This Vancouver mom helps cushion the environmental blows of the construction industry

Kathy Wardle with her nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old twins

Kathy Wardle’s love for the environment began in her early teens. During a drive on Vancouver Island, she witnessed large swaths of land that had been clear cut out of old growth forests. Seeing the destruction that industry can do to the land led her to study how business can minimize environmental harm. After graduating from her master’s degree she worked as a consultant before creating a role for herself that would bring real environmental change to the construction industry. In her role as Director of Research in the Vancouver office of Perkins + Will, a global architecture and design firm, Wardle spent 16 years guiding projects towards best sustainability practices. We spoke with her about her role and how she manages her career while raising a nine-year-old and set of seven-year-old twins.

Tell us how you got started

When I graduated from my master’s program there was a lot of emerging interest in corporate environmental and social responsibility and understanding what that means for business. I grew up in a family of architects, developers, and contractors, so I’d been exposed to the building industry from many angles and decided to concentrate on the building sector.

I looked at the sector’s ability to acquire, re-use, and divert construction waste, and the market barriers involved. There’s so much waste in the industry — construction is responsible for 30–40 percent of the waste in landfills — so that’s one impact. The other is that buildings over their operational life are responsible for 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So, from a global resource management and climate change perspective, I saw there was a real opportunity to work with architects, contractors, engineers, and ultimately clients, to help them understand how they can make a difference and have a lower environmental impact on the physical environment.

By the time I graduated from my masters in 2001, my friends were asking, “Is there a job for what you do?” and I said, “I don’t think so.” I really stuck to my guns and interviewed with the company I work for now the day before September 11th, and the next day the world changed and there were no opportunities. For six months I did independent consulting, and then surprisingly the folks I work for today pulled my resume out of the drawer and asked if I was still available, as they had a client interested in following the LEED [an international standard and certification program for green building] guidelines.

LEED was just coming into the marketplace, and so my role was to come to Perkins and Will with an understanding of what LEEDS meant for our architectural work. I’ve been there going on 16 years now, and over that period I co-directed our sustainable design initiatives — looking at what it took to walk the walk from an operational perspective but also what goals and targets we want to set for our design teams and ultimately our clients. The role really included a lot of internal and external education, checking and monitoring how we were operating day to day, and helping set the strategic direction for Perkins and Will as a whole.

Do people understand what you are doing now?

It’s changing. When I graduated, it was uncommon to see a job description for a green building consultant. Nowadays there are courses on green buildings and what it means to become a green building advisor. We respond to requests for proposals from clients all the time that request that type of consultant service. It has become much more widely recognized in the design, engineering, and construction industry. Even contractors have green building experts within their firms now that deal with LEED compliance requirements. It has definitely become more commonplace. And the impacts of the industry are more widely understood at a global level, even the UN is looking at it. Leaders recognize the building industry has a significant impact on climate change and are looking at what we can do within this sector to reverse those trends.

How does it feel to know you were a trailblazer in this industry?

It’s incredible to know that people now see a connection between what we do and how it can impact them on a day to day basis. They’re realizing climate change is affecting us all. When you look at all the extreme weather events — from Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina to the extreme wildfires we are seeing here in Canada, those events really drive home that something on a global scale is happening. And we need to understand why, and how we can help slow it down. I don’t think we’re going to be able to reverse it, but we can probably slow it down.

How do you manage a career like this with three kids at home?

I work at near half-time right now. I feel very lucky to have a supportive work environment where my managing director understands that I’m currently in a zone where I enjoy what I do from an intellectual and professional standpoint but I’m also in a zone where my kids require a big percentage of my time, attention, and support.

I’ve realized I can’t give as much time as I would like to my professional career. Children today are bombarded with so much more than we were growing up. From a social media and technology point of view, there’s a huge learning curve with supporting their growth. I have two girls and I think it’s important to show them you can be successful professionally and still be a mom. I really want to set a good example for my girls and give them the tools they need to navigate whatever they enter, whether that be corporate business, design, music, or whatever they choose to do.

How do you talk to your kids about climate change?

It’s hard because it’s a big topic, and how do you bring it down to a manageable scale so they can understand? I think now kids are different than how we were when we were learning about environmental issues growing up. These kids already know we have to recycle and compost they are already much more aware. Events like the wildfires in British Columbia last year offer teaching moments to explain how the world is getting hotter and dryer, it’s not raining as much, and global climate patterns are changing. But, it’s difficult to do without overwhelming them.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in how companies are tackling these issues?

We work with a lot of institutional clients like the University of British Columbia and the University of Vancouver as well as lots of private developers. Institutional clients bought into green building and design early on. Private developers have been slower, but things are changing. We are working with a private developer now who is very keen to design a building that is tall, made of wood, and going for net zero carbon. To have exposure to a client like that is amazing, because obviously what we are doing is having an impact if our clients are coming to us and asking for that support.Those types of clients don’t come along every day, but when they do they will be a market leader, and we are trying to help them to do better, be better, and to create better living and working environments for the tenants of that building.

Here in BC, we have a very progressive and supportive regulatory environment. Last year the city of Vancouver came out with a zero building emissions plan. They’ve identified building performance targets that will get buildings to very low energy consumption. The province is also providing roadmaps for municipalities to put in place net-zero emission buildings. I think our clients are having to go there because of these progressive changes on a policy level. And if you have a developer willing to build using these performance goals, they are showing their peer group it’s possible, and that the esthetics and pro forma are not compromised. You need both policy support and clients who are willing to take the risk to be a market leader.

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