Q&A with Helen Kessler

Illustration by Melissa McGill

Helen is addicted to continuous learning, has been a leader of green building projects for over 30 years, and currently runs a sustainability consulting practice that focuses on green building, LEED, and energy efficiency. She is a past USGBC Illinois Chapter Board member and has received numerous awards, including the chapter’s prestigious “Intent to Matter” and Chapter Leader awards.

Q.How and why did you get into green building and LEED?
My final project in architecture school in the mid 1970s was a solar house and my first job after graduation included doing research on passive solar heating and cooling systems and designing passive homes. In 1991, I became deeply involved with the nascent American Institute of Architects Chicago Committee on the Environment. At the time, I was consulting on energy efficiency and lighting design projects. As a committee, we actively debated green building and, more than anything, we wanted to work on a green building project. Eventually we had the opportunity to work on the first municipal LEED Platinum project in the country.

Q.What is the coolest project you’ve worked on recently?
One of my favorite projects was the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy. This is one of four prototype Chicago public high schools. The other three achieved LEED Gold; Goode achieved LEED Platinum at lower first cost than all of the other buildings! The big difference—it used a different heating and cooling system—ground source heat pumps —which allowed duct sizes to shrink dramatically, allowing the building height to also shrink. By eliminating the giant ducts, the overall mechanical system, including the geo-exchange wells, actually cost less than the baseline.

Q.How would you define the intersection of adaptive reuse and LEED?
I’ve worked on many adaptive reuse and historic renovation projects where we could get LEED points for keeping much of the original building (walls, structure, floors, etc.). Adaptive reuse projects are usually located in established (often dense) neighborhoods with transit, giving them an automatic edge with respect to LEED points. In addition, we often need to upgrade the building envelope insulation and the windows. This, together with the fact that LEED provides 2 extra points for energy savings, can result in a major energy savings boost (i.e. more LEED points!).

Q.Where do you turn for inspiration?
I’m inspired by people—what they do with their lives. I recently went to Ghana with The Hunger Project and visited incredibly poor villages where people, especially women, had been empowered to turn their lives around. They were no longer wondering where the next meal would come from but whether they could get a big enough micro-loan to start a new business.

Q.Misconceptions overcome, innovations, new paradigms?
I’m really glad you asked about new paradigms. I would love to see a paradigm shift in the way we think about our economic system. Most people involved with sustainability have heard of the triple bottom line. Sustainability occurs at the junction between people, planet, and profit (or society, environment, and economics). I prefer to modify this and think of the environment (nature, eco-systems) as the context for everything. Within that context are the social systems that we have created and within that context are the economic systems. If we began to think of nature, rather than the economic system as the driver of decision-making, wouldn’t we be making different decisions?

Q.What’s next for green building?
My dream is that we will all be embracing a regenerative design process. This isn’t about regenerative buildings, which actually cannot exist, but about a new way of thinking, a new mindset, a new process for designing projects. It will include more stakeholders in the design process and will embrace more than single buildings even if the initial focus is on a single building. It will seek to spark the imagination of communities, likely in ways not yet considered. It will require owners and other design team members to think outside the box, to think of their projects in the context of the larger systems surrounding them, including the community and the region. It will be inspirational and communities will continue to regenerate beyond the design/ construction of individual projects. It will embrace nature as the context for social and economic systems.