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Gail Vittori

INTERVIEWEE: Gail Vittori (GV)
DATE: April 12, 2002
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Karen Brewer and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2183

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and we’re in Austin, Texas. It’s April 12th, the year 2002, and we’re east of town at a place called The Center For Maximum Potential Building Systems, which is a long-standing effort of Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk, the co-directors and we have the good fortune of interviewing both and—and we’re going to be interviewing right now, Gail Vittori, who not only has been, as I said co-director of the center but also has been involved in—in recycling solid waste efforts as well as—as work with the—her share of Texas group and—and many other efforts in Austin, Texas and around the country. Thanks very much for joining us. Gail, we—we usually start these with a question about where your interest in the outdoors might have begun and I’m—I’m wondering if you could tell us of somebody in your circle of family and friends as a child might have first introduced you to some of the issues that you’ve been interested in years since.
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GV: I guess the first significant recollection I have of the outdoors and—and really connecting with it as a place that was a place that touches the heart and the soul was as a young child I had been sort of sick for a period of time and during the summer we went out to the ocean in Maryland. We lived around Washington D.C. at the time. And I just remember it as being a time that was restorative. That was just—you know how it is when you’re out on the ocean? You’re just very raw; there’s not a lot of trappings of the other parts of your life that are going on there. And so that combined with really feeling
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like I was getting healthy just—even though I wasn’t conscious of it. I think deep inside it gave me this connection to that’s a place to go to feel good. And there’s something very pure and basic about that experience. And then living in urban areas for most of the time when I was growing up really wasn’t until I was—had a summer in Vermont between my sophomore and junior years of high school that probably wasn’t a much
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more pronounced way a pivotal time for me of getting to a place where I was connecting to really the rhythms of the place and just what made that piece of land really tick and—and feel for me like I wanted to be more part of that place—the land than the city with buildings and—and subways and everything else. And the pace was much slower. It was really stepping out of a faster paced way of life that I had sort of been into. And delving into this other way of thinking about living, which was much more defined by cultural activities and different kinds of interaction and—and being out in the mountains. We
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did—I did my first mountain climbs that—that summer and that was, I think, again sort of hitting a threshold that—until you do something like that you just don’t know what that’s like. So, that was definitely a watershed summer for me and opened up a new way of thinking about what I thought was important. And moving me to ask questions and think differently about life, I think in a very fundamental way. Just—just in—in sort of the ways of, you know, do you wear a bra or don’t you wear a bra? That was sort of the summer where that—that was an issue. Where it had never come up in—in my high
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school experience, so interacting with different people—not that—that—that one kind of thing is—is a way to say that changed my life, but its being with people and being in a place where asking questions and challenging convention, I think, was part of that summer. So, and I think that—that really sort of became to define what I thought I wanted to do, which was—which was being ready to ask questions to challenge what was going on. Whether it was on a policy level or on a political level or on a social level
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that—that those things came into focus as something that I as a person, I working with other people could actually engage in. Also, during that time Vietnam was going on and they were, you know, the political pulse of the country was really pretty charged and—and I got involved in—in a lot of political work. And—and so, more than environmental work political work became much more consuming in terms of what I did and choices I made in terms of my activities and what—how I positioned myself to be involved as
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opposed to just being. An experience in Cuba a couple of years later that I—that I went there as part of the Venceremos Brigade was again trying to figure out, you know, what is it about a country home to many millions of people that we as a country in the United States were ready to say we’re—we’re shutting them out. And my wanting to go and have the experience of figuring out what was going on there and seeing—I think as most people do when they go there—seeing what the opportunities are to really shape through policy a transformation of the way people live. And I think Cuba’s a great example of it.
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Not that it’s without problems, but we have those anywhere we look. But, I think it’s a really interesting and very compelling model of how—when a—a platform—a political platform is advanced and it does begin to transcend on the social end and on the economic end and on the political end. How you really can overturn a way of life that was not getting that country anywhere living had. And it’s interesting to look at Cuba today as a country that with the embargo has advanced in some very key areas environmentally in the area of organic agriculture, for example. You know when they lost the support of the Russian Government they really had to think very differently about how they were going to make that part of their country buyable. And it was transitioning
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to organics that made that work. So, again, you know, how do you think about what’s important and then what are the political gears that need to start turning? How do you amass a critical—a critical quantity that then begins to advance this change? And I think if you look historically that’s—that’s sort of what’s going on. You look at these moments of time—you see a crisis pending or booming. How do you then begin to say this is where we want to go and what are the pieces that need to be repositioned to enable you to achieve that different level of activity or of—of the way the thing’s working.
DT: Well, it—it sounds then you’ve—you’ve come to this from a very broad sort of concern about society in general or the politic as a whole and I’m curious how you—you decided to focus on architecture and sustainable design building?
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GV: I think if maybe like a lot of people in—in—in 70’s I was a little bit lost about what to do, you know, how to—how to focus. And had studied economics and had gotten extraordinarily frustrated with that discipline because I saw a lot of theory, but very little that in my mind gave me the sense of having traction to—to—to get to where I wanted to go. Not being able to really define where I wanted to go, but it just wasn’t clicking for me. And when I moved to Austin in 1977, interestingly, one of the first places that I
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visited was the center, which at that time had been in operation for about two years. Not located here it was located at the time in another part of Austin. But, it was almost an immediate click of here’s the way to take that worldview of how systems work. From an economic point of view, a lot of that has to do with access to resources and how resources enable or disable people from being empowered—having control over their lives. And it just was like that makes sense to me. If you can begin to connect people to the technologies and an understanding of how to take what you’re standing on in the ground or what’s coming down out of the sky, whether it be rain or sunshine, the materials
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around you to understand how those fit into the place where you are and how you can responsibly use them to take care of basic needs, then I think you’re taking care of a lot of the problem that feeds into political conflict around the round. Not just here. I mean its access to resources and control over resources, which seems to be the pivot point of propelling people into this place of being dependent or being independent. And you know, you look now about what’s seems to be coming up as a really major water crisis globally with one billion people. I just read this number the other day and it just blew my mind. One billion people out of six—a little over six billion. One billion people on the planet without access to water is just incredible. And what that’s going to mean in terms of setting up a tension between the control of water and enabling people to have any basic
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quality of life. So, it comes down to really that—that –that—that pretty simple idea that at a minimum people should have access to their resources they need to support their lives. And how can we, as a place that’s thinking about this, help to get that information out, work with people, learn from them, try to uncover what’s worked in the past. Because that’s part of what we do too and we don’t pretend that its all ahead because there’s a lot of values that’s been—been lost, or being lost. How do we keep a hold of that and how do we work with other individuals or organizations, political bodies and try to redefine what the relationship of people and the resources of the land are?
DT: Could you maybe give us some examples of some of the—the new materials or maybe old materials that have been rediscovered and technologies that you’ve found that are—are more sustainable, that they’re more place based or they’re more efficient? Sort of help us understand what you’re talking about.
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GV: Well, we can use the rainwater example, which I think is—is a good one. We had a couple years ago an opportunity to do a project with the Texas Water Development Board. Somehow they got an idea that they wanted to recognize the potential of rainwater harvesting to be a viable water source for people around the state of Texas. And so with that proposal on the table we responded and then had the opportunity to write a guide, which I had the chance to work with—with Wendy on, your wife and that was great. We did a book and—and a video and it was—this was in 1988, I think, no that’s not right. I’m off by a decade. That was supposed to have been in 1997 or 98. The year that—the year that Han was born. So, so—here’s a—here’s an idea, you know, we’re—we—we’re in a state with a variety of—of rainfall conditions. From very, very low in the western part of the state to pretty high on the eastern part of the state. And in
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Austin kind of right in the middle around 30, 32 inches a year, but we know that anywhere from about 20 inches on—so that’s almost just east of Del Rio over that there’s enough rainfall that comes that with a system installed on a building with enough roof area that you can provide adequate water for two to three people. Assuming that your—
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you’re using conservation measures. So, that’s a real eye opener. So, you think about all the money that gets invested in infrastructure of piping water, you know, collecting water, treating water, distributing water and then dealing with waste water. The whole—the whole way that we—that we thought about the infrastructure of keeping our quality of life intact, I think needs to be really challenged. Because there’s—there’s lots of problems with that and so if you just think of water and decentralizing the infrastructure of water, so, that basically every building becomes self-reliant. Or maybe that there’s a scale at which you have several buildings together being collectively self-reliant, if that makes more sense. But certainly thinking about what the appropriate scale for the infrastructure is and not assuming that the right scale is this massive centralized water treatment system that is expensive to build, its expensive to operate and I think more
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importantly now it can be looked at as being a very high point of vulnerability in terms of security. That is that one—one system that provides water for a couple million people. If there were—if there were a—an attempt to make life very difficult that interfering that system, whether its putting something in the water or protecting the pipes or something would basically cut—cut that population—that very large population out of having access to water. So—so the decentralized model, I think, makes a lot of sense for all kinds of reasons including security. It also gives people a way to say that we’re understanding what this relationship is between us and water. Making visible what is going on so that the water just doesn’t fall off the roof and then go down a pipe and then run down the street and then go into another pipe and into the sewer system and kind of out of sight out of mind. I think the out of sight out of mind mentality that is very much a part of our
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lives is also a big part of the problem because we’re not connecting to those cycles. We’re not connecting to the fundamental way that we basically are able to live and we—water is a big part of why we’re alive. So, making that more a conscious part of peoples daily lives that boy, you know, here’s the water, here’s our storage, we have this much water left; we better be careful. As opposed to having the faucet in our kitchen that they turn on and, you know, probably most people that we know have not had an experience where they turn on the faucet and there’s not water there. Regardless of what’s going on outside, regardless of whether we, you know, had a historical drought for the third year in
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a row, probably the water’s going to be there. But what’s the cost, what’s the ecological cost of ensuring that when we turn on the water, we have it? So, getting us more in tune with the rhythms of what’s going on out there and making it visible, making us conscious of it, I think also makes us almost—almost just—as a result of that better stewards of the land. Because it’s clear what our connection is with what’s going on out there as opposed to assuming that someone else is taking care of business. Because someone else taking care of business isn’t going to, I think, help us in the long run.
DT: You mentioned trying to get more in touch with natural rhythms and cycles, whether its rainfall, I guess other services that the ecosystem provides. I was wondering if you could also talk about some of the life cycles that you see in products that we use that aren’t necessarily natural but that are, I guess, artificial and manmade and have to do with how much use we get out of it and what we do with it when we discard it.
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GV: Well, when we talk about life cycle I think it opens up a way of really embracing what—what it is that—that brings this product to be. And so we think of life cycle as having these different phases of, you know, where do the raw materials come from. Its sort of telling the story about, you know, this piece of paper. You know the fact that this piece of paper started out as a tree somewhere probably or maybe it started out as old newsprint. I don’t know, you know, this high-recycled content, but somewhere way back it started out as a tree somewhere. So, where is that tree? What’s the story about the place that—where that tree was? And how it came down and then where did it go to be processed into pulp and what was involved with processing into pulp? I think about these stories when, you know, Sesame Street use to do these neat stories of kind of, you, know,
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M&M’s. I, you know, these little factories that would make it and—and just bring that alive to people. That it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And so—and so we know—we know now so much more about what all of the consequences of these actions are. So we—you know we log the forest and we’ve done hugely terrible things in—in that and then we have the—the plant where the stuff is pulped and we’ve done really bad things with that because we’ve used chlorine as a bleaching agent and that goes into the water and it kills aquatic life and basically just knocks out that whole ecosystem. We know—we then have huge amount of energy that’s involved, it has emissions, finally becomes paper. We get it—well then we have a choice. You know, we use the paper and after we use it then what do we do with it? You know, well, we’ve used it on both sides. So, that’s getting double use out of it, but then we have another choice after we say we can’t use this anymore. Do we throw it out or do we—do we say maybe there’s another way to keep this kind of cradle-to-cradle. And so thankfully, in Austin we have—we have a great service for recycling and I can put it out on the curb and it’ll get
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picked up and taken to a recycling processor that’ll then put it down into pulp form again and remanufacture it into paper. So, that’s the life cycle. And making that part of how you think about the products that you use as, you know, designers, builders, architects, huge amount of the whole material economy is tied up in—in buildings and the built environment. Very big numbers, very big percentages for things like, you know, lumber and—and stone and metals and just about anything you can think about. The numbers are very high. So, as a profession how can we begin to think differently about how we choose the materials that we bring into be part of the projects that we work in? And what’s the level of responsibility that we say should be part of that stewardship role? Because you’re saying—we’re making a decision to bring this product into this project
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do we really understand the full scale of consequences associated with that? So, a lot of the work that we do often on projects is to try to understand that story and as much dimension as we can. And its not always easy information to pull out because you’re dealing with manufacturers that sometimes don’t want to tell the whole story. You’re dealing with sometimes very—very small quantities of emissions associated with manufacturers that are difficult to measure. But because of their level of toxicity are important to know and—and I think the hope is with a lot of the—the green design work—the consciousness about green design that’s going on right now, is that there’s going to be sufficient magnitude of interest and concern and challenging status quo about the stuff is that it in fact is going to be a reason for transforming the basic procedures
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associated with manufacturing in this country and hopefully beyond this country. In fact, Europe in a lot of ways is way ahead of us in the United States because I think they take in these issues—they’ve been ready to say this isn’t just sort of a choice of the people who care about it because they happen to be a green designer. They have much stronger legislation. They’ve been willing to take this on in a much more proactive way. On a political—on a political end of the—end of the scale, but there’s—there’s hopeful things going on here, too. I mean we are seeing advances in—in policies and procurement
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policies, in particular by a lot of the—of the governmental entities that are saying we are huge consumers of materials. We are the nations largest landlord. For example, in the case of the General Services Administration and we consider ourselves to be a party responsible for shaping the future. And how can we do that? And one of the ways we can do that is by ensuring that the products and materials that we bring in to our portfolio of buildings have a—have a basis to be defined as—as green. Or let’s say—say better than normal and on that scale of, you know, of where we are now and—and what’s
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coming out of the—out of the shop as—as being better. I don’t think we’re perfect yet. I think it’s really hard to find perfect. I don’t think we see that the bird’s nest out there or the egg shell, but I think that—I think it’s—it’s a—it—its trying to set the bar at a high level to say these are—these are reasons why this is acceptable or this is not acceptable. And trying to have really good scientific understanding of what makes a product better than another. And it’s—and I think in the life cycle world because you’re dealing with so many issues through various stages of the life cycle and then multiple criteria at each
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stage of the life cycle. Sort of figuring out—so here’s product A and here’s product B, Which one’s better? Is not always straightforward and it might end of being an issue of availability or issue of cost. And then, of course, you don’t want to scrimp on performance because you might have, you know, a material that is biodegradable and its certified as—as sustainable and it has no formaldehyde and no other toxic emissions and all of these things. But you can use it once and then its not good anymore and then you’re not really doing the world a service either. Because before you know it you have to make another one of those whatever’s. So, durability is and—and functionality is—is
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certainly part of that important mix. So, we—we’re saying we don’t want to lose any of the performance attributes that make that product useful, but we want to redefine kind of the chemistry through the life cycle. And as much as we can say these are the hot spots to be conscious of. Let’s try to knock out all those hot spots and get it at least up to here and always striving for—for there. But knowing that we might not get there but that’s okay because this is a process and I think we’ve got a long ways to go. But I think you see some encouraging signs out there that manufacturers are starting to—to listen. And certainly I—I’d say the—the course is getting bigger in—in terms of the people in the design world that are saying this stuff makes a difference. It’s important to us. We want
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to—we want to define the work that we do as being guided by a sense of stewardship and respect for the basic ecological sustainability of—of this planet.
DT: In—in the interim until, you know, we can sort of close the loop on this life cycle it seems like there—there’s a large part of the cycle for many products is—is in a trash can and in the landfill. And—and I thought it would be interesting to talk briefly about your role with a number of non-profits and city boards and state agencies that try and promote the more intelligent way of dealing with solid waste and with recycling. You might be able to mention some of your work there.
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GV: Back in 1987—it was a time when I was not doing a whole lot of—of work outside of just my work. I was sort of focused on my work in the office. And it—it was a time that—that also was the—the time that my second child was born and it was just actually a few weeks after she was born that I—I—I remember this really vividly. I was reading the paper one morning and there was a story in the—in the local paper about the City of Austin investing in the equipment to build a waste energy plant. I thought, “Wow, this is—what’s—what’s this about and what’s happening to Austin?” And you know you have sometimes those moments in life that are just like you’re propelled out of your seat to say this is wrong. And that was one of those moments for me. I was just—I was just
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floored. I was stunned. I could not believe that a city that had advanced recycling as part of its fundamental infrastructure elements was moving in this direction. It just defied for me what—what seemed to be the right direction. And it was—it was a real eye opener to find out that—that the—the industry—the waste energy industry in the United States had basically come in in a very strong fashion and very strategically and billed itself as a technology that would provide free energy, that would take care of all of the solid waste problem and basically be the silver bullet. So, that no longer would, you know, cities have to worry about solid waste anymore because they were going to take care of the problem. There’s just something really wrong with that representation. And as much
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as—as I didn’t know details about solid waste management, I certainly knew that—that burning resources was not a good thing to do. And in the course of the next eight months or so, myself along with a group of other people turned around that—that position that the city had. Even though the city had invested about 22 million dollars in that technology, had purchased the land, had purchased most of the—of the components for the waste energy plant. We convinced them in about seven months time that that was a bad decision that was going only dig them in a worse financial hole. Because not only are those things hugely expensive to operate, they also introduce some very, very bad environmental problems in term of emissions and then what to do with the ash, which had
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environmental consequences. It also had economic consequences. So after—after we were able to get the vote to cancel the facility and we’re going now into July of—of ‘88, the city didn’t have a plan anymore. Their whole solid waste management plan was wrapped up in this silver bullet that was going to be taking care of everything. And so part of the resolution that accompanied the cancellation of the investment and the waste energy plant was to establish a Solid Waste Advisory Committee for the city and I began with that as chair and served on it for 10 years, five of which was chairing it. And basically what we were able to do was to redefine the solid waste management
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framework for the City of Austin. It’s a great—it’s just a great opportunity to—to have a chance to do that, to engage in that level of policy-making. From a citizen’s point of view being on a commission, I think, it was an example of how those things should—should work. We worked with staff and didn’t always agree with staff, but in the end I think what we developed as the recommendations, which is basically shifting the infrastructure of the city away from dis—disposal and towards reduction, recovery, reuse is playing out today some, you know, 13, 14 years later. So, we do have Pay As You Throw now. We do have once a week pick-up. We do have Pay As You Throw as a variable rate structure so that the less you put out the less you pay. Just like any other utility. Something that makes sense but it was a big shift in thinking where traditionally
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whatever you put out on the curb however much it was you paid as much as your neighbor who put out, you know, relatively small amount. So, equity was a big part of that and we were also able to—to address issues like worker safety. And—and moving towards a different kind of truck that enabled the—the cans to be picked up by the truck. A lift on the truck as opposed to the workers having to pick it up manually. So, right off the bat the Workers Comp burden on the city was dramatically reduced, which was great. So, we were looking not just at efficiency from one point of view or effectiveness from
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one point of view, we’re really looking very much through the whole system and how to enhance overall performance with the goal of reducing reliance on land filling significantly. Increasing incentives to throw out less, but also boosting the infrastructure so that we would in the city have much better ability to process internally the recyclables that are collected. So, now we have materials recovery facility, we have a glass crusher so we’re not having to throw out all the glass that—that came broken and that’s a huge amount. And I think we’re at about—last I heard about 48 percent recycling diversion for recycling. So, those are all good things and—and I—I hate to think where we would
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be today if we had gone ahead with that—with that trash burner. You know the facility that was originally billed as—as this, you know, beautiful plant out in East Austin, nicely landscaped with, you know, dioxins and everything come out—coming out of the stack that, of course, no one ever saw. We would probably not have a recycling program in the city because there’s a clear disincentive financially to invest in recycling infrastructure if you’ve got all of this money tied up in a waste energy plant. Most of those things are sized for—like in the case of Austin it was sized for 1,000 tons per day of garbage while at the time we were only generating 800 tons per day. Plus they’re usually contracted with something called a put or pay contract, which means that garbage or not you’re
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going to pay them for that thousand tons per day. Not a good deal, and certainly not a way to get us into thinking more in line with a—a resource conscious way of—way of doing business.
DT: Gail, I—I think its—its unusual how you and others that you’ve worked with have been able to turn around very large institutions. Like the example that you gave with the City of Austin and its major investment in—in incineration and being able to persuade a group of people to put a lot of dollars into a project that their obviously pretty entranced with. And I’m curious if you could give maybe another example of how you worked with a large agency and I think that you’re very involved with trying to get the Green Builder Program started in the City of Austin. Maybe you could tell about the origins of that.
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GV: Right. The—the city—City of Austin was very aggressive in pursuing, you know what I’m going…
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GV: The City of Austin had been quite aggressive in terms of pursuing energy conservation programs in the 70’s and in the 80’s. And, but I’d say at the time we differed in terms of how to really think about how to move the—the building agenda forward in a way that was going to be really addressing a broader scale or being more comprehensive in just energy conservation. You know the—the oil embargo of the 70’s really focused people very specifically on energy conservation as the way to raise the
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environmental profile of buildings. And there’s a lot of good work done on that, but there are a lot of missing pieces because that’s just one part of this much bigger thing of how to understand what buildings role is related to kind of larger environmental puzzle. So, and—and we had developed this way of thinking about buildings, which was thinking about them in terms of flows of—of materials. So, like the energy flow and the water flow and the material flow and then also waste as kind of this other thing. So, we had four things at the time that we were thinking of as a way to be able to profile what was going on related to a building and again in this life cycle perspective. And was in, I guess
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the late 80’s that we actually got a call from the City of Austin. You know these things just—you never know what might happen when you pick up the phone. We got one of those calls, and it was someone who worked at the City of Energy Conservation Division that said that they were looking for a partner to put in some proposals to this group called the Urban Consortium, which is a national organization that was funding cities to advance certain kinds of environmental initiatives. And, you know, basically the question was, “Hey, do you guys have any ideas?” And, you know, that’s kind of what we do around here. We talk a lot about boy, if we ever had a chance to do this or that so this was once of those moments when we were asked. You know, do you guys have any ideas? One of the ideas that we put forward was hey, how about beginning to develop a
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program that basically extended what you had already in place that was really good, which was the Energy Conservation Program. But why don’t you expand that to the areas of materials and water and waste. And that basically was the seed that launched the—The Green Builder Program for the City of Austin, which was the first Green Builder Program in the world at the time. And—at the time—it was the first Green Builder Program in the world and it was—it was, I think, successful for a couple of reasons. One, it was saying you already have something really good in place. Let’s not trash that and say we’re going to, you know, kind of clear the decks and start all over and put something else together. But, let’s build on what you already have and let’s already—also recognize that you have these other programs that are very much in spirit
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connected with what you have going on. Like if the city had a good water program, but it wasn’t—wasn’t affiliated—it wasn’t brought in, so that water and energy were sort of looked at as a—at—as being teamed up. The materials piece was probably the biggest piece that was not there. And it was at a time when—even issues that now are—are sort of common—com—m—more commonly understood. Embodied energy, for example, you know, what’s the energy required to make this material—to bring it to life. Being—being—being able to talk about the materials part of the building piece in a performance way different than what had been thought about before was—was really new and I think breaking new ground. So, basically the—the program that we worked on with—with
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Pliny and the city staff took about a year and a half to develop the basic components of the program was all based on these four areas: energy, water, waste and materials. That was it and—and that’s what was submitted to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and it turned out to be the only program from the United States out of 12 that were awarded as recognizing exemplary local environmental initiatives. So, that was really nice. Its—its one of those times when you think about how you might be contributing to—to moving an agenda forward and I think that that’s a really good example of, you know, the moment was right. I remember talking with people at the city at the time—again a call
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coming in like someone working with the program and needing to make a presentation and calling up like, “What is sustainability?” And this is someone now who is in a very senior position in—in that world of energy and sustainability. And it just—it just shows that—that—these ideas—there’s something that—that becomes very magnetic about them and—and they begin to click in people’s minds and they—they have a sense that this—this is really the right thing to be doing. And even though they don’t know all the details about it, they’re willing to stick their necks out a little bit and say, “We’re going to take a go with this.” And—and we now have, I guess, over ten years of that program being in place and—and—and—and making a difference in this city. Another example where—where that kind of opportunity came to play was in—in a different context of a
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private sector application. HEB, a very large grocery store chain that operates in—in the state of Texas principally, but now also in Mexico, was also trying to figure out how they might do what they do differently relative to environmental considerations. And we had the opportunity to—to work with them on developing some—some basic framework and some policies and some procedures that basically guided them to think differently about the decisions they made relative to the materials and the infrastructure that they now use in their stores. That as I understand it is—is basically now part of their standard protocol so that business as usual at—at HEB now reflects this much enhanced way of thinking
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about their relationship to this whole menu of environmental considerations that they really didn’t think about before.
DT: Can you maybe give an example of how you might make HEB’s practices in their buildings more efficient, more green?
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GV: How—how they were able to do that? Well one of the—one of the things that—that came out is—is this whole issue of, in a sense, dematerializing. So for example…
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GV: Another—another opportunity that we’ve had to—to sort of move this kind of way of thinking differently about buildings forward is—is in a private sector contact with HEB, a large grocery store chain that operates primarily in Texas but also in—in Mexico. And they basically came to us and said we want to—we want to have some direction about how to think differently about the way we do stores. This was—this was propelled by a very difficult challenging site that they had in Austin that was being challenged on environmental grounds and so they knew that in order to be successful in—in building that facility there they were going to have to raise their bar significantly to—to basically meet the level of performance that the people of Austin said is going to be necessary to
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enable you to build on that site. So—so the work involved looking at—at the basic way that they addressed materials primarily and in terms of what we did and also their energy issues. And also the way they just came to a piece of property. So the first step is—is find out what’s there before you come in and just grade the whole thing. Find out what’s on that piece of property as—as step number one and—and pay attention to it. And if there’s something of value there—a plant species, you know, do an inventory and try to bring those plants back into your project. So, that was one component of it. The issue of
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the materials that they used and—and that evolved interestingly in a sense that—that HEB basically came back and said after we gave them some—some ideas of how to—how to think differently about the materials they put on the floor and—and the way they dealt with concrete and—and different major materials they use, paints and so on. Was, you know, maybe we don’t need to paint because what we really want people to come in to the store to do is to look at the food. And so rather than spending all the labor and the—the money on the paint and then having to go and repaint because the stuff starts to chip or gets dirty or whatever, why don’t we just leave the pipes the way they are. And
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similarly with the floor they put in a lot of—just plain concrete flooring. Didn’t stain it, because in their way of thinking, you know, we sort of evolved with them, is again why add that extra step. Because thinking about the life cycle stuff that extra step represents a whole bunch of other stuff that happens upstream and downstream. And so by eliminating that you actually get multiple benefits. You get reduced labor, you get reduced environmental impacts, you get less maintenance often times because you’re not trying to keep something to look a certain way because you’ve had to add these layers. So, keeping those layers looking that way is more work. So, that was great. They—they were—they were extremely, I think, moved by their heightened understanding of what
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that hidden part of their work was. These are people who obviously spent lots and lots of time trying to make their stores work really well. And just on an engineering point of view, it’s incredible what goes into, you know, keeping this place cold and keeping this place hot and keeping this place ventilated and everything in a—in a supermarket. I mean it kind of blew my mind—the sophistication on an engineering point of view. But to get them to spend some time thinking about the materiality of it and how they could be contributing to—to the issues that went beyond the walls of their store. I think it opened their eyes and I think—I think they—they really believed that—that was important and that was something that they wanted to pursue.
DT: Maybe we can go from—from this topic to talking about how you helped individuals and non-profit groups understand a little bit more about environmental issues. You talked about your work with the City of Austin’s Green Builder Program and HEB’s building project and operation. But I understand you were also active with a group called Earth Share of Texas, which went into various workplaces to try and raise the profile and—and raise some money for environmental groups. And I thought maybe you could talk about that experience, as well.
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GV: Earth Share of Texas was an idea that was brewing in the early 90’s as a way to help to stabilize the financial footing of environmental non-profits in Texas. And it was an effort that was similar to efforts going on around the country, which is basically saying that there are many people out there who probably have an interest in supporting environmental groups, but don’t have an efficient way to make that be part of their lives. And so by coming together as a group of environmental non-profits and collectively introducing a campaign into workplaces —in the way similar to United Way. That we would have the ability to a) potentially have access to contributors to support the work of our respective organizations. But just as important, have an opportunity to get in the door and have communication and have dialog with people that may not have access to contact
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with the kinds of environmental organizations that comprise their share of Texas. So, I think that it—it was an idea that took a long time to—to sort of get critical mass in terms of—of—of being viable structurally to be effectively marketing ourselves to businesses in both the public and private sectors in the state. But I think we’ve been very successful. In fact, Earth Share of Texas I believe is the fastest growing environmental organization in the country now. We’re not getting the highest amount of revenues, but on a year-to-year basis our percentage of growth is higher than any other environmental fundraising federation in the c—in the country. So, that’s great. But, it’s also meant that—that I think the—the idea that—that this is everyone’s interest and that the environment is part
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of everyone’s life. It’s not something that necessarily everyone—you know, you hear that thing is—is everyone an environmentalist and people say, of course everyone’s an environmentalist. But in—in the course of—of people’s busy lives I think the environmental part of—of their consciousness sometimes goes on the backburner, is dormant, or for whatever reason. They think someone else is taking care of it. But my experience with talking with people at workplaces when we do campaigns or we’re trying to open a campaign is that—is that people listen and people care. And I think people like to be touched with a sense that they can help this. That there is a—there sort of this—this very human connection and given an opportunity I think we are finding that—that many, many people take advantage of it and that’s very heartening. So, to the extent that Earth
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Share of Texas has opened that little—little window in people’s minds saying that they can help this effort along in whatever way, big or small. I think that that fundamentally is—is strengthening to the much broader agenda of people taking responsibility for the future.
DT: When you—when you look towards the future what do you see as being the big environmental challenges and opportunities for everyone? Just in general. I mean whether its in the building field or—or waste or—or beyond.
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GV: In—in my mind I think the—I think the challenge is—is staying a little bit ahead of the curve and I get concerned when they’re stories like that iceberg that just broke off in Ac—in Ac—Antarctica. That happened in—a little over a month that just caught everyone off guard. And I think that there are so many dynamics that play and the accumulative effect of these multiple things that we’re doing that’s really redefining the chemistry of the planet. I get concerned that we are in a position to really anticipate what’s ahead and I think that the—the element of surprise is probably going to be part of our lives. And that is the—the ecological upheaval that—as much as we know and much as we sort of calibrate trying to gauge mitigating what we’re doing now to get us back in
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balance. I—I hope that we have all of the—it’s not even an issue of intelligence. I think its almost like this—this extra sensory perception kind of thing of being able to—to really absorb what those changes are and—and how dramatically we have to rethink what we’re doing as a population. And—and what kind of transformo—mations are really necessary to get us to a point where we’re going to have another couple of centuries. I—I—I’m concerned.
DT: When you—when you look into those coming centuries and—and coming generations, how do you—how do you address to your children the attitude—recruit them to the cause or to apologize for what we’ve done or how do you—how do you pass on your view and your concern?
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GV: In—in terms of informing, you know, our children or future generations, I think—I think the first thing you do is you say that you do make a difference. You make a difference in the daily decisions you make in your life. And its important to think about what—what it is you do and try to think beyond just you. Its in—its—its as much as you can make these issues be reflected in your daily life. Whether its because you put things in a recycling containers as opposed to in the trashcan. Or because you use a manual mower instead of a gas powered mower or because you walk instead of get in the car. And—and talk about—talk about it. I think its instilling the sense that—that individuals do make a difference and that the th—the ways that we live are contributing to a future that we are defining. And by redirecting what we’re doing as individuals and as
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organizations and as classes in schools and as movements that—that to have a sense of establishing an agenda that has priorities that has principles that is saying—this is going—I just kind of lost this thing. You know, I th—I think—I think you do what you can do. I think—I think you basically say, you know, we can’t change a lot that’s going on, but what are—what’s within our grasp?
DT: One last question. When—when you turn away from some of these things that—that are out of your grasp and—and sometimes upsetting, as well, where do you—is there a place that you go to—to get respite, serenity, a nice place in the outdoors you could describe?
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GV: If I have the chance, I go back to the ocean.
DT: That’s where we all came from, a big place to—to return to.
GV: That’s—that’s sort of home in a—in a—yeah, in a deep sense.
DT: (Inaudible)
GV: Yeah.
DT: Anything you’d like to add?
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GV: I—well, I—I just want to—I guess just hats off to you for—for trying to—to make this part of what’s going on have a life and—and—and be contributing to a legacy that—that people will be able to—to touch. Because I—I think that we—we lose touch so easily. So, I—I think that—this is admirable work.
DT: Well, thank you. Thanks for playing a role in it.
GV: Yeah.
[End of Reel 2183]
[End of interview with Gail Vittori]