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Sprouting Green Leaders

Directors of Sustainability often have to invent their own job descriptions as they work to transform their organizations.

July 1, 2010

By Nadav Malin

Al Skodowski was a veteran building systems engineer when he joined Transwestern eight years ago as director of engineering for the Midwest region. Shortly after taking that job he first encountered the nascent LEED for Existing Buildings program, and surpassed his own expectations when his first two LEED-EB projects struck Gold.

Directors of sustainability often have to invent their own job descriptions as they work to transform their organizations.
Illustration by Emmanuel Romeuf
Directors of sustainability often have to invent their own job descriptions as they work to transform their organizations.
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Soon the company’s top leadership took notice, and, after a few more successful LEED applications, Skodowski was asked to head up the company’s sustainability efforts nationally. He now leads a team of 12 dedicated to LEED and sustainability efforts, tasked with greening the company’s entire portfolio of owned and managed properties, and consulting on LEED projects both internally and externally. His dedication to this task is summed up with this motto: “If we touch it, it’s going to be as green as we can make it.”

Ted van der Linden joined DPR Construction almost 14 years ago for what he thought would be a temporary gig. When he got there, DPR was starting construction on a project by leading green architect William McDonough, FAIA. “That project was a hot potato in the office; no one would touch it,” van der Linden says. Using the skills that had served him so well in the past, van der Linden tried to “value engineer” out all the expensive green features, such as clerestories for daylighting and operable windows.

Not only did he fail to eliminate those features—instead he got a personal education from the persuasive McDonough, who turned his world upside down. He then immersed himself in green building networks, convinced the company to change course in midstream on its own facility in Sacramento so that it could become LEED certified, and generally championed the green cause at every turn.

Throughout this period he worked full time as a preconstruction professional—it was only during an overdue sabbatical in 2004 that he came up with a plan to become the company’s first sustainability officer. DPR’s leadership approved that plan, and he’s been driving the company’s green agenda ever since.

When Ilana Judah joined FXFOWLE in 2008, the New York City design firm already had a strong commitment to sustainable design coming right from the top. They needed someone to coordinate and focus their efforts, and Judah’s strong personal commitment to sustainability, along with design and project management experience, qualified her for the job.

Her role at the firm is to support, teach, and empower others to always go one step further on their projects. “My jobis to engage the designers and get them excited about it,” she says. Judah also advises company management on policies relating to green initiatives, and even which projects to pursue.

The role of sustainability director is new, and there is no clear career path that leads one there. Many of today’s pioneers in the field invented their own position after doing it part time, or even on their own time, because they saw the need. Some are senior executives with a hand in company management, while others are young professionals who rely on their passion to effect change.

Skodowski, van der Linden, and Judah each distinguished themselves in more conventional roles before discovering a passion for sustainability and making that their professional focus. And each of them cites that passion as key to their success. Skodowski speaks for most of his peers when he says: “This is as much my hobby as it is my job.”

Because there is no established job description that goes with the role, directors of sustainability have to be very creative, and they have to be comfortable figuring things out as they go. When van der Linden created the position at DPR, the company gave him “just enough rope to hang myself with,” he jokes, with a metaphor that captures both the independence and responsibility of his job. In some companies sustainability responsibilities have been tacked onto the traditional role of environmental health and safety (EH&S) officer, but that compliance-oriented job is quite different from how green leaders are inhabiting this new position.

Judah participates in a nationwide network of sustainable design directors from medium-sized and large architecture firms—a peer group she finds especially important for “a position that is in constant definition and redefinition.” A survey of participants in that group found that they carry a tremendous diversity of responsibilities, which for some are aspects of their sustainable design role and for others are part of the “day job” they still have, while manifesting their passion for sustainability on the side.

All these leaders report that the climate has become more supportive of their green agenda over time, but getting people to change their ways remains a challenge. Almost by definition, “what is green isn’t standard practice,” Skodowski notes.

In the design professions the difficulty tends to come from how today’s designers were trained. “People are taught to design a certain way in school,” notes Judah. For them to integrate sustainability into their work, “they have to develop new muscles.”

A key part of their role involves sorting through the haze of green claims and making choices about what policies and technologies their companies should pursue. “Now the entire mood in the building industry is more about doing the right thing,” Skodowski says. “The difficulty is understanding what the right thing is.”

Van der Linden agrees that sustainability is now becoming part of the status quo. “My job is now less about cheerleading projects. That ship is sailing,” he says. His challenge now is how to make that commitment even deeper. Would the company consider turning down a construction project that isn’t green enough?

Companies that have invested in and support a sustainability leader or team often find unexpected, beneficial side effects. “I touch on so many projects, that I’m a good conduit of information,” says Judah. This pollinator role can be either informal or structured, and often includes some of both: When Judah helped establish an infrastructure for sharing sustainable design resources and experiences between studios, “that framework became useful beyond sustainability,” she says.

As a go-to person in the firm, Judah relies on her powers of persuasion and ability to support sustainable design efforts with resources and tools. “Once they are aware of the possibilities, people are enthusiastic to implement them any way that they can,” she notes.

But even those in positions with authority find that power only gets them so far. “Our culture is not one where edicts work,” says van der Linden, so he spends much of his time working to overcome the inertia and conventional paradigms. To that end, he works to “demonstrate to people that it can be easy, and show them how to make it easy.”

Even though he now operates nationally, Skodowski often uses his home region as a proving ground for programs. When he sought to make green cleaning practices the default approach for Transwestern, he began with their portfolio of properties in Chicago and Milwaukee. When the bids for green cleaning came back showing savings of 5 to 10 percent, his campaign to roll it out nationally became much easier. He pushed for water efficiency measures the same way, and estimates that those are now saving 20 million gallons annually.

This article appeared in the July 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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