Policy at Play
Policy at Play
David Matiella is a champion of sustainability in the Lone Star State.
By Mary Grauerholz
The ribbon of highway from Dallas to Austin, Texas, is not a journey to be taken lightly. Interstate 35 South is a straight shot of asphalt, surrounded by vast open plains and wide sky, a monotone setting that can seem endless. Yet David Matiella, who plays a critical role in linking the state’s green initiatives to the Texas State Legislature, regularly draws volunteers from Dallas, Houston, and lesser-known outposts, to the state capital to advocate for sustainability policies.
Hon. Rep. Mark Strama, USGBC Texas Advocacy Committee Chair David Matiella, and USGBC Texas Advocate Larry Graf.
Matiella is an associate dean of academic affairs and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Architecture, Construction, and Planning. As the organizer and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Texas Chapter’s Advocacy Committee, Matiella is a prime mover and shaker for Texas green initiatives, deftly steering politicians and residents toward a more sustainable future.
“We focus on public policy and green building policy at the state level,” Matiella says. In a place like Texas, this is no easy feat. As he says: “Texas is diverse and large, a state where certain attitudes can be difficult to overcome, especially in policy.”
Matiella, a native Oklahoman, melds precise policy work with passionate beliefs about the environmental balance our world hangs in, embracing a career that includes teaching, university administration, policy work, and volunteerism—particularly with the USGBC Texas Chapter.
“I spend a lot of time listening to the [Texas Statewide] Advocacy Committee,” Matiella says. “It’s a lot of teamwork, communication, knowing who your allies are, and how to share information,” he says of the group, which was established in 2011. “I credit the great leadership I work with and the great partnerships.” In partnership with USGBC’s national office, David and the Chapter led this year’s biennial Advocacy Day at the state capitol, where USGBC volunteers attend legislative sessions in Austin in support of policies that support and advance green building. “We are an effective committee because of our volunteers,” Matiella says.
Strong leadership, especially in the political arena, is critical. “We’re nonpartisan,” Matiella says. Still, it is significant that the Texas Advocacy Committee has a Republican, State Rep. J.M. Lozano, heading the Green Schools Caucus. Last winter, chairman Lozano read House Resolution 2090 on the House floor, which made green schools a priority in Texas; standing behind him were committee members from USGBC Texas Chapter Mike Dieterich, Janah St. Luce, Sangeetha Karthik, Mike Myers, Caroline Kostak, and Kenneth Flippin. “That’s no small thing,” Matiella says.
Another notable achievement, House Resolution 1676, filed by Rep. Mark Strama on Earth Day in 2013, recognized USGBC for the organization’s work in Texas.
Building green schools is a major driving force behind much of Matiella’s work. When he and his fellow volunteers approach Texas businesses, they may focus on the benefits of green building in the realm of the environment, economy, or both. “If the office isn’t ready to talk environmental aspects, perhaps they’ll talk about economic aspects,” he says. “Understanding people’s priorities–that’s how we talk. Instead of ‘what’s my agenda,’ ‘I do have an agenda, but I want to hear your agenda, too.’ It’s a bedrock for commonality and progress.”
Matiella’s work at the University of Texas at San Antonio is interwoven with the same spirit. His classes at the College of Architecture include design courses, with students in a laboratory design setting, and Introduction to the Built Environment, among others. He also teaches Sustainable Development in the College of Science, which covers the complicated systems that support a building, as he notes, “those aspects that people don’t see.”
He recently received a new appointment as the university’s associate dean of academic affairs. “It allows me to oversee academic affairs, students, and recruiting,” he says. The connection to youth, who have the world waiting for them, is key for Matiella. “Working with young people fuels me, drives my passion,” he says. “This generation wants to know about sustainability. I try to do more listening.” The time to act is now, he says. “The sense of backsliding in the environment is very real. The urgency should be felt by everyone now.”
Jeremy Sigmon, USGBC’s director of technical policy and state and local advocacy, sees a precise intersection of the facets of Matiella’s work in academics, policy making, and volunteerism. “Seeing David engage with elected officials, it’s clear his experience as a teacher has contributed to the Advocacy Committee’s numerous wins,” Sigmon says. “He understands the importance of learning the concerns and priorities of lawmakers first, then finding areas of commonality and ways to collaborate that advance green building policies.”
Matiella first developed a fascination with buildings, culture, and community after high school, when, not knowing where he wanted to plant his feet, he bought a train pass in Europe and began exploring Berlin. “I couldn’t get the trip out of me,” he recalls. So he followed that trip with other more extensive travels around Europe. “That’s when I really discovered the built environment,” he says.
In 2003, he was working in a small architectural design office and attending architecture school. “I had been aware of USGBC,” he says. “I knew the benefits of green building, construction, and what Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was.” Then his direct supervisor asked Matiella to attend a USGBC Advocacy Committee meeting in San Antonio. That’s when things clicked into place.
“They were talking about policy, and I thought, policy is such an important way we can make an impact on society.” The idea of a “three-legged stool”—environment, economy, and society— left a lasting imprint. “I thought, architecture, green building, the priorities we express, how they come to fruition, and policy—the rules that need to be followed—that’s one way to really effect change.”
Another way, of course, is educating youth. Matiella sees pure potential. “They care about the environment; they see a complex world; they want to change it. They know they can. There’s a lot of momentum and hope for the future, and it centers on young people.” But they can’t do it on their own. “They’re looking for inspiration and opportunity,” he adds. “As educators, we show them those avenues; oftentimes, they create their own opportunities.”