A conversation with Phaedra Svec – July 27, 2005

For what I thought would be my final interview in Kansas City I arranged to meet with Phaedra Svec of BNIM Elements. Phaedra was a classmate of mine from Iowa State University and has her Architect's license in Kansas. She has been working with Bob Berkebile since 2000 and has been working in Kansas City since 1997. Phaedra's profile can be found on the BNIM-Elements website: http://elements.bnim.com/people1.html

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 currently with KKE architects in Minneapolis.

1 – What person influenced you most regarding environmental issues?

  • We had some great professors at the Design College at Iowa State such as David Block and James Patterson. But I would have to give credit to the whole combination of people who taught me to think for myself, my parents among other people. Observing nature, growing up in Iowa, thinking of the fields and the topsoil, ...and the pesticides... Environmental awareness for me comes from observing and thinking and questioning what you see.
  • 2 – What event opened your eyes to environmental issues?

  • I must give kind of the same answer as the first question. Some people are hit on the back of the head one day with an epiphany, but for others the glasses slip off slowly revealing the world as it is rather than what we are taught to see. I've always been a round peg in a square hole. The moment you question the system is the moment you start to seek and learn other ways of living.
  • 3 – Name one habit or convenience you gave up for environmental reasons.

  • When I was a kid, going to the grocery store, my family really 'stocked up.' For me food has become the big challenge of my life. We go to stores such as Wild Oats, paying way too much for organic and bulk (reduced/un-packaged) foods. We tried working with local farmers with a CSA subscription for 3-4 years. I also have a small garden. I worry that my children will have real food in the future. Agriculture is important to me. When we pay to much, I figure we are voting with our dollars.
  • 4 – Name something you wish more people realized is harmful to the environment.

  • Not voting. Driving too much. Mowing our lawns. The things we are doing to our air and water quality are dangerous. Lately I've been looking at the statistics about the contaminants in breast milk and it is really frightening.
  • 5 – What is the most important thing you do personally to conserve natural resources?

  • Probably the agriculture I support, buying local and buying organic. These sources use less fossil fuels in their production and preserve the land's ability to grow food in future seasons. Second, perhaps in keeping my lifestyle within a sphere around my house, limiting how much I have to drive and where I shop.
  • 6 – What alternative do you feel more people need to learn?

  • When you can shift from the mentality that everything you have has to be 'new' or the 'best,' there is a lot of freedom that comes from this.
  • 7 – What contribution are you uniquely able to make toward environmental causes?

  • Education, through collaboration. I like to help people through the process. At ISU in group projects I was always the one who wasn't afraid to be the spokesperson. Sometimes I think I can effect people most one on one, or in a team setting, sometimes it is by standing up in a crowd. There has always been an element helping people to communicate and learn that is central to my contribution.
  • 8 – What do you think is the next step for Kansas City as a community at the present time?

  • Air and Water are the urgent imperatives, but also downtown we have such a boon right now, with the construction waste management forum, the BPS, these efforts will have an important impact on improving our use of resources.
  • 9 – What change to your lifestyle or behavior was the hardest to adopt or maintain?

  • The food. The second hardest is things that cost more money for the sustainable option. We've done as much as we can with our house and our cars - without buying a new expensive hybrid vehicle. We did live for a year in a co-housing residence in Squire Park. That was fun and I learned a lot.
  • 10 – What do you think Kansas City has done well?

  • The LEED Ordinance. The green building efforts in Johnson County. And Kathryn Shields' educational and environmental programs.
  • 11 – What is your most successful green building project?

  • Lots of projects in little ways, influencing team members. But Bartle Hall, even though it is not a real high performer. It was an opportunity to work with a great number of real bright people. If everyone left with just one new thing in their bag of tricks, then it was successful. What survives in the design is not my measure of success but rather what all those professionals might do the next time they have a chance.
  • 12 – What is a good example of environmental design in Kansas City?

  • My favorite building is the Discovery Center. It's just a great space to see, especially within the landscape. And to demonstrate and explain all of those technologies in one location, it is a great resource for the community.
  • 13 – What is the biggest change you hope to see in society within your lifetime?

  • That we all learn to think and observe for ourselves... and to talk to each other.
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