Changemakers: Meredith Elbaum

Melissa Vernon

As we work along our sustainability journey, we have the pleasure of meeting many individuals and firms that are leading great change. We have enjoyed our relationship with them and want to share their stories with you. This series will feature individuals leading the sustainability movement within the architecture and design community. This next generation of leaders found their passion for sustainability early in their careers and have based their profession on advocating and leading for a more sustainable future.

Meredith Elbaum, Director of Sustainable Design, Sasaki Associates

For the past nine years I’ve been working at Sasaki Associates, an international planning and design firm, based in Watertown, Massachusetts. Like Nellie Reid, my role is always evolving. When I first arrived at Sasaki, I was charged with “tipping the see-saw towards sustainability.” In 2006, after becoming a registered architect, I was appointed Director of Sustainable Design. My role has always been to accelerate the level of sustainability in Sasaki’s work. What changes, is how to do it. In that quest, we felt strongly that we needed to lead by example. I spent much effort initially greening our internal operations, including earning LEED for Existing Buildings Gold certification for our Watertown office. We reduced our electricity bills so drastically that the utility company knocked on our door to see if our meters were broken. We also felt it was important to build a sustainability-literate staff. We organized annual internal mini-conferences called GreenDAY to celebrate sustainability and exchange knowledge. Interface’s Ray Anderson and Lindsay James both participated in Sasaki’s GreenDAYs. Most importantly are the projects we plan, design and build. I’ve spent a lot of time supporting project teams, assisting in integrating sustainability at all scales.

Q: Tell us about a specific project where you felt you really made a difference or did something innovative in sustainability.

Since 2010, I’ve been working with the University of Missouri in Columbia (MU) on first developing and then updating their Climate Action Plan. The plan presents clear goals for a sustainable future across multiple fronts and depicts these concisely. An outcome of the initial plan was developing Sustainable Building Design and Construction Standards for the University which included a campus wide approach to LEED. This work is helping MU reach their sustainability goals faster in a cost-effective manner. Instead of approaching sustainability one building at a time they are looking at their entire campus. We’re moving them beyond the metric of “how many LEED buildings does your campus have” to “how truly sustainable is your campus.”

Q: How are you making change happen?

I believe change happens at different levels and is more effective as a “carrot” rather than a stick. Many problems related to the environment, society, and economics can be significantly improved through regulation. However, I believe change is personal. We need to show people how they can benefit by living more sustainably. We need to understand people’s motivations, fears, and desires and work with them. Like a tree plants seeds, we need to plant ideas and help them grow. Teaching the next generation is key to change. Sustainability needs to be a way of thinking integrated into curriculums. I developed and taught a course called Thinking Green at the Boston Architectural College. The course is required for Interior Design students. In it we explore how things are made, how they affect our health and how we may design differently. The final project asks the students to redesign one of their favorite spaces to be more sustainable. A highlight for me was a student who started redesigning her loft apartment in Boston’s Chinatown and ultimately proposed turning the roofs in the entire neighborhood into an agricultural zone and the storefronts into markets to sell the food grown above. That’s what I call Thinking Green!

Q: What is next in sustainability?

I believe we will see more regulations and a lot of what we think of as being “sustainable” and different today will become mandated by code. Just like people are beginning to ask what is in their food, where it comes from and who makes it, people will begin to demand answers to similar questions for the building products they buy. I think increased transparency in the impacts of our building products is inevitable. I hope we will move beyond disputes about rating systems and return to fundamental questions like those established by the Natural Step, which I simplify into: what are we taking from the earth, what are we making, how are we managing the resources, and are we being fair?

For me, what’s next is a little unclear. I’ve always said that my ultimate goal was not to be needed. I believe that we are at a time when most planning and design firms know how to build sustainably. What we need now are more owners wanting to push the limits. After

nine years of accelerating sustainability at Sasaki, I’ve decided to switch gears and form The Elbaum Group. We will work directly with organizations to explore sustainability issues specific to them. In April, I became a mom to a little boy which makes thinking about what’s next in sustainability even more important.

Meet other Changemakers like Meredith

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