Six questions for the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research

Interview by Christopher Hudson

You don’t become the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR) by advocating for small, manageable improvements in sustainable design and construction. So it’s no surprise that architect Richard Graves, AIA, doesn’t mince words when he talks about the leaps we need to make in building performance. And yet he’s a pragmatist by nature.

It’s a dispositional blend that serves him well at CSBR, where he oversees a range of research, outreach, and educational efforts. Graves recently sat down with Architecture MN for a wide-ranging conversation on the state of sustainable design in Minnesota and beyond.

You’ve spent a lot of time over the course of your career in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. What, if anything, distinguishes Minnesota from other parts of the country in terms of the conversation around sustainability? Is there anything about our climate, geography, or culture that especially shapes how we think about these matters?

I’d say that in Minnesota we more often connect the idea of sustainability to business and economics. At least in my experience, people in New England and the Northwest are more likely to approach it as an ethic or a value system—it’s the right thing to do, so let’s figure out how to get the economics to work.

In what areas of sustainability are we leaders?

Well, to start with, we’ve got architects like Rick Carter, Doug Pierce, and John Carmody, who are national leaders in the sustainability movement, and we’ve adapted Architecture 2030 into SB 2030 [Sustainable Building 2030 Energy Standard], an energy conservation program for all state-funded projects. This is Minnesota, so we don’t talk about it enough, but when I go to national and international conferences and explain what we’re doing here, people are blown away. They can’t believe that we put something like Architecture 2030 into a policy that is on a par with, if not more aggressive than, what’s being done in the Pacific Northwest or New England.

Should sustainable design look different from conventional design? Is it important that architects make the environmental measures in their buildings visually compelling? Or do aesthetics mostly get in the way of a deeper understanding of sustainability?

It’s a great question—one that I think needs to be explored more vigorously. In my view, green-building programs designed for incremental gains have been a hindrance to that exploration. I attended a green-building conference several years ago where [U.S. Green Building Council CEO] Rick Fedrizzi clicked through slides of LEED-certified projects from all over the world. “See,” he said, “LEED buildings can look like anything.” I sat there shaking my head. Truly sustainable buildings can’t “look like anything.” A truly sustainable building will look different in different climates because it needs to adapt to its environment. A prep academy in Hawaii that achieved Living Building certification leaps to mind—it’s got a roof designed to catch water out of fog. That is architecture informed by place and climate.

If you’re trying to meet little incremental goals, then yes, “green” buildings can look like anything. But architects and the broader design community should be aiming for much higher performance targets and doing it in a way that doesn’t result in ugly Rube Goldberg buildings like we had in the 1970s. Can we make great architecture from real sustainability? That’s very fertile ground for architects.

At earlier points in your career, you were closely involved in advancing the two certification programs you just referenced—the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system and the International Living Future Institute’s more ambitious Living Building Challenge. It sounds like you have a more favorable view of the latter.

I helped found the USGBC’s Maine chapter as a young architect, and I later served on the national board for four years. I learned a lot from those experiences, all centered on the many challenges we face in getting real change to happen.

The Living Building Challenge, launched by my friend Jason McLennan in 2006, came along at a time when many of us in the green-building movement had designed LEED Platinum projects and had realized it was too easy. We thought that the pinnacle of sustainable design ought to be harder to achieve, and that the buildings ought to be more transformative in their communities.

The Living Building Challenge made us ask ourselves: Can we design buildings that are truly carbon neutral? Can they balance the water cycle on their site? Can they be made only of healthy materials? I thought to myself, “This is completely impossible—but it’s exactly what we should be pursuing.” Because if we fail, is it really a failure? The Rose in Minneapolis fell short of the Living Building Challenge, and yet it’s one of the most sustainable affordable-housing projects in the country.

I think CSBR and other green-building organizations can play a role in creating more bridges from standard design practice to things like the Living Building Challenge. We need to find ways to help architects and their clients pursue increasingly difficult targets, with the goal of arriving at ecologically sustainable communities. That makes buildings beyond LEED Platinum and approaching the Living Building Challenge an exciting area for research right now.

What other current CSBR efforts are you excited about?

We’re creating some prototypes for the redevelopment of the Ford site in St. Paul that look to the Living Building Challenge as inspiration. We have a concept where, with all development designed to meet the energy targets of SB 2030 and integrated with solar roofs and district energy, we can get to a net-zero neighborhood. We’re now modeling what it takes to reach those goals. The next step is to figure out what the incremental costs are to get that increased level of performance.

The idea is to share our findings with developers and architects to give them a jump-start—to say, “Here we’ve made a first pass at it to see what might work, what might not work, and what improvements might yield the most cost-effective performance gains.” If we can help architects waste less time going down dead ends, they’ll have more time to innovate and maybe even think of some things we didn’t think about.

What are you reading right now?

Landscape architect John Tillman Lyle’s Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development has been an inspiration to me since I was in graduate school. He has a diagram in the book of what a regenerative system—one that renews its sources of energy and materials—looks like and how it’s different than just greening something, and I’ve basically spent the past 22 years trying to figure out how to adapt it to the built environment. A more recent book I keep thinking about is Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben makes clear that we live in a complex, ever-changing, fragmented world, and that we’re never going back to some perfect state—so how does that make us start to rethink sustainability? It’s reinvigorated me to come back to the work on regenerative design as the answer.