LEED Fellow Spotlight: Sarah Talkington

The manager of Austin Energy Green Building’s commercial team leads the way to provide clean, affordable energy in her city

Winter 2020 | Written by Catherine Shane

The true “ah-ha” moment for Sarah Talkington came in 2007, after working with the building team on the construction of Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas, the first hospital in the world to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification.

At the time, she was working in the field of acoustics (noise and vibration control in buildings), so while serving as the acoustician on the 475,000-square-foot, 170-bed project—which is located in the Mueller Community, the city’s leading model of sustainable community design—she saw firsthand what went into truly setting the standard in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, selection of materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

“I got a really comprehensive glimpse of the city’s best practices for sustainable and compact design,” says the 44-year-old, who earned her bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997. “I knew, at that point, I only ever wanted to work on green buildings. Just participating in that project and watching it all come together—that was it for me.”

Fast-forward 17 years, and Talkington not only continues to work in sustainable building, as manager of Austin Energy Green Building’s commercial team, but she has also earned titles and certifications as a licensed professional engineer, LEED AP (Accredited Professional) BD+C, Certified Energy Manager, TRUE Adviser and WELL AP. The latest title to add to her roster: 2019 LEED Fellow (she was nominated by Liana Kallivoka, the assistant director at the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and a 2014 LEED Fellow herself). So, in addition to her experience working on Dell Children’s Medical Center, what helped earn Talkington this latest and greatest title?

At the nonprofit Austin Energy, Sarah Talkington works with her team to deliver power to almost
1 million people in Austin, as well as most of Travis and Williamson counties.

For starters, she lives in Austin, which is regarded as one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the country. Austin has taken actions ranging from creating widespread bike-friendly lanes to dedicating much of its land to parks and open green spaces to leading the charge in developing more sustainable buildings. However, Talkington is actually originally from Vero Beach, Florida. “I was definitely raised with environmentalist notions,” she says. “As a child, I was concerned about where our food comes from, where our trash goes, and manatees and Florida panthers. But when I came to Austin, it was so progressive—and way ahead of its time—in regards to a city-wide effort to meet our climate goals.”

Her volunteer work with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) hasn’t hurt either. In addition to sitting on local community boards in the past, she’s currently vice chair of the Technical Committee—meaning her team acts as a sort of intermediary between the LEED Steering Committee and Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs).

“We’re kind of the middle man,” she explains. “The LEED Steering Committee develops their goals [in maintaining and improving the tool for LEED certifications], then we work with all the TAGs [who provide expertise for location and planning, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality] to align and make sure everything works together.”

She also previously owned a zero-waste pizzeria in Austin that she opened in 2009 with her husband, Scott, a chef. It was based in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken building rehabilitated by her cousin, Roy Miles, Jr., a contractor in natural building. “It was quite the study in making sure you understand what you’re buying and making sure that everyone on staff knows how to not just recycle and compost—but not waste anything,” she says. (As of October 2018, all Austin restaurants are required to compost food scraps, as part of a citywide universal recycling ordinance.)

Top: The Browning hangar in the Mueller Community is the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Photo: Thomas McConnell.  Above, left: Dell Children’s Hospital, a part of the Mueller Community, was the first hospital in the world to achieve LEED Platinum. Photo: Thomas McConnell.  Above, right: B. D. Riley’s Irish Pub at Mueller. Photo: Jim Innes Photography.

Perhaps Talkington’s most important role, though, has been the one with Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB), a program she has been with since 2007, and in her role as commercial team manager since 2016. Austin Energy is a public utility company, providing service to nearly 1 million people among Austin and parts of Travis and Williamson counties, which returns its annual dividends to the City of Austin. That means they don’t just keep the lights on. They’re a not-for-profit enterprise that is focused on driving customer value in energy services, leading the way for clean, affordable energy.

Today, in addition to its own unique rating system, which is very much like LEED but tailored to the very progressive building codes and climate of Austin, AEGB offers a slew of consulting services to everyone from individual homeowners to large developers. That includes helping establish performance goals, advice on materials and systems, verification of construction progress, and evaluation of environmental and community impact.

Talkington herself manages the team in project consulting and rating, but also serves as a subject matter expert in sustainable building for the city to help to steer new policies. “I’m the ‘in-between person,’ working to understand what our customers need and how to make that work within the constraints of what works for the utility and the city,” she says.

As for the Austin Energy project she has had her hands in, what is her biggest pride and joy? The aforementioned Mueller Community (of which the Dell Children’s Hospital is a part). The site of a former airport just three miles from downtown Austin, the planning for the 700-acre, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood project began back in the 1980s and is a product of a unique public–private partnership between the City of Austin and the Catellus Development Corporation (REIT).

Its goal: to be a visionary sustainable community aimed at meeting extensive goals in housing and economic development. That means more than 1,175 single-family homes that have achieved an AEGB rating; three LEED Platinum, six LEED Gold and five LEED Silver buildings; a public garden featuring 15 blue metal sculptures that collect solar energy, returning excess solar energy to the grid; hundreds of residential rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles; a savings of 26% on indoor water use in multifamily buildings and a 32% savings in commercial buildings. The list of highlights goes on.

“It’s an urban environmentalist utopia that was way ahead of its time when it began,” says Talkington. “It’s absolutely spectacular. Every day, I’m proud to be a part of it.” That’s not just because it is one of the world’s largest LEED Gold projects under LEED for Neighborhood Development—a certification it was awarded in 2016—but for the fact that it’s inspiring other sustainable neighborhoods and housing developments based on its impact, in Austin and beyond.

“It’s changing the baseline,” Talkington adds. “It’s not just a one-and-done project. Its effects ripple outward beyond itself.”

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