As one of the founding members of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1993, Keith Winn found “kindred spirits” within the environmental movement to improve built spaces. After spending 25 years at Herman Miller Inc. as the manager of sustainable business development, Winn has served as president of Grand Rapids-based Catalyst Partners since 2002. He has helped lead the consulting firm in increasing the performance, operations and sustainability of buildings through certification programs such as LEED. Winn is leaving his leadership role at Catalyst Partners in early 2022, but he plans to stay involved in the industry in some way, he said. Winn recently discussed his early interest in sustainable building and where he sees the industry heading.
How did you get started in this work on improving buildings’ sustainability, and why did you pursue it as a career?
I always loved the outdoors. That passion, coupled with my experience at Herman Miller, led me to find kindred spirits in the green building movement. Ever since, those relationships have continued to educate me and fuel my passion for the importance of being earth-friendly and being a steward of the environment — that’s the essence of the movement.
I was at Herman Miller for a number of years, and they were leaders in standards for products and green building initiatives. Their first significant building was the Herman Miller greenhouse, and that was pre-LEED, but I was a member of the USGBC at the time and we used the project to inform the development of LEED. That was one of the first benchmarks in the community.
Do you expect any trends to emerge in your line of work in 2022?
One thing we’re seeing is cities are beginning to take the lead in addressing climate change issues. That’s also coupled with thinking about social justice issues — they want energy-efficient, healthy homes for everyone. As municipalities understand better what their strategies need to be to address climate change and social equity, I expect there will be more incentives and requirements established locally.
More and more communities are requiring transparency with building performance. I don’t know where that’s going exactly, but I know it will increase. We live in a data rich world and everyone has access to more information now.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed focus on air quality affect your work?
There was the acknowledgement that indoor environments are important to the health and wellbeing of their occupants, but there has certainly been an increased awareness since the pandemic. Most of the projects we’re working on now started before the pandemic, but the movement has certainly grown.
We’re seeing a number of large development groups approaching us about getting their portfolio of properties to some level of accreditation for (sustainable building standards). Their concern is they don’t want to lose tenants. We’ve also seen large arenas pursue certification. They want people to return to sporting events and feel safe.
With indisputable evidence of climate change, how important are these environmental building practices in that context?
(Climate change) is in our face all the time now. There are more and more people on the planet and the projections are that we’re nowhere near done building the number of buildings we’re going to need in the future to accommodate us all, and the resources are limited.
Population growth and the movement of constructing more buildings is escalating faster than ever, and therefore our need to be better stewards of our environment needs to escalate faster. We have the resources to do it, but too many people are still building to code standards and saying, ‘we can’t afford it.’ We know what the problems are and what the solutions are, we just have to have the will to do what we need to address the problem.
What is the driving force behind constructing buildings that are efficient beyond code standards?
There are large businesses which I think are driving the movement, but it’s also consumer driven. Consumers drive a lot of change in terms of awareness, and that all comes from the whole notion of transparency. If one company is doing something that is environmentally friendly, people will tend to go there. I think that will be true of buildings as there is more transparency in their environmental health profile.
Colleges are also saying that when students come to visit for potential admissions, they are asking questions about sustainability. The fact that they’re asking those questions is driving colleges and universities to pay attention.