Bill Browning poses for a portrait on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
Eli Meir Kaplan Bill Browning poses for a portrait on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Thus far, William (Bill) Browning’s career path is a real-world example of holistic thinking in action. Growing up in a generation fascinated by the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Browning, 50, recalls an early appreciation for the environment. Combining this awareness with architecture, he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental design with a specialization in energy-conscious architecture and resource management. Once in practice, however, he felt that something was missing.

“I got out of school and discovered that architects didn’t get to make all of the decisions,” he recalls. “Ultimately, someone needed to help owners and developers.” Browning enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a master’s in real estate development, and upon graduation in 1991, founded Green Development Services at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Colorado, with the aim of “exploring the interface between the built enviornment and larger ecosystems.” For the RMI, his projects included new towns, resorts, building renovations, and demonstration projects such as Walmart’s Eco-Mart, the Greening of the White House, Grand Canyon National Park, and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Athletes’ Village. He also authored several publications on sustainable practices in collaboration with others: Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate; A Primer on Sustainable Building; Greening the Building and the Bottom Line; and Biophilic Design.

In 2004, Browning left RMI to work on the development of a New Urbanist community in Virginia, where he led the site planning, authored a set of design guidelines, and guided infrastructure development. In 2005, he co-founded Browning+Bannon, a real estate and consulting firm focused on environmentally responsive development and, in 2006, partnered with architects Bob Fox and Rick Cook to found Terrapin Bright Green. They were joined by Chris Garvin, AIA, in 2008. Working out of New York and Washington, D.C., Browning and his team work on high-performance environmental strategies for corporations, governments, and large-scale real estate developments such as the National Museum of the American Indian (pictured), InterfaceFlor, Bank of America, and the National Geographic Society.

How would you describe your work at Terrapin Bright Green?

Our consulting projects tend to be fairly large-scale or complex pieces of the built environment. We’ve helped write guidelines for existing buildings in Battery Park City [in New York City]. We’ve worked with Gale International to come up with green-building and green-infrastructure strategies for a new city [New Songdo City] being built in Korea. We’re working on a large, 70-year-old building in lower Manhattan that is almost 3 million square feet, and a 118-story tower in Malaysia.

On our research side, we’ve worked on algae-to-energy concepts with the Smithsonian to help put together an experiment that takes algae and the technology for cleaning wastewater and turns dirty water into biofuel. From that, the Natural Resources Defense Council asked us to look at the environmental implications of the different ways people are proposing to make fuel from algae. We also have an ongoing research project with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the Biomimicry Guild to introduce biomimicry to industries in New York State.

Looking over your time in the industry, what do you consider to be the most exciting innovations?

It’s been interesting to see how quickly some ideas have caught on. The conversation about net-zero energy definitely moved more quickly than I expected, as well as the adoption of green roofs and the relationship to the tops of buildings. New York City just passed a code that allows one-third of the roof area to be greenhouses and that sort of stuff is not just technological. It’s a major rethinking of how we should be interacting with the tops of buildings, and the acceptance of those ideas happened much quicker than I expected.

What do you think will be the biggest factors to influence sustainable design in the next one to five years?

Increasing interest in biomimicry and biophilia. And evidence that Nils Kok, Piet Eichholtz, and John Quigley have done at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and Maastricht University [in the Netherlands] about the economic performance of green buildings through the downturn of 2007–2009 and how green buildings are performing better in terms of rent. As that word starts to get out there, it brings forward a whole new level of conversation.

How do you work with the concept of deep ecological history?

We met Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society a number of years ago when he was working on a project called Mannahatta [], looking at the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson sailing up the bay and encountering the island. What did it look like when he arrived? Mannahatta remapped the ecosystems of Manhattan so you can see what it must have looked like in 1609. We also had worked with people like Conservation Design Forum [] in the Midwest who look at what the ecosystem was like in places pre-European contact.

We use this information to inform what we do on a site. In the case of Mannahatta, we are working on a building in Manhattan. It took quite a few months to do a water-balance calculation because something just didn’t make sense. In the basement there was a series of massive sump pumps that seemed to be running all the time and there were more of them than you’d normally expect. It looked like a stream was flowing under the building and using Mannahatta, we confirmed that. So, instead of doing what was done for 70 years and pumping the water out and putting it down the storm drain, we’re looking to use that water in the building.

That experience led us to ask what else was going on at the site. We developed a process for calculating what the ecosystem may have been doing on a site, something Janine Benyus calls environmental performance standards: Looking at the site and asking how much standing carbon was there and how much was captured on an annual basis; how much sunshine and solar energy was available, how much of that was being converted by photosynthesis and how much was trapped and turned back into heat. How much precipitation evapotranspirated, how much was absorbed on the site, how much was running off? We wind up with a set of numbers that tell us what the place was doing when it was an intact, healthy ecosystem.

We run those numbers of the site today and they change pretty dramatically. Our goal is to question what we could do to make the site look more like it did in terms of the original performance. Can we design buildings and systems that perform like the indigenous ecosystem did?

Terrapin has used engaged offsets to help finance sustainable initiatives. How do these work?

We were contacted by National Geographic to help sort through what it would take to make their facilities in Washington, D.C., carbon neutral. They get most of the electricity from wind, which helps the carbon footprint, but they use a lot of natural gas, particularly with an Edward Durell Stone building that is a constant-volume reheat building.

We developed an investment strategy that would give them steps to reduce the natural gas use, but realized we wouldn’t be able to get them all the way there [to carbon neutral]. There is not enough surface area to do the amount of renewables on site, so they were going to have to buy offsets. We buy offsets and at times, some of them feel a little far away, but we’ve got people in our own backyard who are struggling to pay their energy bills. Rather than spend money halfway around the world, why don’t we do it where we are?

That was the question behind engaged offsets. An engaged offset is a voluntary financial mechanism where the offset money is used, in most cases, to pay for the marginal cost of renewable-energy systems on low-income housing in the community.

National Geographic is working through capital budgets to put together renovations and as they get there, this will give them the mechanism for how to make up the rest. We’ve now been approached by a major financial house in New York and we’re doing an investigation with Enterprise to put together a package of tens of thousands of tons of offsets per year in New York City. It we can make that work, then we’d like to see other organizations do it in their own cities.