Contract - Exclusive Q&A: Leigh Stringer

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Exclusive Q&A: Leigh Stringer

19 January, 2010



Leigh Stringer, LEED AP and vice president at HOK, has devoted much of her career to making advances in sustainability. After running an online blog devoted to the subject for the last two years, Stringer authored a book, The Green Workplace ( read an excerpt), focused on green workplace strategies that go well beyond traditional ideas of design. Last week, Stringer took a few minutes to meet with Contract magazine to discuss some of her expertise, as well as highlight some of the ideas proposed in her book. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Contract: Tell us a little about your book and why you chose to write it now?
Leigh Stringer:
My specialty is sustainability and workplace. The two began to weave together in my mind about three years ago, and I started blogging about it. There was a lot in the press about green and about workplace, but not the two together. I guess a year or so later, I had the makings of a book and the rest of history… For me it has been a search to improve the workplace in a way that’s really meaningful. There are a whole lot of other interesting workplace initiatives out there—alternative work, working from home, and all these cool things that are evolving due to technology—but really thinking beyond the building aspect was really important. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me when I realized that a lot of the book was not about design at all, but instead about engaging people, operations, and business strategy. Quite frankly, it’s very expensive to design these days, and there have been a lot of capital expenditures on green projects. For me, it was a wonderful discovery process. The whole story and whole answer [to sustainability] is multi-pronged and complex, and it requires us to think about it from all fronts.

Contract: Why do you feel sustainability is such a big issue today? Why should businesses get on board?

LS:
More than anything, it’s starting to be legislation. It’s less about being proactive and more about seeing a move through the pipeline in terms of local and federal legislation. New spaces and even renovated spaces in Washington, D.C., of 50,000 sq.-ft. or greater now have to meet certain requirements—public, private, it doesn’t matter. It’s amazing how quickly the community developer responded to that, and sure enough we saw all these markets that never existed before pop up. For example, there’s a really cool company that buys materials from buildings, reclaims them, and sells them to a secondary market.

And the market is moving there too, remarkably. There are a few key players, such as Wal-Mart (who knew?!), which is actually a big key player and is now requiring third party certification for all of its products. Wal-Mart is creating this system where every product will have a green label on its shelf. That’s pretty dramatic, and that will happen within five years. And if Wal-Mart does it, then Target does it. And if Target does it, then K-Mart will do it, and so on. So it’s all kind of connected in a way—there’s a real ripple effect. So I really think that it is here to stay…

Contract: You mention legislation as a major driver of sustainability design adoption. What is your take on the new CALGREEN codes recently passed by California? Is it a good idea? And what’s your take on how the environmental groups (such as The Sierra Club and USGBC) made protest to the changes?
LS:
I think the Northeast has always been pretty progressive in general. Certainly, there are little components of sustainability that you’re starting to find everywhere. I think the argument against something like that would be that it causes confusion or it prevents companies that operate on a national or global scale to the kind of universally set their products. There might be some concern when companies are trying to set up their portfolio—and there are a lot of companies with huge portfolios all over the world wrestling with that. But that’s no different than what’s happening now on a global scale. One company we deal with—WPP—has a lot of space in Asia. In Asia, they may have the same standards, but their lease is only one to three years so the payback is very different, as well as the investment they’re going to make.

We all use different standards in different places. But it’s possible to do. If it makes people think, and it focuses action in some way as just one more carrot or stick to do the right thing, then yes, it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Go for it. I think of the USGBC and smile, because a few years ago it was tiny and it never thought it would take off. It just so happened that it was at the right place, at the right time, and had the right methodology…But who’s to say that’s perfect? It’s only an incremental step that’s going to push us to be more transformative in the way we build. I don’t think that the market necessarily thinks it has to be a LEED building. There’s LEED, there’s Energy Star, there’s a lot of different qualifiers to really good green thinking.

Green business actually holds more weight to me than green building, although there’s not a really good marker out there. I think the comparative metrics aren’t as clear on the business side. But it’s funny—people can have the greenest buildings in the world, but the way they operate or where they operate may actually be pretty dodgy and have an even more negative impact. It’s all part of that hard discussion about what’s better. It’s never what’s best; it’s always what’s better. It’s about weighing the pros and cons.

Contract: What do you feel companies could be doing better now in terms of practice and design?
LS:
Not every company has a lot of money right now for sustainability, per se. If it’s a very deep, green company, it probably has budgeted for it and is addressing it in some way. But there’s not a tons of investment happening on a capital front in terms of new buildings. I believe that’s going to turn around, but businesses have been stalling for a little while. The things that they can do are the things that are for free—the things involving human behavior, education, and using what we know about behavioral science to really engage our occupants and stakeholders in larger discussions. It may not mean spending a lot of money right now, but it may be spending a lot of time to think and build a plan and a strategy and also thinking beyond the boundaries of the business. I think a lot of companies that are really transformative are able to do more with their dollars. They’re partnering with other companies and their people to say, “OK, what can we do together?” I think that this is a really smart way of thinking, regardless good times or bad. Creativity, reaching out, and building those strong partnerships that we’re going to need once we start building again, and investing more in infrastructure is the right move.

Contract: Where do you see the future of green building and sustainability design headed? Do you see this trend continuing?
LS:
Well, it’s funny. When my mom told her best friend that I was writing this book, she said, “Green! Everybody talks about green. I’m so over it!” It is totally saturated in the media today, and overly so. There’s a lot of greenwashing, and it’s easy to get kind of jaded and bored with what you’re hearing. The things that will continue to be newsworthy and capture people’s attention are related to innovation. And there’s a direct correlation between the innovative products and services that will be able to last the next 20 years and sustainability (whether or not we continue to call it that).

The thinking is toward what our commerce is or will be in the future, and it is really about a society of ideas—great ideas, transformative ideas. That is what, in my view, will continue to capture everyone’s interest and will move us forward.

I work for a firm that is obsessed with getting to a carbon-neutral building. We think about this a lot, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. There are so many things against us that we really have to think about what it takes to build places for people to live and work in that are truly green and sustainable. It’s like the Holy Grail. And I think that quest will continue…I will say one thing, for me any way, I feel like the green movement has awakened our industry. I feel like we were dead for about 20 years. The energy crisis in the ’70s really did spawn a new way of thinking about how things work. And then there was a lot of oil and resources, a lot of fatness in the system, and there was no reason to change or take it to the next level; we fell asleep. And we’re awake again, which is exciting.

I feel so excited to be here now and talking with people about this stuff in so many different disciplines. We’re trying to find new ways of thinking about development. I think for me, being an architect, it’s something I want to continue pursuing. I wasn’t bored before, but I was definitely running on steam.




Exclusive Q&A: Leigh Stringer

19 January, 2010


Leigh Stringer, LEED AP and vice president at HOK, has devoted much of her career to making advances in sustainability. After running an online blog devoted to the subject for the last two years, Stringer authored a book, The Green Workplace ( read an excerpt), focused on green workplace strategies that go well beyond traditional ideas of design. Last week, Stringer took a few minutes to meet with Contract magazine to discuss some of her expertise, as well as highlight some of the ideas proposed in her book. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Contract: Tell us a little about your book and why you chose to write it now?
Leigh Stringer:
My specialty is sustainability and workplace. The two began to weave together in my mind about three years ago, and I started blogging about it. There was a lot in the press about green and about workplace, but not the two together. I guess a year or so later, I had the makings of a book and the rest of history… For me it has been a search to improve the workplace in a way that’s really meaningful. There are a whole lot of other interesting workplace initiatives out there—alternative work, working from home, and all these cool things that are evolving due to technology—but really thinking beyond the building aspect was really important. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me when I realized that a lot of the book was not about design at all, but instead about engaging people, operations, and business strategy. Quite frankly, it’s very expensive to design these days, and there have been a lot of capital expenditures on green projects. For me, it was a wonderful discovery process. The whole story and whole answer [to sustainability] is multi-pronged and complex, and it requires us to think about it from all fronts.

Contract: Why do you feel sustainability is such a big issue today? Why should businesses get on board?

LS:
More than anything, it’s starting to be legislation. It’s less about being proactive and more about seeing a move through the pipeline in terms of local and federal legislation. New spaces and even renovated spaces in Washington, D.C., of 50,000 sq.-ft. or greater now have to meet certain requirements—public, private, it doesn’t matter. It’s amazing how quickly the community developer responded to that, and sure enough we saw all these markets that never existed before pop up. For example, there’s a really cool company that buys materials from buildings, reclaims them, and sells them to a secondary market.

And the market is moving there too, remarkably. There are a few key players, such as Wal-Mart (who knew?!), which is actually a big key player and is now requiring third party certification for all of its products. Wal-Mart is creating this system where every product will have a green label on its shelf. That’s pretty dramatic, and that will happen within five years. And if Wal-Mart does it, then Target does it. And if Target does it, then K-Mart will do it, and so on. So it’s all kind of connected in a way—there’s a real ripple effect. So I really think that it is here to stay…

Contract: You mention legislation as a major driver of sustainability design adoption. What is your take on the new CALGREEN codes recently passed by California? Is it a good idea? And what’s your take on how the environmental groups (such as The Sierra Club and USGBC) made protest to the changes?
LS:
I think the Northeast has always been pretty progressive in general. Certainly, there are little components of sustainability that you’re starting to find everywhere. I think the argument against something like that would be that it causes confusion or it prevents companies that operate on a national or global scale to the kind of universally set their products. There might be some concern when companies are trying to set up their portfolio—and there are a lot of companies with huge portfolios all over the world wrestling with that. But that’s no different than what’s happening now on a global scale. One company we deal with—WPP—has a lot of space in Asia. In Asia, they may have the same standards, but their lease is only one to three years so the payback is very different, as well as the investment they’re going to make.

We all use different standards in different places. But it’s possible to do. If it makes people think, and it focuses action in some way as just one more carrot or stick to do the right thing, then yes, it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Go for it. I think of the USGBC and smile, because a few years ago it was tiny and it never thought it would take off. It just so happened that it was at the right place, at the right time, and had the right methodology…But who’s to say that’s perfect? It’s only an incremental step that’s going to push us to be more transformative in the way we build. I don’t think that the market necessarily thinks it has to be a LEED building. There’s LEED, there’s Energy Star, there’s a lot of different qualifiers to really good green thinking.

Green business actually holds more weight to me than green building, although there’s not a really good marker out there. I think the comparative metrics aren’t as clear on the business side. But it’s funny—people can have the greenest buildings in the world, but the way they operate or where they operate may actually be pretty dodgy and have an even more negative impact. It’s all part of that hard discussion about what’s better. It’s never what’s best; it’s always what’s better. It’s about weighing the pros and cons.

Contract: What do you feel companies could be doing better now in terms of practice and design?
LS:
Not every company has a lot of money right now for sustainability, per se. If it’s a very deep, green company, it probably has budgeted for it and is addressing it in some way. But there’s not a tons of investment happening on a capital front in terms of new buildings. I believe that’s going to turn around, but businesses have been stalling for a little while. The things that they can do are the things that are for free—the things involving human behavior, education, and using what we know about behavioral science to really engage our occupants and stakeholders in larger discussions. It may not mean spending a lot of money right now, but it may be spending a lot of time to think and build a plan and a strategy and also thinking beyond the boundaries of the business. I think a lot of companies that are really transformative are able to do more with their dollars. They’re partnering with other companies and their people to say, “OK, what can we do together?” I think that this is a really smart way of thinking, regardless good times or bad. Creativity, reaching out, and building those strong partnerships that we’re going to need once we start building again, and investing more in infrastructure is the right move.

Contract: Where do you see the future of green building and sustainability design headed? Do you see this trend continuing?
LS:
Well, it’s funny. When my mom told her best friend that I was writing this book, she said, “Green! Everybody talks about green. I’m so over it!” It is totally saturated in the media today, and overly so. There’s a lot of greenwashing, and it’s easy to get kind of jaded and bored with what you’re hearing. The things that will continue to be newsworthy and capture people’s attention are related to innovation. And there’s a direct correlation between the innovative products and services that will be able to last the next 20 years and sustainability (whether or not we continue to call it that).

The thinking is toward what our commerce is or will be in the future, and it is really about a society of ideas—great ideas, transformative ideas. That is what, in my view, will continue to capture everyone’s interest and will move us forward.

I work for a firm that is obsessed with getting to a carbon-neutral building. We think about this a lot, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. There are so many things against us that we really have to think about what it takes to build places for people to live and work in that are truly green and sustainable. It’s like the Holy Grail. And I think that quest will continue…I will say one thing, for me any way, I feel like the green movement has awakened our industry. I feel like we were dead for about 20 years. The energy crisis in the ’70s really did spawn a new way of thinking about how things work. And then there was a lot of oil and resources, a lot of fatness in the system, and there was no reason to change or take it to the next level; we fell asleep. And we’re awake again, which is exciting.

I feel so excited to be here now and talking with people about this stuff in so many different disciplines. We’re trying to find new ways of thinking about development. I think for me, being an architect, it’s something I want to continue pursuing. I wasn’t bored before, but I was definitely running on steam.

 


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