Q&A with Dagmar Epsten

Illustration by Melissa McGill

Dagmar B. Epsten is the founder and owner of Epsten Group. In its 25-year history, Epsten Group has grown to a 55-person multidisciplinary architecture and building consulting firm with an international reach and a broad range of services including sustainable design, energy optimization, building commissioning, and LEED consultant services. Epsten is a founding member of the USGBC Atlanta chapter and served on the Board of Directors for Green Chamber of the South.

Q.How have you seen innovation evolve since the company’s beginnings in 1991?
I have seen sustainability and LEED evolve into a key driver of innovation. In the early 1990s, manufacturers were working on carpet recycling, and now sustainability has created defining criteria for how to organize business models, supply chains, and the design, construction, and operation of buildings. The attention given to life-cycle analysis and data from measuring and projecting a building’s impact on the environment has heightened the urgency of innovation. The innovation that comes from the desire to create sustainable environments is a tangible objective, connected with everyone’s personal experience as well as health and well-being, so it is both a personal and a global concern.

Q.Why did you choose Atlanta to build your corporate headquarters?
I landed in Atlanta as an international student on a scholarship to Georgia Tech, which is a very forward-thinking university with many global connections. When I started my work life, I realized that the southern United States is a region of great economic growth, with the U.S. population moving south and to big cities. Atlanta also has made it easy for me to maintain my connection to Germany and to travel extensively around the world. Atlanta and Georgia have been able to attract a lot of German business—for instance the Porsche Car North America headquarters that we have worked on. I have given presentations to German manufacturers who are considering stronger ties with the United States and like the climate and business conditions in Georgia. Atlanta is also a place where I can live two miles from downtown on a fourth of an acre with a backyard food garden, in a walkable community of historic bungalows. It was a natural decision for me to look for an area near my home and downtown to renovate two buildings—to LEED Platinum standards, of course—on a historic urban main street, now with a new streetcar and undergoing more revitalization.

Q.What has been one of your most innovative projects?
I enjoy it when our projects are as much about community as they are about sustainability. We recently worked on a pavilion celebrating urban farming that was designed by students in a competition. Epsten Group was selected to develop the competition results into a buildable project for the City of Atlanta. We have incorporated many innovative features like a cistern, container farming, aquaponics and aquaculture, and have been exploring photovoltaics and natural bioretention areas. It is a very forward-looking pavilion and urban farm demonstration area.

Q.Where do you see the future of sustainable building?
People really like to talk about innovation, and I would add that we need economic investment in communities. Many of us have for years looked at the triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—and I think we need to add “purpose,” and look at a quadruple bottom line. If we take care of the first three Ps and align them well, we can strengthen our communities and the individuals within them. A community that is supported by these three Ps will excel in “purpose” and will be able to innovate, and with this, a community will attract investment. I see that building sustainably will be one of the mainstream foundations not only for innovation but also for economic growth, in all the communities that subscribe to these four Ps and the quadruple bottom line.