Sharing Stories at Greenbuild

smiling woman
Maureen Colburn Climate Solutions Studio Leader

This November, I had the privilege of attending and presenting at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, USGBC’s annual gathering of thousands of sustainable design advocates. The last time I attended (an early version of) this conference was in 1998, when around 150 design professionals gathered in Austin, TX to hear from the green building movement’s early leaders like Sim van der Ryn, Pliny Fisk, and Paul Hawken. Having witnessed the growth of the sustainable design movement, I was somewhat skeptical about participating in an event promoted with phrases like “market transformation” and held at McCormick Place, the world’s largest convention center. Would it all feel like green washing? Would I learn anything about regenerative design sitting in rooms without daylight? The main reason I was headed to Chicago was because my conference submittal on plug load energy use was accepted for presentation.

Amal Clooney [1]

The conference opened Wednesday at 8:00 a.m. in a packed ballroom where thousands gathered to hear from human rights attorney Amal Clooney. Hazim Avdal, a Yazidi refugee from Iraq who escaped genocide by ISIS introduced the keynote. Amal and George Clooney are helping Hazim pursue justice against ISIS and start anew as a student at the University of Chicago. Amal’s glamorous presence on the stage as she then told the horrifying story of terrorism survivor Nadia Murad was captivating. Her message was personal and demonstrated that helping even just one person share their story to achieve a more just world makes a difference.

The Bay Bridge in San Francisco, CA – photo on left taken 11/16/18, photo on right taken 10/14/18 [2]

Sharing our stories to support each other and take more action were themes that replayed again and again throughout my three days at Greenbuild. As I went around the city and conference halls, I listened to people’s stories. There was the Lyft driver from Mongolia where the cities are too polluted to breathe and the keynote presenter from Oakland who told of his 15-month-old who has been inside for the past week due to smoke from the Camp Fire. I sat with a table of inspirational women at the “Women in Green Power Lunch” who all had stories of being the only woman in a room and making their way in our male-dominated architecture and engineering fields. I made connections with people from every corner of the U.S., Iran, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Sharing our stories reminded me that the reason thousands travel to a convention is to interact with people and learn from each other’s lived experience.

Puerto Rico National Guard Soldiers clearing the road after Hurricane Maria, September 27, 2017 [3]

For me, the closing plenary made the effort of traveling to Greenbuild worthwhile. Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, Puerto Rico, shared her story of the devastation caused last year by Hurricanes Irma and Maria: 2975 people died, the power grid was destroyed, and, a year later, the island has not recovered. Many people died because there was not refrigeration available to protect their insulin supplies. Climate change caused these stronger storms, and Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was not resilient enough in the face of Category 5 hurricanes. With our world’s ability to innovate, it is hard to understand why we have not yet made the transition to a resilient infrastructure and a grid powered by solar energy. Gathering with the green building movement leaders 20 years ago, I thought we would be farther along by now. In the words of Mayor Cruz, “this is not about politics, it is about saving lives.” We must do more, and the time is now.

[1] Image credit: By UK Mission to the UN Ne –, CC BY 2.0,

[2] Image credit: By James R Morrin Jr – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

[3] Image credit: By The National Guard – Puerto Rico National Guard, CC BY 2.0,

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