In the late 1980s, revolution was afoot in the world of architecture. It started when a soft-spoken Kansas City architect named Bob Berkebile tried to convince the American Institute of Architects to do more to save the planet. In the spring of 1989, he petitioned the AIA to establish a committee to study and promote ways that the profession could become more eco-friendly.
“The board of directors turned me down,” said Berkebile, now 81. In the Reagan era, the environmental movement had a Birkenstock-and-granola image that the men in charge at the AIA were apparently not prepared to adopt.
However, Berkebile was backed by up-and-coming architects from around the country. According to him, they basically took over the AIA convention in May of 1989: “We overruled them.” The resolution the AIA board had declined to endorse, “CPR: Critical Planet Rescue,” passed unanimously.
The result was the AIA Committee on the Environment (or COTE). This new group, which Berkebile chaired, quickly became a force, collaborating with the United States Environmental Protection Agency on environmental research and producing new guidelines for architectural design. When President Bill Clinton, on his first Earth Day in office in April of 1993, announced that he wanted to retrofit the White Houseas a “model for efficiency and waste reduction,” Berkebile’s committee got a call to help make it happen.
“Within a few days, the line of corporations wanting to help started in D.C. and stretched all the way to Philadelphia,” said Berkebile, only half-joking. The dream of green buildings, which began with experimental passive-solar houses in the 1930s and hippie “zome homes” and “earthships” in the 1960s and ’70s, suddenly seemed commercially viable.
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