By Kira Gould, Allied AIA
When Bob Berkebile, FAIA, and scientist David Suzuki spoke a few years ago at a Canadian summit on the environment and the economy, they met the night before to talk about what the right language was to talk about these urgent issues. When Suzuki walked to the podium, he let an awkward silence fall, then shouted “Why are we all not shitting our pants?” Recalling this moment, Berkebile notes quietly, “That’s still the way I feel today.”
Thirty years ago, Berkebile founded the AIA Committee on the Environment because he had a vision about how architects could be leaders redefining the built environment within the Earth’s system. He would be quick to name all the members of the founding committee as well as some politicians and several other architects (including Susan Maxman, FAIA, who joined Berkebile in Rio for the Earth Summit and helped focus the UIA/AIA convention in Chicago on sustainability), as key to the shaping of the vision. (COTE® was formally founded in 1989, first under the Energy Committee; it took the AIA COTE® name in 1990. Learn more about its history here.) Berkebile’s leadership, through COTE®, through the firm he co-founded, BNIM, and in many other capacities in the industry, has been exceedingly influential to many clients and collaborators. On a regular basis, I come across other people (in the AEC/real estate world and beyond) who have been moved and changed by their interactions and collaborations with him.
Today, as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes a framework for the New Green Deal, it’s hard not to be struck by both the vitality of Berkebile’s vision—where sustainable communities and a thriving economic system for all can be part of the same positive system—and the shocking recalcitrance of our industry. But, true to his positive nature, Berkebile sees the degree of urgency as further inducement toward change. Today, he’s thinking more broadly than architects and the AEC/real estate industry—he’s pushing for cultural change.
I had a chance to talk to Berkebile recently about what drives him now and what’s next; here, in his words, are some parts of that conversation:
In the early 1990s, AIA and NSF gave me an opportunity to reconceptualize the design and operation of US research stations in Antarctica We were there when atmospheric carbon exceeded 350 parts per million for the first time. I was witnessing the science, the cause—and the impacts—up close. It was shocking! And rethinking human systems and redesigning human habitat on melting ice—was transformative. But all the things that we’ve done since then—including the AIA COTE® Top Ten awards, Architecture 2030, the USGBC and LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and the beginnings of the shift toward regeneration—for all these and other important transformations that have happened, they are not nearly enough. What are the net results? Today, atmospheric carbon is 410 parts per million and climbing.
This is a three-alarm fire in our home and our response must be immediate and decisive if we care about our children! We have to double up on everything we’ve already done. So much harm has been done that we have stop talking about regenerative and healing solutions and create them now. Simultaneously, we have to get to net positive and find a way to sequester the carbon that we are releasing.
It’s clear to me that this will take a cultural shift. We have to create a trim tab for the rudder of the human journey. We have the technology, but we must create the will. So, to achieve the will, we have to be far more inventive, loving, and creative to create models now. We don’t have a lot of time to embrace these if we want to see today’s kids make it.
I am thrilled to see many of my colleagues, at BNIM and at other organizations, who are proving the human thrivability story at the community level through regenerative design solutions for healthy living in resilient communities. These are the areas that are having tremendous impact now.
I am encouraged by and engaged in two related, collaborative initiatives in America’s Heartland. The first is the Regenerative Heartland Partnership, which has three partners: The Nature Conservancy, The Land Institute, and Deep Roots (formerly the KCNPI). Their intention is to do the research to understand carrying capacity of existing systems in the Heartland that will inform changes in land management, agriculture food systems and all the infrastructure that is connected to living on the planet successfully. The initial research will begin this spring, which will provide new understanding about sequestering carbon, regenerating soil, and converting new perennial plant systems to food production. The second is the Heartland Commons, a diverse group of individuals and organizations across the heartland that are forming a collaboration to create new regenerative business, development and economic systems to transform the vitality and resilience of the heartland.
I am incredibly inspired by the human capacity for change. I see people learning to behave as pollinators; they are supporting one another and learning deeply. We are creating the models for the cultural change that must happen if we are to remain on this planet.
Buckminster Fuller taught me that the greatest access to breakthrough success is through failure. I have found that to be true. I see this situation as the greatest failure in human history. If we can acknowledge this failure, we can change the course of human history by designing a regenerative future for all life. We can meet this challenge with opportunity, collaborating, caring, and creativity. It will take all of that.