Inland Empire Gives Back

By Jeff Harder

A Californian USGBC chapter brings green principles to its residents.


The Inland Empire begins some 40 gridlocked miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a bedroom community comprising Riverside and San Bernardino counties, a place famous for reasonable housing prices and exhausting commutes. It’s also a proving ground for a crucial question: Beyond extolling the virtues of energy audits and sealing building envelopes to architects, builders, and contractors, how can the sustainability movement convince ordinary homeowners and community members why going green matters?

The answer looks a lot like the Sustainable and Healthy Communities

Through community workshops, residents gain job experience and sustainability training.

Initiative, now in its third year under the auspices of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Inland Empire (IE) Chapter. It’s a plan aimed at exposing the benefits of energy efficiency and environmental consciousness using a simple principle: Show—don’t just tell. By partnering with other organizations, the initiative has upgraded more than a dozen homes in the area, given unemployed volunteers skills and experience to build new careers, and brought sustainability education to schools and other local institutions.

“I think our members were thirsting for an opportunity to get out and apply those principles of sustainability in a real way that would help our community,” says Rick Fochtman, chair of the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Committee that oversees the program. “This is the perfect venue to do that: We’re furthering the message, but we’re doing it in a way that’s really helped people out and has made an impact.”


Erica Farr and Rick Fochtman chair of the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Committee.

Michael Peel, the committee’s past chair, started the initiative in 2011 as an outgrowth of his day job at a nonprofit that centered on bringing jobs, healthcare, education, and other services to underserved communities in the Inland Empire. “Mike had strong ties to the different organizations that were working with him, and as a project for our chapter, we started to figure out ways we could bring the green message to that community,” Fochtman says. The overarching goals of the initiative involved spreading a series of green development zones throughout the Inland Empire—areas that concentrated investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other practices.

The following year, when USGBC-IE teamed up with the city of Rancho Cucamonga—which had instituted its own program linking environmental consciousness with healthy, active living—the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Initiative took off. In particular, the initiative geared its efforts toward a Hispanic audience—a large demographic in the Inland Empire, and one often overlooked when it comes to spreading the message of sustainability. “It’s extremely difficult to find anything having to do with sustainability conveyed in Spanish,” Fochtman says. After partnering with a civic group in the city’s Northtown neighborhood, they began hosting presentations and seminars on basic energy efficiency practices for homeowners.

“But rather than just talking to people and putting on another class, we wanted to actually demonstrate [how to do these things], and that’s how our program got some great attention,” Fochtman says.

Thirteen homeowners volunteered their homes for no-cost energy audits and energy-saving upgrades. Using grants from USGBC, the Southern California Gas Company, and Home Depot, a coalition of community members and contractors ferreted out inefficiencies with rented heat guns and blower doors, then made an average of $2,000 worth of improvements to each home to reduce their monthly energy bills. “More importantly, we taught the homeowners and their neighbors what the process was and why it was important,” Fochtman says.

At the same time, these projects boosted the résumés of roughly 50 out-of-work volunteers in a region with unemployment rates higher than the state average. The Inland Empire Chapter helped organize classes on sustainability, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, and technical training, and the workers put their education into practice doing modest tweaks to insulation and air tightness, like adding weather stripping and insulation. “We provided them basic training in the principles of sustainability, and then through these workshops and employing energy efficiency measures on houses, we gave them job experience,” Fochtman says. On one project, USGBC-IE partnered with GRID Alternatives to outfit a home with solar panels. The program has produced a few notable success stories—one alumnus from Northtown who completed the training program even started his own home energy auditing company.


Elementary students learn about making sustainable choices at home such as recycling plastic.

More recently, the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Initiative has spread to community institutions elsewhere in the Inland Empire. Fochtman himself has led four presentations on energy efficiency, waste management, and other topics at different churches. “We’ll start with a general interest topic, like sustainability or global warming, and from there we follow up with more practical, applied seminars, like how to change out fixtures in your home to improve water efficiency,” he says. “The idea is to intrigue them with concepts, then come back with concrete ways that they can make improvements in their own lives.”

Underscoring the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Initiative is a simple, crucial truth: Outreach only
resonates when it speaks to the demands of the residents. “It’s a matter of really getting in, finding out what the group wants, and being adaptable,” Fochtman says. “Some people don’t want to talk about global warming—well, then we don’t need to. We can talk about other things.”

Fochtman talked about other things in spring 2013, during an assembly in front of his children’s elementary school. In response, he received a book full of handwritten thank-you notes. One message read: “Thank you green speakers for coming to our school. I promise I will save electricity.” Later on, at his kids’ soccer game, children ran up to Fochtman and boasted about the lessons they took home to their parents. “It was really fun hearing how they asked their mom to put out a new trashcan for the recyclables,” he says.

Saving electricity and recycling are simple gestures, but the assembly clearly made an impression on the pint-sized audience. It was exactly what this crowd needed to hear—and it embodies what the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Initiative does to make a lasting impact.