Bill Walsh | April 24, 2007
In September 2006, Jason F. McLennan left his position as Principal at BNIM Architects of Kansas City to become the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council. This week the Cascadia GBC hosts the first annual Cascadia Regional Collaboration Summit and Living Future conference. McLennan is the author of The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, in which he coined the term "Green Warrior" to describe "one who...has internalized the holistic thinking approach to design and problem solving."
BW: Why'd you do it? Not yet 40, you were the youngest Principal at BNIM . You led Elements, their green design division. You were in demand as a conference speaker and as a consultant to other firms. You authored three books, started Ecotone publishing company, and actually designed green buildings. What motivated you to give up that full-time practice and security that comes with it to lead a non-profit group?
JM: The underlying motivation of my decision and all that we are doing now in the Cascadia GBC is urgency. Al Gore's famous climate change graphics pushed that issue into the mainstream and helped inspire what we hope will be a global energy revolution. But there is an almost identical graphic, known to Canadians like myself as a "hockey stick" curve, that documents growing concentrations of bioaccumulative toxins in humans, mother's milk. My 8-year-old son just did a research project on why honey bee populations have mysteriously declined as much as 70% on the east coast and 60% on the west coast. That jeopardizes pollination, an essential link in our food chain. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the inevitable connection between environmental crisis and social crisis. This position appealed to me as a platform from which I could challenge myself to push boundaries, catalyze more ideas and actions, move beyond incrementalism in response to these warning signs. The Cascadia organization appealed to me because I knew a lot of the leaders and members, and I knew they felt the same way. I also like the fact that it has a bioregional consciousness, comprising Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The best solutions for sustainability are always local and bio-regional.
BW: What can the Cascadia Green Building Council really do about declining honey bee populations or climate change?
JM: We've started by identifying priorities, setting big picture goals, and identifying signal issues that we can develop strategies to address in the built environment. We've identified four issues that shape all our programs: climate change; the rise of persistent bioaccumulative toxins in the environment; habitat and species loss; and social equity. We are committed to developing explicit strategies to address these issues in every program we advance: the Living Building Challenge; the Pharos materials evaluation system; and even the conference this week.
BW: How does this vision work operationally in the initiatives you've mentioned, for example?
JM: Our vision gets real in two ways: specific programs and creative collaborations. In both the Living Building Challenge and the Pharos Project, for example, you will find an ideal goal set forth, a vision of what a truly good—not just less-bad—material or building would be. Then you will find specific steps to achieve that ideal. Difficult steps for sure, but they codify what needs to be done and what can be done. By setting targets, we believe that the 'universe' will respond. In other words, the innovations that are necessary will occur as people figure out how to achieve the goals we set. This approach requires a great deal of collaboration and a trust in the collective genius of our industry. We are teaming up with you at the Healthy Building Network on the Pharos Project and with the USGBC to sponsor a design competition for the Living Building Challenge as two powerful examples.
BW: How do things like the Living Building Challenge and the Pharos Project fit with LEED?
JM: Everything we do is a complement to LEED, and vice versa. The USGBC leadership has made clear that LEED is not just about checklists. The ambitious climate change initiatives announced by Rick Fedrizzi at GreenBuild last year stretched the boundaries of LEED to respond to the urgency of that issue. Adopting the Precautionary Principle as a guiding principle of the organization sets the stage for responding to new scientific information, like the hockey stick graph on bioaccumaltive toxins, or when my son figures out what's killing off the honey bees. We are moving toward a major revision of LEED in version 3. In the meantime, the USGBC supports and depends upon strong chapter development in the belief that members, through the chapters, will provide the long-term leadership of the organization. That's what we are all about. Setting out a future vision, unleashing people's creativity and energy and making change happen.
BW: And how does this week's conference figure in this vision? Is it like a regional GreenBuild?
JM: Actually, no. This is not designed as a general meeting of the green building movement. Living Future in particular was originally the idea of a board member that we needed to get people together to think about how to leap-frog current ideas on climate change. My response to the idea was to agree wholeheartedly - but then to stretch it to a wider set of issues that we'll be facing as a society as the effects of global warming and pollution become more real. This conference is organized around the four signal issues and the collaborative approaches I mentioned earlier. I've always been a big fan of Bucky Fuller's description of the trim tab, a tiny component of a sailboat's rudder, which, when properly located, exerts enormous influence over its navigation. It's the little rudder that makes the big rudder turn. I think there are lots of potential trim tab ideas out there that can be applied to the biggest challenges we are facing. We've designed a lot of the sessions specifically so that we can get ideas out in the open and invite the universe to respond, create more of an open-source in the green building community. This is not where you come to learn the ABC's of LEED, but it's where you will feel welcome if you have big ideas that you want to share. How do we begin building living buildings today?
BW: Sounds interesting. That's why I'm going.
JM: All are welcome. Here's a link to our website where folks can register. http://www.cascadiagbc.org/resources/LivingFuture07/living-future