Green design guru Neil Chambers is at the fore of a new movement that might at first sound a bit unlikely—to make urban centers like New York City “green,” or environmentally sustainable. As the (volunteer) Executive Director of Green Ground Zero (a non-profit coalition of architects, designers and engineers nurturing green design and sustainability in the downtown Manhattan re-building process and promoting the same internationally), Neil has tapped into a movement that seems to be gaining unprecedented momentum. As principal of Chambers Design, he has consulted with the governments of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, among others; he is also an adjunct professor in green design and environmental policy at NYU’s Gallatin School; and he is the creator and host of Built Green TV. In his spare time (he claims to have some), he volunteers for political campaigns.
The day we meet I am late. He accepts my apologies with characteristic good nature. If I hadn’t seen his resume, I may have misinterpreted Neil’s outwardly mellow demeanor—and thick but pleasant Southern drawl—as the signs of a laid-back, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. But not for long. As soon as mention is made of any one of his interlacing passions—design, the environment, politics—his enthusiasm becomes palpable. And his vision is contagious.
— Rachel Postman for Guernica
Guernica: Tell me what business a green design guru like yourself has in New York City of all places. Is New York getting greener?
Neil Chambers: Well, you know, I read a book called Gaviotes which is about a community in Colombia and the people who came to this wasteland, called the llanos. And the llanos was this barren land, and this guy had an idea to build a sustainable community there, and asked people to come. Over a decade of work they built all this stuff; and it’s all sustainable and they worked with the tribal people—
Four billion dollars’ worth of green building is going to happen in New York City in the next five years.
Guernica: Who was it who came?
Neil Chambers: They were Colombians, and other South Americans. I was really inspired by that so I got in touch with the author. I wanted to go there, to Gaviotes. But they were like, “Well you’re a gringo so you shouldn’t go.” (laughs) That was what they said to me because in Colombia there were people getting snatched up and stuff. So I thought, what would be the equivalent of the llanos in the United States? and I thought that was New York.
Guernica: Oh? Do you see New York as a wasteland?
Neil Chambers: Well, when I say ‘wasteland,’ the llanos is like this grass-growing space. But the soil is very wet, so there’s not a lot of things that can grow there because of the climate and the conditions. But actually what happened, what they talked about in the book, was how when they started working with the actual soil, trees started to grow. So in the soil was all this stuff that was just waiting for the right situation to grow. At the time I just thought New York was just an urban, you know, ‘concrete jungle’ kind of thing. I had no idea what was actually here, and this was an outsider perspective. Quite honestly, I got here, and not a lot of stuff was happening in green. Green was not being talked about. Environmental issues were still kind of in the activist world, it was more your 70’s approach to environmental issues
Guernica: And that carries a certain connotation with it that makes a lot of people avoid it?
Neil Chambers: Yup. Made me avoid it. When I was in college, I’d come to a place where I had just gotten into environmental issues because I had been a Zen Buddhist, and I read this book called Living Buddha, Living Christ. I realized that being a Zen Buddhist was not me being who I really was. The book talked about heritage—‘When you sit, pray to your ancestors, let them help you guide your feelings’—so I started doing that. I have a Native American background, and I really felt connected to that, and to the natural environment, and kinda let that start taking me.
Guernica: Was this during architecture school?
Neil Chambers: This was in architecture school, yeah. And I remember at one point I read this article in Harpers about how the national forest service and the timber companies were kind of in cahoots, letting them clear cut.
I remember one night as I walked into my apartment, and grabbed the doorknob, I realized it was metal—it was a moment of real clarity—and the metal had to be mined, and the mining destroys the land; and that runoff kills other animals; and you know the door was made out of wood, and that comes from the forest; and I opened the door and there’s the carpet made out of petroleum… and then there was wood paneling on the walls; and then the TV, and the mercury in the TV, and the power it takes; and when I opened the refrigerator, and the artificial cold air hit me, that made me think of the ozone layer; and I just crumbled—I literally fell down on the ground. I didn’t know what to do.
I realized I had to make a choice: was I going to look for solutions, or was I going to look at problems? And I decided to look for solutions.
Guernica: And so you actually did come to New York with a very specific intent?
Neil Chambers: [Nods] I wanted to do green design. And, at the time, I didn’t know what that was called—‘environmentally sound design,’ that was as close as I could get it.
I got to New York with 500 dollars, I didn’t have a place to live yet; I didn’t have a job. I knew one person who lived in Bed Stuy. I had a car full of my stuff, stayed with him for like 3 weeks, found an apartment, found a job and just literally started from the ground up.
I didn’t know what I could do in the environmental world to cause change; all I knew is I was willing to try and find what that was. And so I came to New York; I got a job at some architecture place—they didn’t care about green, but it started giving me architectural background experience; and then that led me to Jacobs Engineering, where I started doing really good, real green design.
We did the Stillwell Avenue [subway] terminal out on Coney Island—70,000 square feet of building-integrated photo-optic panels—it’s the only kind like that in the world, of that size, integrated into a transit system. We did train stations out on Long Island. We did this huge land plan for Yonkers where we created vernal pools that were a way to reestablish the endangered spotted salamander. We did a study for wind power in the East River: how many wind turbines you could put in there, how much energy that would create.
Guernica: So, this company, they were actively trying to study these things?
Neil Chambers: Oh, no, this was all from the inside…we got a lot of pushback, actually. We were the lead architects for the Stillwell Avenue terminal, and Jacobs never capitalized on that. If you ever see anything about Stillwell Avenue the architect is always Kiss and Cathcart, who just did the roof. They were a subcontractor of ours. And Jacobs just never saw the value of that.
Guernica: Even from a PR standpoint?
Neil Chambers: Even from a PR standpoint, which is, like, insane.
Guernica: Do you think they’ve changed since then?
Neil Chambers: Nooo! There’s an old mentality and a new mentality. And anyone who ignores this new mentality will pay the price. It was already starting to become evident that their old way of doing stuff wasn’t working in New York.
Guernica: So New York is ahead of a lot of other cities?
Neil Chambers: In some ways we’re behind. But in a lot of ways we’re ahead. I mean, the activity going on in the city, in this area of the country, is so much more than so many other areas. But it’s funny: In almost every sector, in every industry and every part of society, there’s this struggle between the old and the new. We saw it play out in the 2004 elections; it’s the same thing here. I mean, New York isn’t yet grasping the reality of what they could do. I think that New York City will become one of, if not the, greenest cities in the world. I mean, four billion dollars’ worth of green building is going to happen in New York City in the next five years. Four billion dollars. Five years ago? [Shakes head]
Guernica: And is this a private industry motivated, cost-related thing or is it more ideologically motivated?
Neil Chambers: The government—I don’t want to talk about politics too much—
Guernica: No, please, go ahead!
Neil Chambers: It’s so interlaced. Governor Pataki created the Green Building Tax Credit, the first of its kind in the United States. He put 25 million dollars towards giving major construction tax credits to go green. He was the first. Seven major buildings have gone up and been funded by that from last year, and there’s 25 million more dollars this year. You know, it’s only going to keep expanding. We have the Bank of America building going up. It is the greenest—it will be the greenest building, the greenest skyscraper—ever built. And the Hearst building that just went up: it’s green.
Guernica: So how do you define a green building? Can you sort of summarize the criteria a little bit?
Neil Chambers: After 1992, the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, all the countries that came to that were charged with trying to quantify what it meant to be environmental. So out of that, USGBC, which was started about ten years ago, developed a system called LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. And they have five or six categories—water management, site selection, materials, energy, resources, that kind of thing—and in those different categories you can receive points for doing different things that are green, that they’re considering green. Some of those are really well-established, like in site selection you have to be outside of the 100-year flood-line, which a lot of municipal building guidelines say you have to do anyway. So there are those kind of established ones, and then there are new ones. Like, if you get 100% or 50% of green power coming into your building; so, instead of purchasing from your typical provider, you say, ‘I’m going to buy wind power,’ and so you get points.
Guernica: Is building green typically more expensive?
Neil Chambers: Well, it depends. I can build you a building with certain points and give you a silver to gold rating for nearly the same cost. Some technologies are going to be more expensive because, well, you’re buying it up front. Solar panels are more expensive as a building material because it’s like a really high quality building material. But at Stillwell Avenue we integrated the panel into the building, so there is no roof and then the panel is the roof. That does cut down on the overall cost because you’re making it into the roof. And with alternative power, you buy it all up front.
Guernica: That’s the only way you can buy alternative power right now?
Neil Chambers: That’s right. Well, Con Edison in New York has Con Edison Solutions, where you can buy green power now. And I have that, where you just go online and use your—
Guernica: In your apartment, you have that?
Neil Chambers: Yeah, I got it. I’m powered by alternative power, you know what I mean? [laughs] My lights are being run by wind and hydro-electric energy. So there are new solutions, there are new ways of doing it. There are all the little things you can do. In terms of, is it more expensive? Some things are more expensive, other things are the same cost. Interior fit-outs shouldn’t cost more. You can do everything green and it’s the same price.
Guernica: Why wouldn’t people do this?
Neil Chambers: People see green as being like Birkenstocks and tie-dyes. But, at the same time, so much has happened in the last two or three years, like in fashion: it’s becoming trendy to be green. And oil prices have brought people’s awareness to the growth of alternative power. Wind power in the United States—production has increased by 37% every year for the last five years. That’s way before the increase in oil prices.
Guernica: Well, it was before the increase in prices; but this [large increase in wind power production] actually has been post-9/11, which was when people maybe started thinking more about it.
Neil Chambers: That’s true, that’s true.
I see a future where we can explore the universe and at the same time we can be completely connected and enrich and encourage biodiversity on this planet.
Guernica: But I don’t know if there’s a direct connection. I’m always leery of this idea that ‘we live in a different world now’ post-9/11. I think we in the U.S. only do because we’ve made it that way.
Neil Chambers: I like to talk about it in the kind of context where, in the 1970’s, people started to look at alternative power. That never stopped. The oil crisis disappeared, but renewable energy creation and development didn’t. It’s been growing ever since for 30 years, 35 years.
Guernica: It does seem like there have been a lot of road blocks to that from government and bureaucracy (or maybe just lack of facilitation on their part), doesn’t it?
Neil Chambers: Yeah, I don’t want to sound like ‘everything’s great and everybody’s just dancing in the meadows of alternative power.’ [laughs] I don’t want it to sound like that because it’s not the truth, but there are really big pieces of hope. In 1996, Clinton introduced the wind power tax credit, and then wind production in the United States went up about two hundred percent. And then Bush let it die; and then he signed it back into law a couple years ago. So there’s that. That’s one thing that’s been happening. CALPERS and CALSTERS, which are pension funds in California, just started this initiative called the Green Wave Initiative, which represents 100 million dollars [invested] into green companies, green power companies. Goldman Sachs is going in the same direction. This is because, I mean, you asked me why aren’t people more savvy to this; why aren’t governments more savvy to this. Governments, investors, people with money—the people who make decisions—don’t typically invest in anything without a ten-year track record. And we’re just at that ten year mark with a lot of this stuff. And because we’re showing a real track record, suddenly people are like, ‘Okay, this is a good investment.’
Guernica: Are we at a point where these ways of being green could really take off?
Neil Chambers: Well, it looks that way, but I’m on the inside; you know I think that there’s still some need to really push it forward. I think there’s a tenuous kind of relationship between, you know, excitement and growth; and then that growth being in the right direction. Like the popularity of green can also dilute it, so it becomes the same old same old, but it’s just green-washed.
Guernica: It’s just a buzzword?
Neil Chambers: Yeah, it’s just a buzzword. It’s like, ‘Oh we’re doin’ that; oh, yeah, we’re doin’ that, we’re doin’ that.’ And then people start to think that what they’re doing is green and it’s just really not.
Guernica: Kind of like recycling. For a long time it sort of just lulled people into thinking they were being ‘environmental,’ when it all ended up going to the same place—
Neil Chambers: Yeah. Right.
Guernica: A lot of the time, in New York anyway.
Neil Chambers: For instance, there were these handbags that were made out of these big billboard signs, which are vinyl; they’re made into these bags—just recycled, right?
Guernica: Yeah, I’ve seen those.
Neil Chambers: But vinyl is highly toxic, it’s incredibly toxic. And they’re like, ‘yeah, but it’s being recycled.’ Yeah, but one of these days, there’s going to be one color and one style that’s going to become the most popular. And people are going to—it might not be that [the original] company that starts creating that one style to sell to more people—but it will be some company that starts to create vinyl, new vinyl, to make it look the same way and sell it. So, in the long run, is it really creating the environmental approach? I mean, for me there’s a lot of evaluation. Some of the stuff we’re doing at Green Ground Zero is trying to evaluate, talk about this…
Guernica: Because you have to make choices sometimes?
Neil Chambers: Oh, yeah, I mean I’m a deep ecologist. I believe we can all live in harmony with nature. And I don’t mean going back to the tribal way, I mean I see a future where we can explore the universe and at the same time we can be completely connected and enrich and encourage biodiversity on this planet. I don’t see a disconnect. I don’t hate technology; I don’t hate population; I don’t hate any of these things—I think that they can coexist.
Guernica: Well that’s the only way it’s really going to happen. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to stop having kids and they’re not going to stop wanting nice houses.
Neil Chambers: They shouldn’t, right? [laughs] I mean, but you do have to evaluate. It really becomes kind of a tricky game about what’s important, what you push for; and how we actually live… There’s more biomass in ants on this planet than there are in humans; so it’s not biomass, it’s not people. I think it’s this: every other species on this planet have fit themselves into the natural world, and we haven’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong, if a huge colony of ants moves into an area, it disturbs the ecology that was set there. So it’s not a matter of disturbing the ecology—I don’t even think we’re outside the ecology. I think New York is a great example. Jean Gardener just came out with this book about the ecological areas of New York. We have more ecological, reserved areas in New York City than any other city in the world.
Think about it: when we look at these issues—this might be getting a little heady here…The thing that other animals have done is they still fit their lives onto the natural world, whereas we have fit the natural world onto our lifestyle. So if we turn that, it doesn’t mean we have to change who we are. It just changes how we fit ourselves onto the natural world. So a lot of people are talking about that. Parsons [school of design] just started a department for the environment, and this is what we’re talking about…
Guernica: Can you say a little more about the people you’re working with? How big is this community of people working on these things?
Neil Chambers: Well, CUNY, Parsons, Columbia are all actively creating centers for the environment. So those are three big universities in the city. Then you have Green Ground Zero, Green Home NYC, O2, and a few others.
Guernica: Is this happening in other cities around the country?
Neil Chambers: I think it is, but I don’t think it’s at the level it’s happening here. The University of Texas has a sustainable design department; Portland, Oregon has their own green standards for building; Pittsburgh is developing as a green city; Chicago’s gotten a lot of press on green. But, I mean, New York—I don’t think there’s anybody else saying they’re going to be building four billion dollars’ worth of green building in the next five years. And one thing is: nobody has what we have, in terms of building opportunities and development and stuff like that. And also the mass, the size of us, allows us to cultivate this type of culture. I mean, you have to say no to some events these days because other green events are happening—it’s just that big. So you can get involved in it. I’m trying to get Green Ground Zero to be a leader, not just in New York, but in the country and in the world. And that’s not easy; we’re starting from the bottom up.
Guernica: And in other countries, you’ve found your ideas well received too?
Neil Chambers: Yeah, I mean, if it works, if it’s cheaper, if it can happen, they’ll do it. And I think it’s possible. I’m trying to really make that happen. Because if it does, that’s a great step. Like look at what we’ve been able to do—we’re also putting together a panel for a conference next year about how to rebuild Iraq with environmentally sound practices. So, we started with the World Trade Center, and now we’re working with other countries on how to rebuild from disasters, whether it’s war, or it’s natural. And I want Green Ground Zero to move in that direction. It’s going to take time. I don’t expect this to be in blossom in a year. I see it more five years out, this is what we’ll be doing, to do it in a real way. And the money. Everything we’ve done with Green Ground Zero on $20,000—we’ve done a tremendous amount. Our list of accomplishments—it’s a little overwhelming at times. We’ve done events with Mikhael Gorbachev; we’ve been around the globe speaking at events; we have an email list of people on every continent; we’re producing a television show; we’re revamping our website…so, this level of events with almost no money. So I started saying, now let’s take it to the next level;
Guernica: Which would be what?
Neil Chambers: The next level is bringing in more money and really starting to grow it, so we can hire people. So, if we can do what we’ve done with $20,000, what can we do with $20,000,000? That’s the new question for us….
Guernica: Let’s talk about your TV show, Built Green.
Neil Chambers: It’s actually really, really interesting stuff. We’ve had a senior editor from Architectural Record on; we’ve had David Kirkpatrick, the founder of SJF Funds, which is a venture capital company that has 30 million dollars under management for green companies and clean-tech companies; Mark Cox, who’s an energy hedge fund owner who only trades renewable energies. So we’ve had all these really, really inspiring people talking about what they do. I mean, I want to get out of the…the lecture…what I want to do is create an opportunity for people to talk about what they love. And you don’t work in the environmental world unless you love it.
Neil Chambers: You know what I mean? [laughs] So that’s what I felt was missing and so that’s what this was created around. And we’re starting to tape our next season. It’ll be aired in March or April.
Guernica: So if someone wants to watch…
Neil Chambers: Well, if you live in Manhattan, it’s channel 34. We’re also putting it on our website. So, if you don’t live in Manhattan, you can start to access it through our website.
Guernica: Green Ground Zero dot org?
Neil Chambers: Greengroundzero.org, yeah. We’re revamping the whole thing, actually. We’ve been creating content for it. So there’s like a year of blogs on it now, where you can read about the perfect building, which is kind of a pet project I’ve been working on, talking about all that stuff we were talking about, like the human connection versus the animal. It sounds heady, it gets a little abstract, but at the same time I think it’s really important. It ties itself back to the practical world. I come out of the world of architecture and policy—two worlds where you do have to explain it. I worked with the City Comptroller and the State Comptroller’s office, and they want to know it in terms of dollars. And jobs. And if you can’t explain it that way, ‘Take a number!’ You know what I mean? “Because there’s a lot of people who want to talk to us.’ And so I’ve had to quantify this stuff.
And also talk about, ‘where are we really going with all this?’
Guernica: Like you were saying before, with the vinyl handbags, making sure that the excitement and growth takes us in the right direction?
Neil Chambers: Right. It’s like, you can have a missile, and it’s powered by clean fuel; and it’s made out of recycled metal; and the paint on it is non-toxic—but that doesn’t necessarily change where it’s going. We could end up with clean air and no eagles; or clean water but no salmon. So, that’s the next step: thinking about where we’re going with all this.
Guernica: But you sound very excited, very hopeful?
Neil Chambers: Yes, I think there’s a lot of hope.