From Steel City to Emerald City
Besides clearing the air in Pittsburgh, the Green Building Alliance's Rebecca Flora is championing the USGBC
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Rebecca Flora has always been able to navigate her way around a construction site. Growing up in New York's rural Adirondack region, with a dad who operated forklifts and cranes and a mom who ran a hair salon, she learned not only the importance of nature and family but also how to interact with people from varying socioeconomic levels. Armed with these skills, she went off to receive her bachelor's in environmental science from Plattsburgh State University and her master's in urban and regional planning from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. She and her brother were the first members of their family to go to college.
That's not her only first. As executive director of Pittsburgh's Green Building Alliance, Flora headed the design commission for the LEED Gold–certified David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the first green facility of its kind—not to mention the world's largest green building. (It's among 21 LEED qualifiers in Pittsburgh, ranked in the top five U.S. cities for such projects.) Also one of the first LEED-accredited professionals, she's been involved with the U.S. Green Building Council since 1997. And she's about to become its first female chairperson.
Preparing to take on this second responsibility part-time in January, she paused to share her vision for the greening of cities nationwide.
What brought you to Pittsburgh originally?
I moved here with my husband at the time—he came to earn his PhD. Even being a small-town girl, I liked it right away. It's a large urban area, but there's a strong sense of community, and I knew it'd be a wonderful place to raise my two daughters.
What is the GBA, exactly?
It's an independent Pennsylvania nonprofit that cooperates with the USGBC to raise awareness of environmentally responsible high-performance design and community development. It was founded in 1993 with the help of the Heinz Foundation, which had become heavily committed to the environment after the foundation's own offices were designed by William McDonough + Partners.
Being executive director has allowed me to enhance my experience in real-estate development, revitalization, and project management with a green layer. My first project was the 1.5 million-square-foot convention center. We now have 30-odd green buildings in construction, crossing many disciplines—children, medical, arts, office.
Do you recommend LEED accreditation for design professionals?
The more you can show that you've taken the time to study the subject, the better your credibility. Plus, you do learn how to design healthful, durable buildings and implement sustainable operations in existing ones. This is where all building is going.
How do you foresee your GBA and USGBC roles working together?
As USGBC chair, which is a volunteer position, my role is to advance the mission of the organization and support CEO Rick Fedrizzi. Whereas, as executive director of the GBA, I'm directly in charge of implementation. The two are complementary in that I have a direct understanding of green projects and what's required to run an organization.
What are your main goals as the USGBC's chair?
Growth and transformation. Aside from conducting more building-related research, I want us to be more involved on the education side of the equation, getting the next generation, K-12, involved in, aware of, and knowledgeable about green practices. Philanthropy outreach is on the agenda, too.
How do you see technology's contribution?
There's great economic opportunity for advances in building technology that supports greener projects. However, it can be effective only if project teams and facility managers know what's available and how to use it efficiently. We already have so many great technologies that are not fully utilized—energy-monitoring sensors, waterless urinals. There's much to be done in getting what's available onto the market. It's hard to persuade players in the building industry to change from the tried-and-true, even if it means significant economic and energy savings.
And the government?
Government has been and will continue to be a significant market force. We hope it will further advance its leadership through research support, incentives for best practices, and removal of barriers to the implementation of green strategies. Right now, for example, some local and state building codes mandate large lots for subdivisions rather than promoting density.
What will the USGBC's larger scope allow you to accomplish?
The USGBC offers an opportunity to reach more people, raising public awareness on a broader scale and expanding partnerships.
Could other cities evolve like Pittsburgh has?
Definitely. St. Louis, for one. They just held their first LEED workshop. Others such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, even Shanghai have already made huge progress. We love to share our model. Pittsburgh is a poster child for what's possible.