A Deeper Shade of Green

Earth Day founder Denis Hayes is building a new movement.

March/April 2011

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A Deeper Shade of Green

Photo: Hayley Young

From his early career as an Earth Day organizer to the present, Denis Hayes, '69, JD '85, has been a trendsetter in the environmental community. So it is no surprise that he is taking another bold step: He wants to go beyond "green" to make buildings whose environmental footprint is nearly invisible.

The Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit where Hayes is president and CEO, will break ground this spring on the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, a "net-zero" office building designed to generate its own clean power and make a negligible environmental impact. You would have to dig deep into a 128-pack of Crayolas for a color that conveys how radical this idea is for an office building.

Few truly net-zero buildings exist, according to Glenn Katz, an architect and lecturer in Stanford's civil and environmental engineering program. Such buildings—off the grid and with no carbon emissions—tend to be small, with similarly tiny power and waste management needs. Many are family homes. "The idea of going net-zero in a small commercial building is exciting," Katz says. Many office buildings now seek LEED status, a green building certification denoting a base level of efficiency. The Bullitt Foundation, which awards grants for sustainable development projects, is going several steps farther, seeking certification for a "living building."

Super-efficient photovoltaic panels will supply the building's energy, and plans call for nearly all of the facility's water needs to be filled by using a rain-catch system that capitalizes on the Pacific Northwest's bountiful precipitation. Waste generated by the building's tenants will go to composting toilets, providing plant food for the office's "living wall" and greenhouse.

"Most commercial properties are trying to achieve operational savings [with LEED], but it's also a good branding thing when it comes time to rent it," Katz says. "What [Bullitt] is doing is raising the bar. By establishing that it can be done and getting data showing how, they're proving it's possible, and then the question lies on the table: Why isn't everyone doing this?"

Hayes says this new paradigm draws inspiration from an old one. "If you took a photograph of a building in Phoenix, and one in Charleston, South Carolina, and one in Anchorage 100 years ago, you wouldn't hesitate to know which building was where, because we designed to cooperate with nature and take advantage of it," he notes. In modern times, new building construction has become highly homogeneous. Power for heating and cooling is derived mostly from fossil fuel, with high and unstable prices. That argues for a return to regional architecture, Hayes says, where climate and topography become assets in sustainable construction. The Cascadia Center "is an attempt to reshape the vernacular of Northwestern architecture."

This is not the first time Hayes has tried to start a revolution. Forty-one years ago, he helped galvanize the modern environmental movement.

After an eventful time at Stanford dominated by his involvement in student protests against the Vietnam War and University-sponsored classified research, Hayes struggled for motivation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He was required to do an extracurricular activity affecting public policy. "I think the professors had something more in mind like interning with the attorney general," Hayes remembers wryly, "but it was an era when trying to influence public policy could also mean getting out there and stirring up people." Hayes already sported an interest in the environment, having despaired as a child over logging and paper mill pollution in his hometown of Camas, Wash. So when he saw a New York Times article detailing Sen. Gaylord Nelson's call for a day of teach-ins to call attention to environmental issues, Hayes contacted Nelson's office hoping to volunteer.

"It turned out, he didn't have anyone organizing anyplace," Hayes remembers. "It was just a speech he'd been giving. He was very interested in having teach-ins on college campuses to get this issue kicked off." A few days after they met, Nelson's chief of staff phoned Hayes and asked if he was interested in dropping out of Harvard to serve as the national coordinator for the teach-ins.

"Relatively quickly, it became clear that there was not a huge amount of interest on college campuses for this thing," Hayes says. Campus activists were mostly focused on the war. But supportive mail coming into Nelson's Senate office showed that other groups, particularly young mothers, were enthusiastic about environmental awareness. Hayes helped switch the focus off-campus, and from teach-ins to more of a protest model, as he recruited city organizers around the country. With the help of a national ad campaign, heavy media coverage, and cooperation from friendly city officials, interest in Earth Day ballooned. On April 22, 1970, more than 20 million people turned out across the United States to demonstrate for the environment and against pollution—then exemplified by the infamous Cuyahoga River fires and dying fisheries in the Great Lakes.

It was an unprecedented success. But on April 23, it was supposed to be over forever. A group of teachers wanted to have annual Earth Days, but Hayes was skeptical. "I did my best to persuade them not to do it," he says. "Because no matter what we did, we'd never be able to . . . replicate that [initial success] every year." Hayes now cheerfully admits he was overcautious, and he still serves as honorary chairman of the event, which marks its 41st anniversary this year.

Aiming for a similar success with living buildings is audacious. But if Hayes has proven anything over his career, it is that ideas ahead of their time are his specialty.

SCOTT BLAND, '10, is a reporter and research assistant at National Journal.

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