Architect Bob Berkebile, recent recipient of the AIA’s Edward C. Kemper Award, for lifelong service to the profession, has always had a keen sense of the moment, whether it was working for Buckminster Fuller as a student, or as an intern listening to Whitney M. Young Jr.’s seminal speech on inclusion, “Thundering Silence,” at the AIA convention in 1969. But as epiphanies go, especially for an architect, one event in 1981 was particularly tough, though it undeniably changed the course of his life. On the night of July 17, a pair of skywalks inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City collapsed, killing 119 people and injuring scores more. Berkebile’s firm, Kansas City–based BNIM, had designed the hotel, so the architect spent the “longest night of my life” on site, assisting first responders.
Although legal culpability for the tragedy was traced to the engineering firm that oversaw construction of the building (the engineers responsible lost their licenses), it tied up Berkebile in dispositions and legal matters for a couple of years. It was during this legally imposed break from design that Berkebile began asking himself, and by extension his profession, some basic questions: What was his responsibility as an architect? As a citizen? To the public? To the planet? These questions eventually led him to a deep, career-long engagement with sustainable design. He helped create the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED rating system, founded the AIA’s Committee on the Environment, and, in collaboration with Jason McLennan, shaped the Living Building standards. His firm was the recipient of the AIA Architecture Firm Award in 2011.
In recent years, the 84-year-old architect has become involved with the Regenerative Heartland Partnership, a foundation devoted to agricultural reform. “After spending more than 40 years trying to get carbon out of the built environment, one of the things that I’ve learned is, even if we did that perfectly, if every building was a Living Building, we’d still have too much carbon in the atmosphere,” he told me. “We have to invite it back more aggressively than ever before in human history. And for me, one of the most available strategies, being in the heartland of America, is farming. If you choose farming strategies, which includes agri-forestry and perennial grasses, you can grow healthier food per serving with more nutrients, while you build soil, while you sequester carbon, at less cost than conventional farming. That’s what we have to do if we’re going to meet the demand for carbon sequestration.” Recently I spoke to Berkebile—who spent the early part of our talk generously crediting the work of colleagues and collaborators—about our precarious present moment, the state of sustainable design, and the problem with LEED.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BB: Bob Berkebile
You’ve been part of the sustainable building movement since its inception. Progress has been made, but obviously not nearly fast enough. What are the next steps?
The first step is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have a real dialogue among the citizens on this planet. We have a pretty active group of concerned citizens—professionals, environmentalists, scientists—who are all worked up. And I’m sort of at the head of the pack, because early in this journey, the National Science Foundation took me to Antarctica. I was there to help them rethink the U.S. operations on the ice. We happened to arrive when carbon had passed 350 parts per million for the first time. And they were all going crazy.
What year was this?
The Rio summit was around there as well.
It was the same year. I got a deep dive in climate science from them. But I also realized that they were a big part of the problem. The way they were operating their community was a disaster. It was the reason I got recruited to go. The U.S. was receiving lots of criticism for the way we operated on the ice, and we deserved every bit of it. We were looking at that and offering some other possibilities, just as we broke this 350 barrier. And of course, today, everyone would pray for 350 now.
As you probably know, for the last few weeks, it’s been 70 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it’s supposed to be in Antarctica. Which is the generator for the climate system on this planet. And then a week and a half ago, maybe two weeks, the largest ice shelf in recorded history collapsed. And the IPCC adjusted what everyone thought was an unreasonable time frame of one decade to make the changes we need to make with carbon to three years.
And we’re not going to make that, by a long shot.
Of course not. So while everyone’s patting me on the back and saying, “Way to go,” I’m yelling, “Why are we not all shitting our pants!? Now that we’ve learned how to do this, let’s do something that makes a difference.” It’s a moment … oh, my God.
That’s my continual frustration with it. We have the technical knowhow and wherewithal to solve the problem, but most of our problems now are political in nature, which makes the design part of it sort of frustrating.
On one level, I agree with that, but I think before politics comes the lack of real community and the lack of potential for dialogue among us. If we can solve that problem, I think there’s hope. If we can’t solve that problem, the politics will just continue to spiral into a bad place.
You were one of the early shapers of LEED, which transformed the industry. Now we’re in a different place. Do you think LEED has outlived its usefulness? Where is LEED right now?
It’s a great question. I think that it needs transformation. Just like all of our thinking. I started the AIA’s Committee on the Environment. Early on I woke up to my own ignorance and I reached out to AIA and said, “We need to start doing research on the unintended consequences of this pattern of design we’re using.” And they turned me down. It was frustrating. And I was well connected. One of my partners was the national AIA president. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know people. But they heard my story and said, “Bob, this sounds like a really big idea, sounds really important. It also sounds really expensive. And it doesn’t sound like a professional problem. It sounds more like an environmental problem.”
What year were you making this case?
Oh, pretty early.
Well, it should have been earlier. My epiphany came in 1981 with the hotel skywalk collapse, but there were two and a half years of lawsuits following that. I was pretty much tied to Kansas City during that period. When the lawsuits were resolved, I spent a couple of years educating people about the collapse.
This was the Hyatt Regency collapse in Kansas City?
Right. What our response should be, structurally, on the construction side. It was during that time, I was doing all the research on the unintended consequence of the building occupants, the vitality of the neighborhood, the watershed, the airshed, the job shed. Fortunately for me, at about that time, the Smithsonian published its 75th anniversary issue that named six people on the planet most likely to change the outcome of the human story. That got my attention. I didn’t have enough time to serve my clients, but about 15% of my time was free to do something other than meet with attorneys and be in depositions.
So I called Amory Lovins first, who was the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I told him my story and what I was hoping to discover. He said, “Bob, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they’re really important. And they haven’t been asked before. If you ever get free from those attorneys, just come out here and I’ll connect you with people. We’ll find the path.” Essentially all six of them told me the same thing, and I took them up on it.
Who were the six people?
Amory was one, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute was another, Tom Lovejoy at the Smithsonian was another, who at the time was chairman of the Rainforest Alliance. They all were very helpful, but over time, Amory and his wife at the time, Hunter Lovins, were the most critical. They became partners in this endeavor. A couple of years later, at an annual retreat for RMI donors, I met Janine Benyus. I had heard of Janine but had never met her. And, oh my God, when I heard her speak and she heard my story, we became inseparable and I introduced the world of architecture to her, and vice versa, and she’s had a huge impact.
Let’s talk specifically about how LEED has to change.
I think LEED did a great job, better than AIA, better than the Committee on the Environment, of including the entire industry in the conversation, meaning not just designers, architects, engineers, and environmentalists, but manufacturers, bankers, builders, contractors, suppliers. They all had a voice. And it was an open management system. Everything was transparent. Everybody volunteered. We proposed things. And then they would all be offered up to the members for a vote. So it was a little slow, a little messy. There were a lot of compromises made that some of my original partners in the Committee on the Environment didn’t like, because people who knew less had a vote.
But because they had a vote, they were buying in at the same time. That was the brilliance—and is the brilliance—of the USGBC. It included everyone in the conversation, it took the time to maintain a larger conversation, having people like Ray Anderson at Interface, who was going through a big change himself with his company. He became a real influencer, and all the people that helped him, Amory, Hunter, Paul Hawken, and many others. All of them started weighing in and attending these meetings. If they weren’t coming to the conventions, they were still in conversation with us, asking: What about this? What about that? Have you failed to consider X? That’s what they did right. We all benefited from that.
But as USGBC grew and became more staff dominant, more brand protective, the organization didn’t evolve at the same rate. In the beginning it was all about evolution, getting better, improving outcomes, taking risks. And, you know, we were spending money before we had it, and then figuring out where we were going to get it, but there was a unified force, trying to define a better strategy in a healthier future with more vitality, for more people. And again, as it grew and had success and became the biggest brand, a lot of that was lost, because the management of the system became dominant. Suddenly, taking a risk was not as acceptable. It might affect the income or the attendance at the next convention, or maybe some people wouldn’t be buying into the rating system. This sort of inertia is not unique to the USGBC; it’s the way big institutions operate. But the more USGBC became institutional, the less it became attached to the highest and best outcomes, in my opinion.
If you could rework LEED for today, what changes would you make?
Number 1: There has to be an enormous, critical reason to build a new building in the next five to 10 years. We ought to find every way possible to create longer use of what we’ve already built and adaptively reuse the built environment that we own, rather than build a new one, because right now we can’t afford the carbon. Even if a new project is a Living Building and won’t be producing operational carbon, it’s still going to take carbon to construct the building, and the embodied carbon right now is too great a price to pay.
What do we do about all of the housing that is desperately needed? What do we do without new buildings?
It’s a great question. If you look at our cities, you’ll find one hell of a lot of empty or underutilized retail space, shopping centers, hotels, and, increasingly, office buildings. In my view, those are great places to build a new kind of community, with a lot of housing. That’s the first act. Now, I’m not saying you can never build a new building, because there will be times when, for a variety of reasons, it’s so critical that, for example, a new hospital gets built, in that location, when there’s nothing around that would create the appropriate shell for that use. But if you do that, then you have to find a way for it to operate as a Living Building, number 1. And number 2, you have to offset all of that carbon that you invested in constructing the building. If we care about our children and their children having a planet to live on comfortably, then that has to be a move we take in the immediate future.
That would be a pretty challenging shift for architects.
“We’re not doing any more new buildings for a while” is a hard thing to tell a designer. Now, for a few of the preservation firms that only do that it sounds pretty good, but for everyone else, that’s a huge shift. But, my God, what’s the alternative? How are we going to find a strategy that will allow human life to survive, when the temperature in Antarctica is 70 degrees Fahrenheit more than it should be? Just look at the storms, fires, floods, droughts that we’ve already seen. That’s just the beginning. We all know that. And I think the worst thing that no one seems to really anticipate—it’s kind of shocking—is that probably beginning this year, vast regions, that could include the heartland of America, will no longer be able to grow food in the normal way. And when that happens, all hell breaks loose really fast. When people get hungry, stuff happens. Certainly the wealthy will find a way to import food, if they have to. But those that don’t have those resources, when their families start starving, they are motivated to do stuff they’ve never done before. You can look at other parts of the planet. We’ve seen that in the last two decades elsewhere, but I think we’ll see that sadly this year and next year in America. And once that starts, it’s a little late then to start talking about new design strategies.
We have to take decisive action now. We won’t get it right every time. But if we don’t lock arms and do everything we can to figure out how to make this transition, then it’s not going to be pretty. I have to say something, because this all sounds so gloomy. But I am known as an eternal optimist. Tom Nelson, one of my founding partners, told me 10 years ago, “Bob, I know what’s wrong with you.” He and I were always seeing things differently, having trouble getting to a good decision. He said, “You’re too Panglossian.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Look it up!” and he stormed off. I looked it up and there are several definitions. The one I chose was eternal optimist. So I walked back to his office with my hands up and said, “Guilty, what’s the problem?” He asked, “Which definition did you choose?” I told him. “That’s exactly what I thought,” he said. “The one you should have chosen was ‘excessively optimistic.’” That’s only to say that everyone I’ve worked with knows that I’m an optimist. But to be an eternal optimist today, we have to have our smartest people doing things that they’re not doing currently. So it’s a little hard to maintain that title and a lot easier to get a little more aggressive about what we do and how we behave.
Featured image: The Omega Center for Sustainable Living, Rhinebeck, New York. Image courtesy of BNIM.