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Alex Wilson, the founder of our company and our current executive editor (i.e., my boss), is being named the 2010 Hanley Award winner in a special event here at Greenbuild 2010 tomorrow. In recognition of this achievement, and to better understand how this innovative, always-curious visionary looks at the world, I recently asked him 10 questions. Here's the conversation.

Congratulations on being the 2010 winner of the Hanley Award. How would you sum up your feelings on this honor?

Thanks Tristan. It's a tremendous honor--and an honor for all of us at BuildingGreen. EBN, GreenSpec, LEEDuser and our other products are all group efforts from the whole company. I'm truly humbled to receive this award.

What are your thoughts on following Ed Mazria, FAIA in winning the Hanley Award?

That makes it even better. I have tremendous respect for Ed and what he's done to engage the design community as well as governments in the goal of reducing our carbon footprint. I knew Ed, though not well, when I lived in Santa Fe in the late '70s, and I have a well-worn copy of his Passive Solar Energy Book in my home library. He is a pioneer in the true sense of the word, and I'm deeply honored to be following Ed in receiving the Hanley Award.

You've built your reputation in part on taking stands on issues like dangers of treated wood, brominated flame retardants, and the global warming impact of some insulation products, while drawing attention to cool new ideas like passive survivability. What's a stand that you've taken that you wish had caught on more?
A couple come to mind. I was really hoping that the concept of "transportation energy intensity" would catch on as a metric of building performance. My analysis, which we published in EBN in 2007, showed that, on average, in an office building in this country we expend 30% more energy getting people to and from the building than the building itself uses--assuming national-average commuting distances, mode of transportation for commuting, square footage per person, etc. For an office building built to the ASHRAE 90.1-2004 energy code, transportation energy use is 2.3 times greater than the building energy use! Yet, we rarely think about this in the green building movement. For me that article was a real wake-up call; I think it was the most important article we've ever run in EBN... so far!

I 'm also disappointed that "passive survivability" hasn't caught on more. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to chose such a negative term. "Resilient design" might be better from the standpoint of a term that would gain traction. The issue, no matter what the term, is really important, and I think it will eventually come back into the conversation much more actively. For that to happen, though, I'm afraid, that it will take a tragedy of some sort (such as a major heat wave coinciding with a prolonged drought that causes widespread, extended power outages in southern cities during the summer). I'm sure I'll be returning to this topic in the future. The design criterion of passive survivability makes a lot of sense.

EBN is well-known for not running advertising on its pages. What was the moment when you made that decision?

Nadav [Nadav Malin, current president of BuildingGreen] and I decided not to carry advertising before we launched EBN. For me there were two reasons: first, we wanted to be free to say what we wanted to say about products and emerging technologies without having to worry about push-back from advertisers; and second, I knew that I didn't want to spend my time selling ads. I had seen other people start publications and end up not being able to spend time on the content. I didn't want to go that route.

This is such a hackneyed question, but, what the heck: If you could have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, that you're not currently in touch with, who would it be?

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would be right near the top of the list; I'd like to sit on a porch with him and listen to his satire in person. It would be great to go for a long hike with John Muir and learn about his motivations in launching the environmental movement. And I'd like to stand in the corner of a dimly lit pub in 1775 and listen to Thomas Jefferson debate with his cohorts how to create a nation from scratch.

What are you reading right now?

I'm reading Ecotopia, a classic novel from 1975 that describes a utopian nation created when Washington, Oregon, and Northern California split off from the U.S. I'm reading it because I'm thinking a lot about how you can inspire change in a society. In the same vein, I just finished reading a new novel, Solar, by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 2010). A copy was sent to me by the publisher (perhaps because one of the subplots is about how dumb building-integrated wind energy is?). It's mostly about this has-been, womanizing scientist who is still coasting from a long-ago Nobel prize in physics, but he happens into a synthetic photosynthesis technology that may be the holy grail that everyone has been looking for to save the world. I should note that it's rare for me to read novels in such a short timespan; I'm usually reading a few nonfiction books about water resources, climate change, and the like--you know, the doom-and-gloom stuff.

You often say that green products don't make a green building, but you also have an incredible curiosity and excitement about about cool green products. Why?


It's really fun to see what new products are coming along--and figure out how they can be part of the solution in creating a low-energy, low-carbon future that shifts us towards sustainability. I've had a lot of fun this year writing the "cool product of the week" blog. I wish I could spend even more time researching new products. I've also enjoyed helping choose and then presenting BuildingGreen's "Top-10 Green Products" each year--this will be our ninth year; I'll be announcing this year's picks at the Greenbuild conference.

With Katrina, with the BP oil spill, I've heard lots of prognosticators say, "Maybe this is the disaster that will really wake us up to our environmental problems," but so far none of them seem to be right. Do you think we'll ever turn things around? What will it take?

For 40 years I've been called an alarmist or Chicken Little, warning that the sky is falling. I keep thinking that new evidence will wake up the general public to the problems we're facing, but I keep being proven wrong. This is frustrating.

Even the BP oil spill, which galvanized interest in environmental protection for a while, will likely be quickly forgotten or--even worse--be presented as evidence of how quickly nature can rebound, with the conclusion that we don't need to worry so much about safeguards. I'm afraid that the only things that will really galvanize attention on what we need to do are things that affect the general public directly: dramatically higher energy prices, actual shortages of fuel or prolonged power outages, or dramatic heat waves and changing weather patterns. I read in The New York Times that with the heat waves and fires in Russia this summer, everybody is talking about global warming. To date, Russia hasn't engaged much in the discussions about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; perhaps now they will. If Washington, D.C. bakes at 110°F for a few weeks perhaps our politicians will take notice.

The Hanley Award recognizes a long and distinguished career--with a lot yet to come, we hope. What's your advice to students or those earlier in their careers in design and construction on how to help meet our environmental challenges?

What I almost always recommend to students--in any field--is to include in your studies some science. (I've been only marginally successful in this with my own two daughters!) Whether going into architecture, construction management, journalism, or foreign policy, learning how to investigate a problem scientifically and objectively evaluate courses of action will usually result in better solutions. I believe that if more politicians had a background in science they would be creating better legislation and policies. Relative to building design, some training in science will come in handy in understanding everything from the offgassing of VOCs in adhesives to the moisture dynamics in walls--and help you design better, healthier, more durable buildings.

You've been with the green building movement since the 1970s. Today we have global warming deniers, "green fatigue," and a green movement that's big enough to have factions divided over issues from nuclear power to the LEED rating system. What do you see as the green movement's biggest challenge (and hopefully, opportunity) in the twenty-teens?

I wish I had a good answer to this question. It's key to our future. Last night I watched a screening of the film "Carbon Nation." It's a great documentary and speaks very effectively to those who already get it--but it needs to be repackaged to reach the audiences that it really needs to reach. It turns out that I know the producer, and I plan to contact him and discuss some ideas for doing that. For Fox News fans and the Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh crowd, I think it's going to be pretty hard to change minds without something dramatic happening. But if we go through a year in the United States like Russia is going through this year (where temperatures are as much as 20°F higher than normal), perhaps that would begin to convince even them.

And if that crowd comes around to the reality of climate change and the importance of doing something about it, can you imagine the influence they would have? If Beck and Limbaugh were to issue a joint statement urging action on greenhouse gas emissions, I think even the dozen or so newly elected global-warming-deniers in the Senate would have to pay attention. Unlikely, yes, but stranger things have happened.

Illustration by Stacey Curtis, BuildingGreen (Awesome)

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Comments

1 As I was writing our Spring E posted by Debbie Coleman on 03/21/2011 at 07:55 am

As I was writing our Spring Equinox newsletter today, I wanted to mention the concept of passive survivability. I found myself pondering the term since I was not sure that it had a positive tone and therefore might confuse our e-news subscribers. In looking into your writing about the phrase, I noticed that you had mentioned in this interview that you too have been questioning the possible negative implications of the phrase. Perhaps there should be contest of sorts to rename this positive concept? (I went through similar process when I chose to call our house designs" sun-inspired" in addition to passive solar since so many people that I encountered unfortunately had negative images of passive solar from the 1970's.) Maybe your bike trip and sabbatical will sway your mind Alex to some positive phrases! Enjoy!


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