The Path of Sustainability

Meredith Elbaum may be our new Executive Director, but her path through life can be traced to show intersections with USGBC MA. Being a founding board member of USGBC MA, Meredith was one of a small group that tipped over the first domino of our organization’s history. Therefore it only fits that she has come full circle and is now leading the strategic vision of the organization.

When I sat down with Meredith to interview her, I easily saw how her early passion for science and design started forging her path. At a young age, she developed a passion for painting, creating artwork themed with foliage and swooping colors. Despite her love for nature, as Meredith grew older she saw the harsh dichotomy humans use to set themselves apart from nature. Because, while we are inherently irremovable from nature, we act as if we are separate and above it.

It was not separation, but rather the integration of nature and building that brought Meredith into green architecture. At Rice University in Houston, Texas, Meredith was introduced to sustainable design in a class co-taught by Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, and Charles Tapley, a Landscape Architect. During this time Meredith was exposed to well known environmental staples such as Silent Spring, Our Common Future, A Sand County Almanac, and the Biophilia Hypothesis.

This path was further solidified when Meredith attended a Smart Growth Conference in Austin, Texas, where William McDonough gave a talk on the state of green building. In a line that would affect the direction of her career, McDonough stated, “If I were to describe my relationship with my wife as sustainable, well, that is not very good. Right now we are driving in a car talking about slowing it down when it is about go off of a cliff.”

Considering her delving into the intersectionality of architecture and the environment, it is not surprising that Meredith’s final project at Rice University focused on merging this dichotomy. Tasked with designing a community job training center, her team designed a garden. After all, the most sustainable solution in green building is to not build at all and teach people valuable skills while gardening.

Considering the time, it may not have been surprising the Dean did not know what to think of the project. The green building world was still just in its infancy. LEED was not a universal language and the environmental movement sported more tie-dye and Birkenstocks than today. Only a few employees of each firm may have been interested, making the movement fringe to the status quo.

From the Job Site to Education

Meredith then interned at Kirksey Architecture in Houston. While working on the project, Meredith asked an engineer if she could get an estimate on how better glazing would affect the building energy use. He couldn’t provide an answer.  What seemed to be a reasonable question to ask ended up informing her future direction, leading Meredith to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a Masters of Science in Architectural Studies with a focus on design and building technologies. A student once again, Meredith’s thesis, Bridge Green, aggregated sustainability tools and resources and provided a platform for people to access them.  Her hypothesis was that designers wanted to build green, the tools existed and there was a disconnect that needed to be bridged.

It was around this time that Meredith would get involved with The Green Roundtable, the Massachusetts USGBC  Affiliate. The organization would continue to foster the development of the Emerging Green Professionals Committee, which laid the foundation of USGBC MA.

After graduation, Meredith was able to extend her thesis at Sasaki. But instead of building an online tool, as the Director of Sustainable Design, Meredith embodied her thesis, bridging the disconnect between designers and resources for green design. While at Sasaki, Meredith confounded with her garden collaborator at Rice, Nellie Reid formerly of Gensler, and Building Green a network of Sustainable Design Leaders in Architecture and Design Firms.

Ten years later this network has been instrumental in accelerating sustainability in the built environment. Network participants have joined forces to advance important initiatives like the AIA 2030 Commitment, revamping AIA COTE Award requirements and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Meredith later founded the Elbaum Group, which educated and advocated for sustainability in the built environment. While at Sasaki Meredith taught “Thinking Green” at the Boston Architectural College and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Wentworth Institute of Technology.
Meeting the Needs of the Present with the Future in Mind

Once a child herself concerned about the environment, Meredith now keeps an eye on the post-millennial generation, and specifically on her own children. Along with being the Executive Director of USGBC MA, Meredith is a proud mother of two children, 5 and 3 years old. Because of this, the green building movement to her is personal, as true sustainability is not about just about our current needs, but the needs of future generations.

In order to meet both future and current needs, Meredith aims to help our practitioner community revolutionize the built environment so that we can thrive within nature on this planet. Massachusetts has the knowledge base, the need, academics, professionals, building owners, occupants, density – everything it takes to accomplish this.

This goal can be reached through strategically focusing on advocacy and education. Firstly, educating the next generation of green builders and architects is necessary to provide a workforce equipped to further transform the built environment. Secondly, advocacy will be key in moving forward green building legislation. Though not all agree on exactly what needs to be done, consensus can be reached through a focus on the economic viability of legislation. Luckily, much of green building practice does align economically. Meredith believes strongly in the triple bottom line of sustainable.

At the end of the day, our current needs must be met, but the ultimate focus should be on those who will in inherit our planet; our children and grandchildren. And with this in mind, we come full circle again, from Meredith’s efforts in founding USGBC MA, to keeping an eye on future generations, we are eager to see where Meredith’s path leads USGBC MA.

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