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Trace the origins of Pittsburgh's green-building movement and you'll find Rebecca Flora. In 1997, when few in Pittsburgh even contemplated buildings that went easier on the environment, Flora was hired as the first employee of the city's Green Building Alliance (GBA).

Today, she serves as the advocacy group's executive director. With a staff of 10, she has helped make Pittsburgh a leader in new construction and retrofitted buildings that defy sprawl, consume fewer resources and are healthier for the people inside them. Pittsburgh today ranks fifth among U.S. cities in buildings certified through the U.S. Green Building Council's benchmark Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. Our 24 certified structures include 2001's PNC Firstside Center and Point Park University's new dance complex. Meanwhile, Flora has developed a national reputation and has addressed conferences from Puerto Rico to Shanghai, China.

Now, Flora, 49, is moving on. In January, the one-time Urban Redevelopment Authority project director and former head of the South Side Local Development Corp. heads to Washington, D.C. There, she'll be senior vice president for education and research at the U.S. Green Building Council.

In part one of a two-part interview, Flora details how green building has grown. Next week, she explores other necessary steps toward preserving the planet for future generations.

 

Where was awareness of green building in 1997?
When I started with the Green Building Alliance, there was a resistance to the term "green building." Everybody wanted to use the term "high-performance building." They were scared of using "green building," and I was like, "No. This is where the rest of the country is going."

How did you convince them?
My first five years at GBA, I became a salesperson. It was really about going out door-to-door, dog-and-pony, selling to people and educating them on what this was and why they should do it. This is where my South Side experience and URA experience really helped -- because I had to talk, from their perspective, hard-core real-estate development, economic-development talk.

What's changed?
Now, people are interested in a discussion that includes, "Hey, this makes economic sense, but guess what? You can help to create a healthier environment for your employees. You can be part of a global effort that has to happen if we're going to start reducing our environmental footprint and start reversing the impact of climate change."

In the last two, three years, people are knocking down our doors saying, "How do we get involved? Help us. What do we do?"

Was there a catalyst?
What drove that was getting pioneers like PNC and others to buy into a new way. Gary Saulson, who I fully credit, was [PNC's director of corporate real estate]. I still remember cold-calling him, saying, "You don't know me, but can we talk? There's something I'd like you to consider for your new building." And he literally changed the direction [Downtown's PNC Firstside] was going. He bought into it, he really stuck his neck out. Now, PNC has the largest green-building portfolio in the country. He's not only impacted PNC; nationally, Bank of America and others are following. Having a corporate leader buy in, I think, just gave us instant credibility.

What is Pittsburgh's "green network"?
I don't think [the GBA] would have been as successful if we also didn't have the assets of the university community, to have the research. [And] I could work on the [David L. Lawrence] Convention Center knowing that I could call in Construction Junction to come deal with the deconstruction of the waste. Time and again, we've had access to assets that, when you add them all up, are just a huge network.

What about teaching sustainable community development at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School?
I think my first class, probably 10 years ago, I had 12 or 15 students. I had 30 with turnaways last spring. I think in the past, [what motivated students] was kind of personal interest and passion. More recently, there's a growing awareness that there's actually jobs out there. Good jobs. They're getting hired as sustainability directors for companies.

The city of Pittsburgh's new sustainability coordinator, Lindsay Baxter, and city sustainability consultant Eamon Geary, both worked for GBA.
Two of my people -- as I like to think of it! -- are now planted inside city government. That's the perfect example of why I have confidence that I can move on.

 

Next week, Flora and CP discuss where greening must go next.

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