RMI Alumni Build Big and Build Green
Note: This is the 4th post in a series highlighting the work of Rocky Mountain Institute alumni.
Thornton Tomasetti is a structural engineering powerhouse with 600 employees worldwide, two of whom are RMI alumni: Amy Seif Hattan and Gunnar Hubbard. They build some of the tallest buildings in the world and were the first structural engineering firm to join the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 commitment for carbon neutral buildings.
Amy and Gunnar spent time at RMI in the 1990s. In 2003, Gunnar started Fore Solutions, a green building consulting firm; Amy served as Chief Operating Officer. Thornton Tomasetti acquired Fore Solutions last year. Now, Gunnar leads the Building Sustainability Practice and Amy is the company’s Corporate Sustainability Officer, both based in Portland, Maine. Amy is also the sister of RMI Senior Consultant Dan Seif. I interviewed Amy and Gunnar about their time at RMI, their current work, and our future.
RMI: Please tell us about any projects you worked on at RMI that were particularly memorable.
Amy Seif Hattan: I remember two community economic development projects that we were working on in forestry-dependent communities in Oregon and Pennsylvania. Back then—in 1997—collaborative decision-making processes that involved diverse stakeholders were viewed with suspicion, even by environmentalists, and we got some flack because of it. Now this is more accepted as an effective way to get to the best outcome.
Gunnar Hubbard: For me, Four Times Square in New York City and North Clackamas High School in Oregon stand out. Both were part of a performance-based fee program, and were early examples of how to approach whole-building analysis and green building principles.
RMI: What are some important principles that you learned at RMI?
GH: Front-loaded design, tunneling through the cost barrier, and building to code (AKA the worst legal thing you can do without being thrown in to jail).
AH: Perhaps the most important principle for my current role is that sustainability is not about sacrifice. Rather, it’s about practical approaches to improve the quality of our lives, increase the bottom line, and reduce our environmental impact, all at the same time. As a corporate sustainability officer, I’ll be most successful if I can identify ways for my company to reduce our carbon footprint while increasing our business efficiencies. There’s also potential benefit by gaining new clients through marketing our sustainability leadership or by increasing employee satisfaction and performance through improving workspaces.
RMI: Can you describe some of your projects at Fore Solutions or Thornton Tomasetti?
AH: We’ve worked on some really interesting green building projects, including MGM City Center in Las Vegas (the largest LEED-certified development at the time); a Net Zero Energy LEED-Platinum education center at a botanical gardens in Maine; and the Museum of the Built Environment in Saudi Arabia, where we brought in biomimicry concepts to solve some of the challenges of building green in a harsh desert environment.
RMI: You conduct workshops and charrettes with clients. Why is that an important part of your process?
GH: Charrettes are essential to building relationships on a project of any size and scale. They are what allow a design team to get to know the client and vice versa. They inform and involve communities, occupants, and decision makers. They can involve contractors, building operators, and students. They involve learning about a site, testing a program, exploring possibilities for climate-responsive design. They test budgets early, and align everyone around common goals and agreed targets. Charrettes help facilitate discussions that would otherwise occur too late in a project, and they are the best conduits to inform and inspire teams to seek and create integrated solutions. They are the key to a front-loaded design process.
RMI: Why is green building important?
GH: We need to turn the ship. Slowing down is not enough. Climate change is occurring. How we design, build, and operate our buildings is impacting our future. And contrary to some opinions, economics is not the problem, it is the answer.
AH: The way we build has an influence beyond the actual walls of the building. For example, it determines transportation patterns and may contribute to sprawl and automobile dependence, which has its own sustainability challenges. RMI’s founders, Amory and Hunter Lovins, understood the importance of buildings to the overall sustainability picture, and branded the organization from the start as a sustainability leader by housing it in a green building in Snowmass that challenged traditional architecture.
RMI: What is the future of building sustainability?
GH: There is no choice but to build and operate sustainably. In the future, we won’t be talking about “building sustainably” anymore, we’ll just be doing it as a matter of course. I think it is going to take a while to get there, but the more we can embrace the thinking of using our built environment as part of the solution to climate change, the better we will be. This means that “sustainable” is not enough … regenerative design is a must. Our buildings can produce more energy than they use, clean the air and the water, and provide comfort with little to no need for fossil fuels.