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Visionary Built Green Program: Santa Barbara’s Gateway for Green Building. Interview with Executive Director Karin Perissinotto

_MG_0036 Editor: O’Brien & Company has had the privilege of working with the Santa Barbara Contractors Association since 2004 to develop and provide strategic support for your Built Green certification program. Can you share with our readers what you were hoping to accomplish with Built Green? KARIN: Our vision when we began Built Green was to become a “gateway” for environmentally sound design, construction, and development practices in Santa Barbara and nearby communities. We feel strongly that we have achieved this vision. Over 100 projects have been certified in our program to date – mostly remodels, since our primary focus at first was in the City of Santa Barbara, which is pretty built out. With our expansion out into the County, we expect a big spike in certifications for new construction. Most of the 400 homes destroyed by the Montecito Fire are being reconstructed as Built Green.

In addition to getting green buildings on the ground, our program has been a magnet for individuals and organizations active in the green building scene or interested in being so. In addition to attracting more contractors, our membership has become more diverse, with designers, suppliers, and non-profits. We have solar companies, greywater and rainwater system suppliers, energy raters, green material suppliers on board now. As a result, we are a much better resource to the community, as well as to our members. And we’ve doubled our membership, so we are more stable, even in this economic downturn.

What are you especially proud of? Well, I’m proud that as an organization we recognized our role in creating the built environment (for good or bad) and decided to put our money where our mouth is. A few of us heard Ed Mazria speak on Architecture 2030 and we took the message back to our membership. We decided to be leaders in our community, rather than reactors.

One thing that is unique among green building program development is that your association kicked off the effort with a fairly large financial commitment from its own general fund. That’s unique? Well it just seemed like we should do it. Besides getting the connection between what we build and the impact on the environment, we felt we would be the best ones to identify how to do it better. We also understood that regulators were going to get involved. We wanted to be at the table for those discussions.

SBBGLogo How do you think having Built Green has changed those discussions? In a couple of very important ways. First, we’ve been able to offer a voluntary option in the market that is credible. Builders know what can actually be built. Our Built Green Program is recognized and respected by local jurisdictions (our entire checklist is available on the City of Santa Barbara's website) and is actually being used by them to “spur” green building and raise the bar. We’re not very interested in just adhering to minimal green building codes. We want to do better. Second, we’ve been able to change the focus of green building in our area from a “boutique” high-end industry to something that’s deliverable and attainable for all. At the end of the day, if only a wealthy few can afford green building, we really haven’t solved the problem.

You use the word “credible” to describe your program. Critics of industry-based voluntary green building programs may question that. We get that. We are lucky in that we have a very dedicated and innovative leadership AND we have our eyes and ears open to possible green-washing. Builders tend (and need) to do what works, what's sellable, but green building practices and materials are evolving. What I thought was green five years ago isn’t really green today. We need a critical eye to determine if we are still delivering what people need. One of the ways we maintain that critical eye is by having a commitment to listening and learning from a broad base of people, both the green building skeptics and the environmentalists. Our Advisory Council helps us keep on track. We also work alongside organizations that we’ve noticed in other areas tend to compete with programs like ours. For example, we have a very close relationship with the California Central Coast Chapter (C4) of the U.S. Green Building Council Chapter. We're actually  invited to testify at the City's Council meetings on all things green building. This is a good thing.

_MG_5723 Last year you were able to create your own Built Green Resource Center by remodeling a historic building. How did you manage that? It was a bit of magic, mixed with old-fashioned sweat. We were looking at having our own office, and fell into this opportunity to work with the Santa Barbara Trust for Preservation to remodel a building owned by the California State Park System (in the Santa Barbara Presidio). It was in pretty poor condition, and now it really is a “jewel” with green features. We were able to get permission to put solar on the roof – no small feat in Santa Barbara. Besides creating a legacy in the community, this project proves that green building isn’t just about brand new, modern buildings.

So surely the Resource Center is a big part of achieving your vision? Yes, the building is our gateway, serving as center of education, inspiration, and action. The building’s product exhibits and green features, along with the green building classes we’ve held there, contribute exponentially to the community’s awareness as well as to our industry’s knowledge base. We’ve hosted over 100 classes this past year; along with basic business-management programs, we’ve run classes on weatherization, the building envelope, greywater systems and the like. Students from local schools visit the Center and conduct learning projects. This past year we had a high school class crunching data for us on energy and water usage, and a middle school comparing CFLs vs. Incandescent energy consumption. It’s pretty exciting. One thing we’ve noticed too, with the downturn, is that having centralized resources and information helps businesses on a shoe-string. They don’t necessarily have the resources to do the research on green building materials themselves. So they can come and touch and sniff.

Meanwhile, green building organizations, such as C4 and the Architecture 2030 Committee use our classroom for meetings. This is very different. From being a contractor-centric organization, we have turned outward to become a community resource.

What's next on the agenda? We’d like to ramp up our educational program even further. We met with our Advisory Council this past July and one of things we identified in that meeting was the opportunity to do hands-on training and training in specific green building skills. We also looked at developing green job opportunities, so perhaps connecting skills-based training of un- or under-employed individuals to job placement with members.

Anything else? We also want to continue our work to raise the bar for green building standards, by working with our jurisdictions to avoid focusing on code minimums and keep the focus on incentivizing more rigorous practice. To do this we’re going to have to provide some cost-benefit numbers, so we’re looking at that, as well as providing exemplary examples. We proved that Built Green works on an historic remodel. We’d like to look at other applications – perhaps affordable housing.

What would you say to other groups hoping to do similar work? Get the right _MG_4459 people in the room, not just the choir. You need to hear from all angles to be an effective community resource. Also, hire professionals that don’t just tell you what you already know or what they think you want to hear. A good consultant should provide a critical eye, sees both sides, and is not afraid to say how it is. Like you (laughing). (Editor's Note: Thanks!) The other thing is to actually take the time to celebrate your successes. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when you’ve done something monumental, because you get caught up in getting it done. If you're like us, we're "doers." But we learned we had to get better at telling our story.

Karin Perissinotto is the Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Contractor's Association (SBCA), and the President of the Board of Directors for Built Green Santa Barbara, a 501(c)3 founded in 2004 by the SBCA. This interview was conducted by Kathleen O'Brien, Editor of the Building Capacity Blog and President and Founder of O'Brien & Company. Santa Barbara is one of over a dozen Built Green programs the firm has helped develop or provided assistance to.

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