A conversation with Bob Berkebile – April 15, 2005

To premier our newsletter interview series, we contacted one of the founding advocates of environmental design, Bob Berkebile, FAIA. He is a founding principal of BNIM, was the founding Chairman of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), and has served on the board of the U.S. Green Building Council. More information about Bob and his practice can be found on the BNIM-Elements website: http://elements.bnim.com/

Green Thirteen is a series of questions intended to explore the journey of environmental thinking, from inspiration to education to action--with a dual-focus on both individual and community perspectives. Interviewer Scott Kevin Jones, AIA, LEED AP, is with HOK Sport Venue Event.

1 – What person influenced you most regarding environmental issues?

  • Buckminster Fuller and his concepts of "spaceship earth" and holistic, integrated thinking probably had the greatest impact on my concept of the environment. But more currently thought leaders like Duane Elgin (Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future) and Janine Benyus (Biomimicry).
  • 2 – What event opened your eyes to environmental issues?

  • The Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in 1981 was an epiphany. I began to examine the unintended consequences of our design decisions more broadly. I and my colleagues at BNIM continued to seek better answers and design solutions.
  • 3 – Name one habit or convenience you gave up for environmental reasons.

  • Driving fast German cars. I love driving "high performance" cars. As I learned more about my rate of consumption, waste and pollution I switched to a Mazda Miata and six years ago I ordered my Honda Insight before they were available. I am still driving a "high performance" vehicle, but now I measure performance by efficiency not acceleration (52 mpg 5-year average, 70 mpg highway, 84.1 mpg, best ever to Jefferson City).
  • 4 – Name something you wish more people realized is harmful to the environment.

  • I wish we realized that how we feed, cloth, house and transport ourselves is the most consumptive, polluting, wasteful lifestyle on the planet. And that we have the opportunity to design communities but improve our quality of life and restore the environment simultaneously.
  • 5 – What is the most important thing you do personally to conserve natural resources?

  • We live in the city (Hyde Park), in an energy-efficient home we designed twenty years ago and we try continuously to improve our ecological footprint. We recently replaced our swimming pool with a water garden and are now planning to replace our major appliances. For example, our new dishwasher will clean better with less than one-half of the water, energy and noise.
  • 6 – What alternative do you feel more people need to learn?

  • That we can choose to redesign our community and lifestyle to spend more time in nature and community and less time in traffic or in isolation.
  • 7 – What contribution are you uniquely able to make toward environmental causes?

  • I doubt that my contributions are unique but I have been blessed to work with colleagues at BNIM and a diverse group of clients who are searching for restorative design that increase social, economic and environmental vitality simultaneously.
  • 8 – What do you think is the next step for Kansas City as a community at the present time?

  • Kansas City has a unique opportunity to dramatically increase our quality of life by improving efficiency and diversity during what is probably the largest construction cycle in our history.
  • 9 – What change to your lifestyle or behavior was the hardest to adopt or maintain?

  • Air travel is the largest component of my ecological footprint today. I need to utilize communication technologies more effectively.
  • 10 – What do you think Kansas City has done well?

  • The Kessler plan for the park and boulevard system which extended beautiful green connective tissue throughout the community was a wonderful thing. It’s time to expand Kessler’s concept and invest in maintaining and improving this important amenity.
  • 11 – What is your most successful green building project?

  • The School of Nursing School at the University of Texas in Houston has been receiving numerous awards and we hope it will establish new benchmarks for human health and pedagogy.
  • 12 – What is a good example of environmental design in Kansas City?

  • The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Discovery Center is a remarkable design and educational resource that includes passive and active solar systems, water conservation strategies including a "Living Machine" (biological waste water treatment/no discharge to the sewer), a ground source heat pump system and healthy, beautiful landscape as an alternative to our typical drug dependent rug (lawn), It is successful in immersing people in an alternative, healthy living strategy.
  • 13 – What is the biggest change you hope to see in society within your lifetime?

  • I hope that by 2020 (the year of perfect vision) we will have transformed our community to become the jewel of the Heartland and an international model for quality of life and environmental vitality.
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    updated 2/4/06