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In Depth with Elizabeth Heider, FAIA LEED AP BD+C

In Depth with Elizabeth Heider, FAIA LEED AP BD+C

  • March 24, 2015
  • by Suzanne VanGilder

Heider, Beth photo w Blue Scarf - close upElizabeth Heider, FAIA LEED AP BD+C, was elevated to Fellow in the American Institute of Architects for her contributions to both the profession and society. Her analytical work helped establish the actual value of sustainability in architecture, and to define today’s environmental standards- including the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system. Yet despite her technical prowess, or perhaps because of it, Heider views herself as a storyteller. She understands that for some audiences, (like the federal government, for example), the most effective way to convey the importance of implementing sustainable practices is not through “green” platitudes, but with data models that show big picture financial ramifications in black and white.

Heider currently serves as the Chief Sustainability Officer for Skanska USA, a Swedish commercial and institutional development and construction company well known for its commitment to ethics, sustainability and safety. Additionally, she continues to serve the industry in myriad ways: consulting, presenting and participating in think tanks.

Behind the Ply was fortunate to catch up with Ms. Heider for a truly inspiring and thought-provoking conversation about sustainability, transparency in materials and the role of the A&D community. Here are the highlights.

BTP: How did your professional practice evolve?

EH: I didn’t start out with a clear goal to be where I am now. Instead I chose the professional opportunities that resonated with me, that I thought were bigger than just doing day-to-day work. It’s finding a small way to change the world. I practiced as an architect for 10 years, ultimately moving to Washington DC and working on a number of renovation projects. I found that doing complex preservation work was teaching me a lot about architecture from the contractors in the field.

Understanding the construction management side was making me a better architect. So I joined a major construction company where I worked in preconstruction, looking at the cost and design intent of a project, and then served as a sort of intergalactic translator between the owner, architect and my own construction company, making sure we could achieve the architect’s vision within the project budget. While working for a consulting firm in that capacity, I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects for the General Services Administration, which is essentially the landlord for the federal government. This was in 1996, and they were just exploring what it would look like for the federal government to commit to “green” their portfolio. So we did a cost analysis looking at a number of different environmental improvements to try to figure out what kind of allocation would be necessary to elevate the green performance of federal buildings. At that point, the US Green Building Council had only been around for a few years, and the LEED rating system did not exist.

Throughout early 2000 I did a lot of consulting for the federal government. When I was asked to join Skanska on their preconstruction side, they were pursuing a couple of major federal courthouse projects. It presented an interesting opportunity to work on real projects and see if all the advisory stuff we had been doing really played out in real jobs. That curiosity, and Skanska’s ethos, led me back to working for major construction.

When the GSA decided to embrace LEED in 2003, I was asked to work as a sub-consultant to explore the cost commitment necessary for the Feds to build LEED certified buildings. Through that study, and my work with Skanska, I became an advocate for sustainability. In 2008, I was elected to the US Green Building Council’s national board, and was on until 2013. In 2012 I was the Chair of the Board of Directors. During that time Skanska bravely adopted LEED across Skanska’s commercial development projects, so all projects that Skanska commercial development group executes globally are certified LEED Gold or better. Last year I was elevated to Chief Sustainability Officer, and now I have the responsibility to support our sustainability efforts on the civil side, as well.

BTP: Why is sustainability important?

EH: My mother was an earth science teacher. Her grandparents were farmers. I was taught that when you own a piece of property and put down roots you take care of it, because otherwise it’s not going to produce. You don’t just exploit and wreck the land. Sustainability is important to me because it is a legacy and a worldview. I can’t not see it. I don’t think it has to be synonymous with sacrifice or austerity. Rather it is mindfulness and making considerate decisions. Practiced thoughtfully, sustainability actually provides great value. I believe that building more sustainably presents a huge economic opportunity with a beneficial impact that will last for generations.

In the bigger picture, look at how ruthlessly we’ve wrecked the land and what huge consumers Americans are. Consider the fact that the developing world aspires to have the conveniences we have. We’ve got to figure out a better way, step-by-step, of being more thoughtful about the environment or we are going to destroy it for the future generations. I don’t believe that the earth exists simply for humankind to take advantage of without regard to the other life on the planet. We need to coexist. Part of that is just trying to be more responsible about our footprint and to make value decisions. Sustainability is an ethical issue.

BTP: How can professionals succinctly justify what might be increased upfront costs for more environmentally responsible methods and materials?

EH: Part of it has to do with knowing what is important to the client and then casting the story in a light that will resonate, because people tend to be driven by their own best self interest. The other part is getting people motivated to understand why they should make decisions that are more sustainable. Those two things together make it easier to demonstrate the return on the investment.

For example, I had a really interesting opportunity to speak at a Swedish Energy Summit last year. The audience was COOs and CEOs of major Swedish companies across all different sectors. Even though the focus was on energy, I made sure at the end of my presentation to make the connection for these leaders between energy efficiency and materials, because as our buildings become more energy efficient, we are creating tighter and tighter boxes. If you fill them up with things that off-gas nasty stuff, then you are creating a perfect gas chamber. These things are absolutely interrelated.

For day-to-day homeowners it is very useful to have tools that allow them to quickly make informed decisions. Most consumers are aware of FSC-certification and recognize LEED. Easy access to important information is why the government requires nutritional labels on food. I think that we are headed toward a place where hopefully that will be true across the building products sector, as well. Along those lines, the International Living Building Institute’s Declare labeling system is gaining importance, and there are probably a dozen different material reporting efforts in their infancy. Universal labeling will streamline the selection process.

BTP: What is happening in the A&D community to support those efforts?

EH: The AIA is repositioning their commitment to sustainability, and trying to figure out key things that it can do to support its members and the larger community. One of those pillars is transparency in materials. This is a major trend, not a fad, a trend. The AIA is embracing this as a really important thing for them to champion since architects specify materials that go buildings. They recognize that unless they encourage transparency in materials, its never going to move forward. It is equally important that the construction side embraces it, and that distributors work with suppliers to make sure that sustainably sourced and manufactured products are available and perform well. It does, in fact, take the entire supply chain working together to make a difference.