Dreaming for a Living
It’s been the tagline to Lucia Athens’ e-mail signature for years: “I dream for a living.”
The Steven Spielberg quote might as well be her mantra. She makes a living bringing a certain kind of dream into reality: the dream that we can live in harmony with nature without sacrificing the comforts of city life. Athens and her colleague, Lynne Barker, help Seattleites build green.
Both work for the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, which houses the city’s Green Building Program. Its mission is “to make green building standard practice in Seattle through education, technical assistance and incentives.” Perhaps the most visible result of the program’s efforts is the Seattle Central Library building, which wowed the public with its striking, innovative architecture. But what admirers may not realize is that the design team successfully secured a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for incorporating green elements into the construction. LEED, managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, is recognized across the industry as the accepted benchmark for green building.
The sustainable design elements of the Central Library project are examples of the city’s long-term commitment to green building, which has roots in the 1970s conservation initiatives of Seattle City Light and the water department. In 2000, Seattle was the first city in the nation to adopt a sustainable building policy, which requires silver LEED certification for any new city-funded construction project or renovation of more than 5,000 square feet of occupied space. While Seattle and Portland are leaders in the nation, Athens and Barker point to a larger movement that crosses city, state, and even national boundaries. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Cascadia Chapter includes British Columbia.
Lynne Barker has been a trailblazer most of her life, so working at the forefront of the green building movement is not out of character for her. In 1978, she joined the Seattle carpenter’s union, one of the first women to do so. It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds, she maintains. Some of the old-timers took her under their wing, glad to see women interested in their line of work. It was not without its trials, but Barker worked hard and carried her weight, proving the naysayers wrong: “After about a year and a half in the union, I went out to a job site, and the supervisor there announced he was going to drive me off the job. But within eight months, I was managing one of the crews.”
Lucia Athens agrees that in a male-dominated industry like construction, it pays to be prepared. “I learned pretty early on [in my landscaping job right out of college] never to arrive on a job site without blueprints and a clipboard in hand,” she says. But Athens and Barker agree that such prejudices in the industry have changed considerably over the course of their careers.
The two consider themselves agents of change in a world in which green ideas, while now enjoying a heyday, can still incur resistance. Athens tells the story of an architecture firm she worked with whose staff members seemed threatened by green design alternatives and had a lot of trouble breaking out of their established practices. “Two years later, the same firm presented on LEED design principles at a national business conference. One of my colleagues turned to me and said, ‘Is this the same design firm?’ They had done a complete 180.”
What makes both women good trailblazers is their ability to build relationships. “If you’re the Lone Ranger out there on your own, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are; you’re not getting anywhere,” says Athens.
Barker concurs. “I think that’s one of the strengths I bring to this work,” she says. “I like to network and get people to work together toward a common goal. If I had to describe our work in one word, I would say it’s about relationships.” Relationships between architects and builders, between humans and nature, between nature and the built environment.
‘Building’ is a Verb
The mandate of Seattle’s sustainability program includes educating citizens about green building, and public facilities are the ideal forum for doing this. A few city-built environmental learning centers, libraries and community centers showcase green alternatives through their design, as well as through exhibits and resources within the centers themselves. The Central Library’s glass structure exemplifies green building in two ways: minimal use of materials, as the structure and finish are one; and a glare-reducing window system that allows for a flood of natural light, even on typical rainy days, instead of heavy reliance on artificial light.
“We’re also moving away from green building as always being equated with construction projects,” says Barker. “Instead, we’re talking about green urbanism, about how to create a livable city that reconnects us to nature.”
Athens came to green building as a landscape architect after studying whole systems design at Antioch University in Seattle. She is interested in stewardship of the land and likes to incorporate the entire built environment into her work. “You can look at building as a verb,” she says.
In other words, they are building green, not just creating green buildings. Instead of focusing only on the structure, Athens incorporates all aspects of the building’s site. “We look at the public and private realms, the sidewalks outside,” she says. “The thing about green building is that it doesn’t draw as many boundaries between systems.” For example, a green project might call for landscape on top of the roof -- a popular concept called ‘a green roof.’ “Or a rainwater collection system might require the architect, engineer, and landscape architect to work together in new ways,” says Athens.
A ‘Party’ for the Greens
The environmental movement has gathered strong momentum in the past 10 years as a coalition of factors — not the least of which is scientific consensus on the issue of global warming — has moved it into the mainstream. Last year, Elle magazine declared, “Green is the new black,” and devoted an entire issue to environmentalism. In 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council consisted of four staff members. Today, it is a national organization with a staff of more than 80 employees.
Athens and Barker have seen a total evolution in thinking for many in the design and construction industries. Companies that used to question green products now incorporate them into their construction projects -- whether their clients ask for them or not. “The choice is easy for them,” says Athens. “If you can choose materials that support people’s health and productivity, there’s no good reason not to.”
It’s Easy Being Green
Athens and Barker admit that it’s a bit easier championing green initiatives in a city like Seattle than it would be in a city that lacks this one’s environmental values. “We live in a very unique place that creates the perfect backdrop for green building,” says Athens, citing surveys that show that for many Seattleites the region’s natural beauty is part of the draw of living here. They may be more likely to pay more for products that are healthier for them and for their children, Athens points out. Although going green doesn’t always mean paying a premium, as there are long-term savings that accrue in the form of energy reduction and other returns on any green investment.
Not that both women don’t have to educate even the most enlightened Seattleite about what green building really means. “People think that nature’s not in the city, it’s somewhere else, but that’s not true,” says Athens. She and Barker see many people coming to green building out of concern for the kind of world their children will inherit. Others do so because they want to leave a positive legacy behind. Still others are motivated by the economic reasons, the boost in worker productivity and long-term cost savings that often accompany green projects.
Whatever the motivation, such conversations are part of what make work satisfying for both Athens and Barker. When Barker applied for her position, she included this quote from David Orr on her résumé: “A career is a job, a way to earn one’s keep, a way to build a long résumé, a ticket to somewhere else … In contrast, a calling has to do with one’s larger purpose, personhood, deepest values, and the gift one wishes to give the world.” Neither Barker nor Athens is the type of woman who would be content with just doing a job. By all accounts, they’ve found their calling.
©2007 Caliope Publishing Company
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