In April 2006, the actor Brad Pitt and the nonprofit organization Global Green USA launched a sustainable design competition in hopes of spurring the redevelopment of New Orleans, post-Katrina. It certainly isn’t shocking that a Hollywood star, albeit one with a home in New Orleans, would want to raise awareness about the devastated city, but perhaps it is surprising that a celebrity could so meaningfully engage the sustainable design community with such a gesture. Pitt, it seems—like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore—has become a sort of sustainability guru for the larger public, even narrating the on-going sustainable design television series design: e2, for PBS.

Brad Pitt views Global Green’s sustainable design proposals for New Orleans.
Photo: ' Mark Mainz/Getty Images
Brad Pitt views Global Green’s sustainable design proposals for New Orleans.

And it turns out that the small, interconnected world of sustainable architecture has its own emerging brand of gurus. Ten years ago, Kirsten Ritchie’s job did not exist. As Gensler’s new director of sustainable design, she joined the firm in November 2006 to help guide the more than 2,400 of her fellow employees through the rapidly expanding—and confusing—world of sustainability.

Ritchie, who trained and practiced as a civil engineer, describes her role as providing “focus, so there is a key point person for either a client base or even just internally to ask where we start with green-oriented issues.” That focus is something that firms nationwide are accepting as integral to the way they do business, represented by the growing ranks of sustainability directors at firms of all sizes.

The rise of the in-house sustainability guru is a change in approach long in the making. For the most part, these are not LEED consultants, in that their chief function is not to prepare the documentation necessary for attaining certification in the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating program. Rather, these are people within firms who have been mostly freed from the constraints of day-to-day project work—and it’s pressing demands—to develop a more comprehensive view of sustainability as a core principle of a firm’s practice. This new individual replaces the previous model—which is still quite common—where a few architects in a given firm championed sustainability as an “extra-curricular activity” in addition to their regular duties on conventional design projects.

Tim Milam, AIA, managing partner at New York–based FXFowle, has been interviewing candidates for the firm’s new position of sustainability manager. Although the firm has long practiced with sustainable principles and built several high-profile green projects, Milam says the management has realized that as the firm has grown, it has needed someone who can oversee the consistency and implementation of sustainable design across the studios. “There aren’t a lot of these positions out there,” Milam says, “and there seem to be a lot of firms with architects working in traditional roles, but from their own interests in sustainability, they have taken on that role.”

There are other reasons this role doesn’t exist at some firms, either because the firm hasn’t embraced sustainable design or because, like Charlottesville, Virginia–based William McDonough + Partners, that’s all it embraces. Kira Gould, Associate AIA, is the director of communications for McDonough, but through her role as the 2007 chair of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), she gets to see how sustainable design is handled by a number of firms. “There is a lot of diversity in how that role is being defined,” Gould says. “A lot of firms are open to defining it with the person they find or looking for people to help them shape the role. Many of them are hiring an architect or an engineer.” She says sometimes that person can be more of a generalist, especially when they are developing sustainable design in terms of deliverables, staff, research needs, outreach efforts to other sources, and communications. “The first thing you need to start with is defining what sustainable design means for the firm,” Gould says.

Tom Hootman, AIA, became the director of sustainability for Denver-based RNL Architects in April 2007. He says the role emerged out of his leadership of the firm’s internal “green team,” which is the fairly ubiquitous terminology for any design firm’s sustainable interest group. Although his initial interest, Hootman says, derived from his background in integrated design—he received an undergraduate degree in architectural engineering before embarking on architecture studies. Unconventional credentials are another hallmark of sustainable design directors, especially, as Gould notes, given the recent penchant for firms to hire people trained in such specialties as hydrology, economics, biology, and ecology to participate in newly established green design studios. For example, before she joined Gensler, Ritchie was working as the director of environmental claims certification at Scientific Certification Systems. Though he prefers to hire an architect, FXFowle’s Milam is open to other disciplines. He notes, however, that “it’s crucial to understand what we’re doing with our projects—we’re looking for someone who cares about design and sustainability.”

RNL employs engineers not only for sustainable design, and recently hired one to perform energy modeling on green projects. Hootman says his role is to bridge the gap between all of the offices and studios, whether they are engineering, landscape architecture, urban design, or architecture. “Being director of sustainability is a larger role, with more accountability,” Hootman says. “Putting it out there in the marketplace says it’s a more important part of our business model, but it also means more to our staff to have dedicated a person full-time to the role.”

Although he has a fairly public role as chair of the USGBC’s Colorado chapter and the face of RNL’s sustainable marketing, Hootman spends most of his time focused on developing the firm’s internal practice: establishing design guidelines and finding champions for green projects; training staff and developing a resource library; refining the firm’s specifications with the latest green product attributes; and greening the office, including the pursuit of LEED Gold certification for its new Denver location. Repeating the sentiments of directors at many other firms, Hootman says it has never been his intention to become the firm’s sole specialist. “We want to elevate the entire firm with qualified sustainable designers because I can’t be everywhere,” he says.