and what doesn’t work so that we can learn and improve as we go. This also builds credibility.

I think a lot of public sector officials are trying to understand how the regulatory environment is inhibiting innovation and what can be done to remove barriers. It’s important to have constructive dialogue around this in order to uncover the barriers and figure out creative solutions to them. For example, Portland, Ore., studied code barriers to the Living Building Challenge. New York City created a NYC Green Codes Task Force that recently published a comprehensive report examining energy codes, land-use codes, and other green building barriers, as well as a robust set of recommendations on how to get rid of these barriers.

In creating a municipal green building program, do you think it is most effective to offer financial incentives, institute code requirements, set voluntary green building targets, or use a combination of these tactics?

You really need all of those approaches combined. Mandatory requirements aren’t the best place to start right out of the chute. You really need to go through a process to prepare the building community, where you offer incentives, such as cash incentives or things like accelerated permitting or technical assistance. Simultaneously, you should do a barrier review to see what regulatory institutions are impeding innovation. Once those things are happening, you can move toward mandatory requirements.

It’s also important to realize that while you can create mandatory requirements for base levels of green building, you also want to have incentives to go beyond those baselines. As technology advances, standard practices and what is considered innovative are moving targets. You can’t just go through the code process once, get rid of the barriers at that time, and think you’re through with the green building process.

The City of Seattle was the first municipality in the U.S. to adopt LEED Silver targets for its own major construction projects. In developing the program, what were the biggest surprises?

One thing that was more of a lesson than a surprise was the realization that not everyone is going to be ready for change at the same time. It’s important to focus on the early adopters within city government and work closely with them to ensure success. The people that aren’t as big risk-takers will come along, but they first need to see those early successes so that they feel comfortable enough to follow. If you try to force someone to change before they are ready, they’ll find a way to sabotage you. You have to be realistic about what you expect people to do and in what time frame you expect it to occur.

One thing that was interesting to see was that as we picked up steam and green building began to catch on, we had some competition among elected officials in terms of who would be associated with which initiatives. You can see it now on a national level since green is such a buzzword. Who will be the thought leader attached to what legislation? However, I consider that to be a good thing overall.

Are there any unique challenges in adopting sustainability on the municipal level as a whole?

One challenge is dealing with election cycles. Any major public initiative runs up against this. If an elected official who is strongly associated with green building is voted out of office and the person coming in considers that cause to be the flavor of the day for the now-former official, it can be challenging. Election cycle turnover also creates a period of time where it’s difficult to get things done until everyone knows how things will fall out.

Another unique thing is proving the nexus of public benefit and investment in green building. You’re often investing taxpayer dollars, and you have to prove that those taxpayers are getting something out of it. There is a huge amount of scrutiny on how projects perform once they are complete. Were they good investments? It’s important to do post-occupancy analyses and learn from the buildings. This can be tricky, however, because if something is wrong, it raises the question of who is responsible to fix it.

You now are a senior sustainable futures strategist at CollinsWoerman. What are the biggest differences in working on the architecture end of the sustainability dialogue?

It’s not different when you look at implementing green building on a project level because, at the end of the day, it’s about being able to have a dialogue with whomever is funding the project. In the case of working at a firm, you have that dialogue with clients. At the city, you’re having that dialogue with people trying to get their buildings designed and through the permitting process. In both cases, I am trying to encourage people to adopt more innovative solutions. What’s different is when I was at the city, I had a role in crafting policy and building code direction so we could make some of those innovative things more attractive or more doable for the private sector.

Overall, the next wave of challenges will be things like zero energy, zero water, and restorative design, where a project gives back more than it consumes. Scale also will be interesting to watch. We’re beginning to figure out how to do green building on a site scale, but how do we solve things at the larger scale of a neighborhood or a community? That’s where it’s going to get really interesting.

For more of Athens’ thoughts on bolstering municipal green building initiatives, read her essay, “Green Horizons for Savvy Cities.”