Live From Greenbuild 2008: 30 Years, Now a Movement

30,000 architects, engineers, chemists, and designers gather in Boston for one purpose: how to solve environmental crisis through design. Will the movement survive the recession?

When I arrived at GreenBuild on Wednesday, I had no idea I’d be entering a city. This year the 6th annual conference by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)–the organization behind the LEED green building standard–was held in the city of Boston. But the “city” I had no idea I was in for were the 30,000 architects, engineers, developers, biologists, chemists, materials experts, planners, interior designers, manufacturers (and more) flooding the Boston Conference Center’s sprawling glass corridors all in the name of one thing: trying to build ourselves out of the environmental catastrophe we have designed ourselves into.


Do you have any idea how many people 30,000 from around the world gathered in one space feels like (and trust me, I’m a New Yorker, I don’t get overwhelmed by much)? It’s like those pilgrimages in India. It’s enough to make you realize: there is something truly bigger than all of us going on here.

While there were no shortage of moving speakers throughout the week–green collar’s Van Jones, activist Bill McKibbon, biologist EO Wilson, biomimicry’s Janine Benyus–what was most moving was meeting many of the people who started the sustainable architecture movement back when, as Bill McKibbon put it, greenies were still thought of as “hippie carpenters tucking ponytails through back of their hats trying to figure out how to install solar panels.”

Ironically, the father of this field, Bob Berkebile, actually wasn’t one of the ponytail dudes. (In fact, Berkabile’s story and his name–except in the trenches of architecture circles–is barely known in the mainstream. I first learned about him when reporting my William McDonough article). But his unlikely story is worth telling because he embodies the origins of what today has become the modern day sustainability design movement.

In 1981, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency experienced what would become one of the biggest failures in building history. Two skywalks at the hotel collapsed, and 114 people perished in the catastrophe. Berkebile was one of the architects on the project; reeling from guilt, the incident sent him on a self-reflective journey about the humanistic role of architecture. It led Berkebile to think about the responsibility architects had to weave environmental and social issues into their designs. In the early 80’s, to much resistance, Berkebile formed the AIA National Committee on the Environment (the predecessor to the USGBC), the first of its kind.

Last night I had the honor of speaking to Berkebile. A petite, silver-bearded man with a seeming perma-grin, he was soaking up the bliss of finally, after nearly three decades, surrounded by 30,000 design activists who were now committed to transforming the industry. It was almost surreal: the first GreenBuild conference back in 2002 had a mere 110 attendees. However, people like Berkebile aren’t ones to stand still. While he’s charged by the intelligence and enthusiasm of the youngest generation of green designers entering the field, he’s still disappointed by the lack of racial diversity in the industry. More, “the incremental environmental progress we’ve made with buildings is good, but now it’s time for radical change,” he urged. “LEED has been less bad, but now we need to start building buildings that are regenerative.”

Of course, the question now is: will the mortage crisis and economic collapse (and of course, subsequent halt of building eurphoria) pull the plug on all this momentum in environmental architecture? The mood here seemed to say no. The crowd and speakers seemed sober and realistic, and expressed strongly that the combination of new political leadership, and an intertwining of market breakdown and energy crisis would give environmental design its best shot yet. What do you think?

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton.