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Women in Sustainable Design at SXSW Eco

Lance Hosey, co-author of the 2007 book Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, led a panel at the South by Southwest Eco Conference in Austin last week with four women who are innovators in sustainable design to talk about how gender influences the industry.

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As the primary household shoppers who are statistically more likely to recycle and buy “eco-friendly” products than men, women as consumers are the driving force behind the “green revolution.” But they aren’t just influencing the movement through their purchasing power; women are leading the behind-the-scenes innovation that makes the revolution possible in the first place.

Each of the panelists—Jennifer Cutbill, an intern architect at Dialog in Vancouver; Erin Schrode, founder of Teens Turning Green; Paula Vaughan of Perkins + Will; and Gail Vittori, co-director for the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin—talked about how having high emotional intelligence and a natural facility for communication and problem-solving has spawned innovation in their own careers.

Schrode, now a senior at NYU, was just 13 years old when she helped start a website to help teens learn about safe and clean cosmetics. Teens Turning Green has blossomed to a multi-platform company that helps teens find ways to incorporate “green living” into their daily lives through initiatives such as Project Green Dorm and Project Green Prom.

She says that being both a woman and a millennial have been keys to her success because she fully understands the power of communication. “We are communicators. We spread messages...It doesn’t matter where you go, women and mothers influence their communities,” she says. “We have to take ownership of supporting each other and build that camaraderie.”

Cutbill also talked about the importance of communication when you’re trying to make change. “Our greatest attribute is our ability to tell stories,” Cutbill says. “We have the power to transform our reality by the stories that we choose to tell.” The key to slowing down climate change is being able to effectively tell that story, and no one can do that better than women.

Vaughan told the story of working on on neonatal intensive care unit in a women’s and children’s center in Southeast Alabama. The team knew they wanted to incorporate soft colors and soft lighting to create a comfortable atmosphere for patients and their families, but when they were actually in the room, Vaughan recalled suddenly realizing that improving the aesthetic shouldn’t be their biggest concern.

If the paint that was used on the walls contained chemicals that would make the infants even sicker, the color wouldn’t matter. “That started me on my path of thinking more thoughtfully about the healthfulness of the materials,” Vaughan says.

Another reason why women are gaining ground so quickly? They are eager to share information with one another and collaborate rather than focus so much energy on competing. As Vaughan and others at Perkins + Will climbed the steep learning curve of “designing energy” at their Atlanta headquarters, which turned out to be one of the highest LEED-rated buildings in the world, they shared what they found on their website to help others who were taking on similar projects. They’ve also launched Transparency, an online list of 25 basic substances commonly found building products and their heath- and eco-conscious alternatives.

Virroti took a moment to honor Rachel Carson, whose landmark book Silent Spring came out 50 years ago last month. “She was up against a formidable industry that tried to silence her, but we have her to thank for the issues she raised many years ago,” Virroti said. “Inspiration is the driver for innovation,” she said. “And loving what you do gives you a source of inspiration.”

Hosey pointed out that each of the women on the panel had to cobble together the exact education that they wanted because it wasn’t available to them at the time. Just think of how many other women are in similar positions who are now being so generous with their knowledge to strengthen the next generation of both men and women in the field.

“Historically, women have been denied the traditional path (to any number of careers) and they hovered on the outside,” he says, but from that vantage point, it’s easier to see the cracks in the status quo and intervene. “The building industry is dynamically conservative,” he says. “It works hard to stay in the same place...but the challenges (of truly sustainable design) are too big and nuanced to address through business as usual.”

Women have the emotional courage it takes to step outside one’s comfort zone to make the changes that lead to “disruptive innovation” that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

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