Look Who’s On GoodGuide: Neil Chambers – Author, Designer, Entrepreneur

Neil Chambers has a been a close friend since 2005 when I moved Vivavi, my green furniture company, to New York City to tap into the city’s emerging sustainable design community. Neil wears many hats. He’s an accomplished designer and the principal of Chambers Design. He’s also hosted his own television talk show called “Green Ground Zero.” Several years ago, he even invited me to a breakfast he was hosting for Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana to help introduce the Governor to the New York green business community. Neil is dialed-in, forward-thinking and visionary. Nothing is testament to that more than his forthcoming book, Urban Green: Architecture For The Future.

We’re excited to have Neil as a member of the GoodGuide community. We interviewed him to learn more about his book and his perspective on sustainability.

GG: What’s the big idea in your new book Urban Green?

NC: There are two major points I’m making with the book. The first is that sustainable design is booming, but the men and women dedicated to reducing their carbon impact have lost sight of what they are trying to save, which is to say, the natural world.

I try to present a revolutionary vision for bringing the power of the conservation and design movements together. I feel that because technology is so often the solution for sustainability a huge opportunity is being overlooked – namely, ecology.  Three fundamental principles govern technology: 1) it is always expensive 2) it will always continually break and need to be replaced with a new technology and 3) it never looks beyond 20 or 30 years down the road.  I advocate looking to nature for the missing components of the green revolution: oysters that can clean water at up to 5 liters an hour; beavers that reshape their environments while simultaneously enriching ecosystems; and mountains that offer a new way of imagining how a city could be built.

The second point I make in the book is to look at where green building is today, where it will most likely be tomorrow and, then describe where it should be 100 years from now. By presenting this path and then laying out a vision for the future, my hope is that readers can decide for themselves whether we’re really heading in the right direction. I think the future can be a very cool place to live but it would look very different from today.

GG: What’s your definition of sustainability?

NC: In the book I define sustainability as two things instead of one: technological sustainability and ecological sustainability.  Tech-sustainability is concerned with using technologies as the method of improving society – it is the older version of sustainability.  For thousands of years, people have looked to man-made things to try improving living conditions, to clean up pollution and resolve limits of resources.  Eco-sustainability comes from a different direction.  Its primary focus isn’t the human world – it asks, how can we improve the ecological health of a place for all species.  Things like watershed protection, habitat restoration and species reintroduction are a bigger concern than, say, electricity production or weatherized windows.  What I found as I researched the topic was that ecological solutions, such as estuarine restoration allows flora to grow back sequester carbon better than any technology currently on the market and also offer a myriad of additional benefits.  The same is true for old growth forests and prairie lands. These are the exact areas that are the most endangered due to modern society.

Ecological sustainability is a much newer approach to creating solutions.  We never, as a society, understood what ecosystems were until the last few decades – so employing them as answers to our biggest problems was impossible.  Our understanding of evolution and how it has defined and shaped life is only about 150 years old.  The cutting edge innovations have yet to begin because we still think of sustainability as mainly one of its parts: technological sustainability.

Of course, both technological sustainability and ecological sustainability make up sustainability…and in the green building world, these two areas are still greatly disconnected.  In Urban Green, I try to show how they could be married to form a greater meaning for sustainability….even a new meaning.  For now, I think sustainability is primary defined as a collection of professions and industries working to reduce the human impact on the planet and confront the limits of natural resources.  Hopefully in the future, sustainability will be about creating a society with a positive impact on life on this planet.

GG: What do you see as the biggest challenge for designers who want to embrace sustainable design?

NC: The challenges today are very often the same challenges of yesterday.  The myth that green is more expensive is so engrained in our society.  Clients still bring it up all the time.  But the truth is that the days of when going green was more expensive are over.  Often, green building projects have tons of green features just waiting to be incorporated…it just takes knowing how to spot them and then implementing them.  At some point the entire process of designing and constructing building will need to change.  When it does, we’ll be able to build greener buildings at a fraction of the cost of today.

A huge challenge is within infrastructure.  We still deal with water the same way the Romans did.  We like to take huge amounts of it from one place, put it in pipes & aqueducts and send it to another place to be used.  We’ve been doing that for 2,000 years.  Electric grids and energy infrastructure are based on the same principles.  We will never be sustainable until we un-think our way out of infrastructure.

Other challenges for designers include going beyond the low hanging fruit of green.  Green design has to be more technical at some point, and designers have to be willing to dig deeper into the science of buildings, energy, infrastructure, ecology and conservation biology to really make the world greener.  But designers are not trained to practice like that – and the profession is not geared to encourage that.  Right now, cost and speed dominate the industry.  It can be overwhelming when you are trying to grow a business or just get a job.  Who has time to try to do it differently?  Finding the time, energy and team to make green great is a big big challenge.

GG: How do you stay motivated and inspired to push for green change?

NC: I love this stuff.  It’s hard to imagine doing anything else.  There’s nothing I love more than crawling into the details of a project and helping owners and teams see just how incredible green design can be.  I’ve recently started to focus more on healthcare projects because I feel there is such a need for better hospitals.  For example, if all of the hospitals in the US reduced their energy consumption by 20%, the healthcare system would save over a billion dollars a year.  Imagine designing healthcare facilities that were 40 or 50% more effective – meaning that they embraces patient and manage to heal both people and the planet.  The opportunity to do that keeps me motivated.

I also stay motivated by finding new ways to innovate and work with some of the best designers, clients, architects, scientists, institutions and engineers in the world.  Design is a collaborative profession and it takes serious team work.  I love to bring my skills to a team and having them challenge me.  It is the best way to grow.

I’m finding ways to bring ecology and technology together in real-world projects.  Over the last few years, I’ve come to figure out how to design projects for the same cost as conventional projects by developing a 5-step approach.  Now that I have that figured out, I want to explore how to do much more complicated things with buildings and other types of projects such as software and building management systems.

GG: When will then be now? Or to put it another way, at what point do you think we will have made significant progress toward creating a more sustainable economic paradigm? How will we know when we’ve arrived?

NC: That’s a great question. The change is happening.  Some green features have been implemented throughout the building industry without anyone even noticing.  For example, most houses built today use 20 to 30 percent less energy than homes half their size used in the 1940s and 50s.  In terms of economic paradigm shifts, that’s a heavy lift.  We greatly undervalue ecological services in our society one reason being that ecological solutions do not produce gadgets and gizmos that companies can sell.  For example, if you restored old growth forests around Boston or the everglades around Miami, you could get billions of gallons of fresh water for free.  After the natural landscape is restored, the only expense is to have a few rangers to protect the area.

Our economy doesn’t know how to make a profit from that kind of green design. Instead, we think about it from the perspective of cleantech where, for example, you develop a better filter to clean the water and then you update or upgrade last year’s filter and the filters have to be replaced over and over and over again. That’s good for business, and in some ways it’s good for people. However, when cleantech has innovated to the point that it is ecological – that will be “when then is now.”  We’ll know it has arrived because the oceans will be full of fish again, we will have zero carbon impact on the climate, the great migration of species will cover the skies and land and we will experience the greatest standard of living ever known.  We’ll know it when we arrive.

GG: What role do you see GoodGuide playing in a more sustainable future?

NC: GoodGuide is so important.  People need to know what they are buying and if these things are good for them or not.  I love the simplicity of how products are scored – not everyone wants to know all of science behind products ,but they do want to know whether it is a healthy choice.  People need organizations that are reliable and credible – that’s what I see GoodGuide being.  I love how GoodGuide is committed to improving its standard of verification.

About Josh Dorfman

Josh Dorfman is GoodGuide's VP of Marketing. An environmental entrepreneur, author, and television and radio host, Josh is best known as "The Lazy Environmentalist," the media brand he created as a blog, book series, SiriusXM radio show and award-winning television series on Sundance Channel. In 2011, he was inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame.
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