A Blueprint for Sustainability
Austin center and its leaders sowed seeds of green building movement
Gail Vittori, co-director of Austin’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, found her calling early. When she arrived in Austin in 1977, after studying economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Vittori began working in the political realm, with no particular professional plan in mind. Then she visited the recently founded Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, or CMPBS, in Austin and her uncertain career path quickly became clear.
“I began getting involved at the center, working on various projects” she says. “I was struck by how untraditional thinking about ways to connect communities of people within the context of understanding [building and eco] systems completely worked for me.”
Vittori began working regularly at the center in 1979, and went on to become co-director with the much-lauded Pliny Fisk III in 1991. Today, she enjoys that title while overseeing the center’s Sustainable Public Initiatives program, and acting as a sustainable design consultant for local and national projects. She is seen as a stalwart in the burgeoning green-building industry in Texas and beyond.
Vittorri and the center’s work reach far and wide – and it all began in the 1970’s in Austin. In 1989, the Center partnered with the city of Austin to create the first green building program in the world by developing some core ideas, institutionalizing green building and changing the way people think about how to build in general. “The development of the center put Austin in a strong position to have a voice, so that what happens in the broader region of Texas, is followed throughout the industry,” she says. “Green-building programs don’t just focus on current knowledge, but on expanding that knowledge and examining the unknown with regard to how builders, contractors, designers, architects and city planners think about designing, changing and being responsive to regional ecology.”
|Gail Vittori, center, at an in-house planning session held at Austin’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, where she serves as co-director with Pliny Fisk, III. Vittori is chair-elect of the USGBC
CMPBS began with a vision from Pliny Fisk, and his then-wife Daria Fisk, having arrived in Austin after Pliny finished graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of famed founder and professor of landscape architecture and regional planning Ian McHarg, now deceased.
The center is a non-profit educational, research, and demonstration organization specializing in life-cycle planning and design. Jim Nations, a board member for CMPBS since 1982, and the board’s president for a decade, says he’s seen the center evolve and develop since its start in 1975, “from a family-run operation with a lot of experimental ideas to an absolutely cutting-edge think and action tank on sustainable lifestyles, buildings and energy efficiency.”
Vittori’s global notoriety is a testament to that, as is Fisk’s, who was recently invited to speak at a conference on the future of sustainability in Venice, Italy. The conference, entitled “Biennale,” attracts an eco-conscious audience from around the world. Vittori accompanied him, and says that the theme, ’Beyond Building’, was a “heady” context in which to be immersed.
Nations blew Vittori’s humble cover when asked about her, revealing that she was, in September, appointed the chair-elect for the U.S. Green Building Counsil, a position he likens to receiving a Nobel Prize or a McArthur award. “Gail’s modesty is a window to her soul and a reflection of her dedication to this mission,” he says. “That organization is cutting-edge, nationally and internationally, and they chose Gail to lead them on that level. That’s huge.”
The U.S. Green Building Counsil was founded in 1983, and began receiving Department of Energy funding in 1996, thereby giving it credibility and a forum to lead on national and international fronts. The organization was formed as a way to begin analyzing how to influence the built environment so that standards and guidelines could be set. Today, it has a membership that includes car manufacturers, school systems and even chemical companies, and gives out millions of dollars annually in grants for research money and project funding. According to the USGBC’s strategic plan for 2009 through 2013, while being green has become mainstream, green buildings and other green products remain small percentages of total market shares. The organization’s leadership say that the pace of change must increase to prevent significant deterioration of ecological conditions in many places around the world.
The USGBC is responsible for setting the much sought-after LEED standards, launched in 1999. LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, continues to be a voluntary green-building-rating system, but the certification is becoming mandatory in more governmental jurisdictions. “Many private companies have also set a standard for LEED certification for all of their projects,” Vittori says. “But most often it’s still up to the business itself in that sector.” It is, however, becoming a key element in building-design models, according to Vittori. Austin was one of the first cities to require LEED certification for its public sector projects of more than 5,000 sq ft, just after Seattle. “LEED continues to change with time,” Vittori says. A new set of LEED standards, LEED 2009, is being implemented next year through the USGBC. Vittori says the newly developed standards “will enable every project to have access to a customized set of credits designed according to each building’s individual life cycle.” She adds: “This will allow industry access to points developed with specific regional interests and needs in mind, thereby enhancing regional connectedness.” The new phase of LEED will factor in climate change, and will allow for a solid gauge for each structure, whether a school or a commercial interior. The certification process and requirements will be more sophisticated, more user friendly, and will offer plenty of resources, Vittori says. And that will provide value to the community as well as the environment, furthering public benefit, she adds.
As for existing buildings, Vittori says that since many were built with at least 50- to 75-year life cycles in mind, they are not easily--but must be necessarily--retrofitted for sustainability in a changing climate in order to suit environmental and eco-system current and future needs. “It’s crucial that the buildings continue to perform well mechanically and structurally,” she says. “In general, emphasis on retrofitting public and private buildings is an imperative, because it’s our largest stock of buildings that exist today.” The market is responding, she says. “There is a great recognition within the industry and by the public because of environmental and economic reasons. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer afford to operate buildings that are inefficient and have no relovence to the reality of the 21st century.” She says making changes to mechanical systems and windows, for example, and creating “approaches to special configurations that are more conducive to the way we work or learn” is a must.
In the case of health-care buildings, Vittori believes such initiatives should garner a tremendous amount of attention, and when properly modeled, will yield positive returns. For example, to replace existing mechanical systems with systems that perform better on the energy scale, while providing a better indoor environment, would produce immediate returns financially and enhance the productivity and well being of the people inside. This concern and interest led Vittori to write “Sustainable Healthcare Architecture,” co-authored by Robin Gunther of New York City, published in November 2007, and on its second print. The book, which also includes a number of essays by various writers, addresses issues of healing and health in the adult health-care environment, a topic Vittori considers timeless.
Pliny Fisk enthusiastically announced several initiatives in which the center is currently involved, while also offering that the news of Vittori’s recent USGBC appointment is “dynamite.”
“We at the center are part of an effort to design a proposal for extreme weather housing for Galveston and the Gulf Coast region that can withstand hurricane force weather. We are working with firms in Kansas City and Houston that have been talking with the mayor of Galveston,” he says.
The center is also partnering with Texas A&M, where Fisk holds a joint position as signature faculty in Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning, to design an off-the-grid community in the Galapagos Islands. “The researchers in the oceanographic and architectural departments at A&M are concentrating on the sea becoming a carbon sink.” He says the purpose for the research community is “multi-dimensional.” Additionally, the center has recently entered into a memorandum of agreement with A&M to become the demonstration site for a series of housing and building systems for community structures, so that CMPBS is the “one-shop stop place where one can see a wide range of building system efforts.” Fisk also points to the work the center is doing to model a different way of thinking about the future of big-box structures such as Wal-Mart, Target and H-E-B. The focus is on how best to transform such buildings into a “functional, eco-conscious part of a sustainable urban environment,” he says.
Vittori paints the future of the center with a more broad brush.
“As we continue to look at how we best fulfill our mission, which is to create a sustainable world, one of our best opportunities is to make the place that we work," referring to the center, “a compelling and informative experience for visitors.”
A master-planning phase for the property is under way, she says, “so we can enhance that experience.”
Another goal is to strengthen the already sought-after intern program.
Vittori believes the center will reach back and revisit its roots, after having worked a great deal in the private sector for the past five years, and begin to look at fundamental research and policy and education questions. “We at the center are in a great position to revisit those questions and come back with clarity on how we can best collaborate and influence the decades ahead.”
The CMPBS is open for public viewing the first Friday of every month. Would-be visitors call in advance, 512-928-4786. www.cmpbs.org
U.S. Green Buiding Council www.usgbc.org
For further information on the book,
"Sustainable Healthcare Architecture," visit www.cmpbs.org/t.news.html