The city of Austin recently named Lucia Athens to the newly created position as its chief sustainability officer. Austin city leaders saw a need to pull together the many green initiatives across the city. Athens, a UT graduate with a master’s in architecture, returned to Texas from Seattle after working for ten years leading Seattle’s green-building initiative. She arrived in mid-September, and Texas Construction wanted to sit down and welcome her to her new position. We also wanted to get a feel for what she will contribute to the A/C/E environment and the impact her position will have on the industry.
TC: Welcome to Austin. I guess you’re still living out of boxes right now; but as far as this job is concerned, what are your plans?
Athens: I need to understand where I can provide the most value, so I’m getting up to speed, trying to understand all the programs and initiatives the city has in place. Where are we in terms of where we want to be and what other cities are doing? I’ve tracked other public sustainability initiatives and that’s addressed in my book, Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies and Programs - and I’m focusing on what I can learn from some of the leaders in the field, which include San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Austin. Here in Austin, there’s a wide range of different kinds of initiatives already in place, with a focus on both private sector and internal city operations. There’s no one priority I can point to right now – everything is pressing.
TC: How is the A/C/E industry faring in terms of meeting green-building practices in Texas, in your opinion?
Athens: A lot of construction and development projects have been slowing down because the money’s not there right now. So there is a big focus on retrofitting existing buildings, to make sure the buildings we have already built are functioning as efficiently as possible. I can see a trend where the construction industry is becoming more and more educated and aware of ways to build green. The push-back that was once there is beginning to subside, and certain green standards are seen now as a matter of course, rather than unusual. The more educated the industry becomes, the faster we’ll make progress.
TC: What do you see trending right now in the cities that you’ve examined?
Athens: There are a lot more cities looking at infrastructure. When we talk about the construction industry, it’s not just about buildings. There are huge capital projects under way all over the U.S. Those include infrastructure and everything in the right of way. There’s a high percentage of the total land area in any city that is actually in the right of way, and therefore controlled by government.
TC: So, what are cities and public entities looking at in terms of the right of way?
Athens: There are a variety of sustainable infrastructure performance areas to look at - how is storm water being handled, is there space for pedestrians, are there ample trees for shading, bike lanes, public transit space, safe alternative mobility options? There are plenty of opportunities that go beyond buildings per se. I’m very interested in an initiative through the National Wildflower Research Center [editor’s note: Now the “Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin] called the ‘Sustainable Sites Initiative’. The program is geared toward projects that don’t include buildings, such as recreation areas, small pocket parks, right of way improvements and other infrastructure projects. Cities are also beginning to get more focused on issues relating to development practices that include urban food production. There’s an advisory board to the city of Austin that’s been established to address food policy. For example, providing space for food to be produced within the city itself will become more important, and the construction industry will have to be a part of developing those spaces. This issue is critical, and has a lot to do with our climate footprint. Many cities have food deserts where people don’t have access to fresh food. So, cities will be looking into how they incorporate this into our planning.
Lucia Athens may be reached at 512-974-2200.