PITTSFIELD — Green building standards were developed in the 1990s in reaction to climate change, and their presence has made the composition of new buildings almost as important as their construction.
Charley Stevenson is the owner/principal of Integrated Eco Strategy of North Adams, a firm that helps clients build structures that achieve Living Building Challenge Certification, the world's most comprehensive green construction standard, a procedure that goes further than the more familiar LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards) for building design established by the U.S. Green Building Council.
In 2017, IES launched a software program known as Red2Green, a healthy buildings material selection tool that meets the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.
The company also recently helped Harvard University achieve Materials Petal certification in the Living Building Challenge for its new eight-story science and engineering complex in Boston, the largest Living Building Challenge project ever built.
We spoke with Stevenson recently about how he became involved in this work, the services that IES provides, what make the Living Building Challenge so stringent, and why green building standards were adopted in the first place.
Q Why did you choose working in sustainability as a career?
A I came to Williams [College] and was planning on being a philosophy/math double major. Sophomore year, I met the woman [Kate Brill] who is now my wife. She was an environmental concentrator. It occurred to me that if I were an environmental concentrator, that I would spend more time with her (Stevenson graduated from Williams in 1993, with a degree in philosophy and environmental studies). That worked out well.
Q You went on to get a master's in natural science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is known for its engineering program. How did you get into building design if you're not an engineer?
A We don't do any design. We're not architects. We're not engineers. We help projects think holistically about building performance, and over time that's narrowed really to be focused on the materials that buildings are built out of.
There's always an architect; there's always an engineer. We help them choose the best materials for the job that they do. My degree from RPI is in the use of technology for math. I sometimes say my work today is 40 percent diplomacy, 30 percent education and 30 percent technical knowledge. That sort of math/education background keeps serving me well.
Q What's the difference between LEED and the Living Building Challenge standards, and how does IES work with them?
A LEED is the predominant certified program, and its standards recognize projects that go beyond [building] code by a certain percentage. If you pursue the highest level of LEED, platinum certification, a building is not truly sustainable. It would still use fossil fuel. It would still use known chemicals of concern that could be avoided.
In response to that, an architect named Jason McLennan devised the next step, which he called "Living Certification," which would take all of those accouterment attributes to the logical sustainable extreme. ... It has a fraction of the marketing share that LEED does, but it's a living, growing market, and that's really the market that we serve.
For the first six or seven years of IES, we did mostly LEED work with a little bit of living building mixed in. ... The piece where we really developed our expertise is in the materials' selection.
Q How do you do that?
A A typical building project, like the projects we've done at Williams College, end up using between 600 and 1,000 materials, ranging from drywall to primer to tile to windows to you name it. For each of these products, we reach out to a manufacturer to find out what are the chemical ingredients so that we can have an understanding about what chemicals are being brought to the site and installed that would have an impact on occupants.
In 2011, we worked on the Environmental Center at Williams and, in 2013 and 2014, we did two buildings in Amherst — one at Hampshire College and another for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
We realized we were doing an awful lot of research and storing that information on a spreadsheet. It was neither efficient [nor] comprehensive. So, for internal purposes, we began to develop a database to track all of the research we were doing so we would have ready access to it for the next project that we did. We called that Red2Green.
Q Take me through the process you use in determining the best materials for each project.
A We work with the architects. They're responsible for the structure and the finishes in a room.
The first question is, what do they need? How simple can their palette of materials be? They'll determine the look and performance of the space and we'll determine what's the flooring going to be, what's going to be on the walls. They'll determine the look and performance of the space and we'll understand from them what product types that they are considering.
It could be something as boring as acoustic ceiling tile or as exciting as reclaimed wood flooring. We think about those types as having better and worse options. ... It's really a series of a thousand decisions to ask what's the best project to meet the project's needs.
Q How does a building built to green building standards compare with a building that isn't?
A Harvard has done a number of studies that show that people have a higher capacity for critical thinking skills when they're not in the presence of harmful chemicals or high rates of carbon dioxide. Typical building contaminants impede human thinking. So, we come in with the idea that many of those contaminants can be avoided in construction so they will have no effect on occupants because they're simply not there.
Q If you weren't doing this, what do you think you would be doing for a living?
A Oh, gosh. If you had asked me five years ago if I would love doing business development and speaking at conferences and doing software sales, I would have said, "No way." But, I'd be sad if I wasn't doing this work. The whole team comes here, and it's our job to make the world a better place every day. It's hard to argue with that.