The AIA 2030 Commitment: Women Leading Sustainable Design

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The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) is working to change the culture of the building industry so that women’s work is acknowledged, respected and valued. I was honored when the BWAF invited me to be a guest blogger. Fully aware that women are woefully under-represented in the field of architecture, I looked instead at the many thought-leaders I have come to know in the world of sustainable design. A re-posting of my BWAF blog follows:    

A few weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Boston Society of Architects on resilient design: preparing buildings and cities to survive the inevitable impacts of climate change. The two speakers on my panel – Dr. Sarah Slaughter, President of the Built Environment Coalition, and Fiona Cousins, Principal at the engineering firm Arup (and a BWAF Board of Trustee member) – shared with us their groundbreaking research and policy work on buildings and urban systems.

The next day, I was in Washington DC at AIA national headquarters for a task force on “transparency” – the disclosure of toxic substances in building materials. The group was convened by Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a research fellow at the AIA and former Director of Sustainability at HOK, and Paula McEvoy, AIA, Co-director of Perkins+ Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative. Lazarus and McEvoy were also co-authors of the AIA’s 2013 Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan, a report that outlined top sustainable design priorities for architects.

Meanwhile, I was working on a new blog post on post-occupancy energy use evaluations: the process where architects go back into a building after it opens to evaluate actual building energy use. This is a delicate subject for architects. I needed to speak with someone with first-hand experience. Martine Dion, AIA, Principal and Director of Sustainability at the Boston firm SMMA, graciously gave me a half an hour’s worth of insight.

And the list goes on.

When I need an overview on how research informs sustainable design, I call Andrea Love, AIA, Director of Building Science at the Boston firm Payette. When I need a gut check on sustainability action plans or health product declarations, I go to Meredith Elbaum, former Director of Sustainability at Sasaki. And when I’m really in trouble and need someone to explain the new Version 4 of the LEED Rating System, I ask Bergmeyer’s own Director of Sustainability, Dee Spiro.

I recently got an email from my old friend Barbra Batshalom. Trained as an architect, Barbra founded the Green Roundtable – the region’s first non-profit consulting group with a mission to mainstream “green building” and transform the marketplace – in 1999. That was before most of us had even heard of the US Green Building Council. Now CEO of the Sustainable Performance Institute with a mission to help companies deliver on their sustainable design promises, she wanted to introduce me to a colleague. Thanks again, Barbra.

In my world, women in sustainable design are the true believers, the mentors, and the change agents. How does this happen? How is it that the practice of architecture in America has 32% less women than in the general population, yet among professionals who specialize in sustainable design, women are the stars?

Sustainable design requires us to take the long view. It requires us to be empathic; to think seriously about achieving the greatest common good. It requires assumptions to be challenged. And its practice is dynamic, interdisciplinary and inclusive – and not calcified by ancient hierarchies, obsolete traditions, or unwritten behavioral codes.

Perhaps the practice of architecture needs to look more like sustainable design. If this ever happens, I’m sure our practices will improve, and we will be able to thank women for leading the change.

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2 Comments on “The AIA 2030 Commitment: Women Leading Sustainable Design”

  1. Dear Mike:

    You really missed the boat on this one. Are you familiar with Betsy Pettit? Betsy is an Architect, a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects, and President of Building Science Corporation, the country’s preeminent leader in understanding how buildings work. They are the real deal in hands on, practical, as well a cutting-edge knowledge of building in the 21st century AND a woman is founder and president. She’s the “real deal”!

    Betsy Pettit, FAIA
    Building Science Corporation
    30 Forest Street
    Somerville, MA 02143
    978-589-5100 x 5296
    fax: 978-589-5103

    http://www.buildingscience.com

    Respectfully submitted,
    Carol A. Wilson FAIA

  2. Mike Davis FAIA says:

    Hi, Carol. Well, it’s about time! I expected a tsunami of comments about women leaders in sustainable design that I didn’t mention. There are so many more!

    Yes, I know Betsy. We overlapped briefly on the BSA Board. She’s done great work, been recognized by the AIA (obviously) and should definitely be on “the list”. My story was only about the women leaders that I had some contact with over the course of a typical week or two. Seriously! With a different narrative structure it coulda been two or three times as long.

    So thank you for your comment! And a shout-out to Betsy! Now, who else did I miss?


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