Ask the Expert: Sustainability Consultant Wendy Christobel Macdonald talks about merging social and environmental sustainability


Wendy Christobel Macdonald, PEng, LEED AP: BD+C, Advicas Group Consultants Inc.

Wendy Christobel Macdonald, PEng, LEED AP: BD+C, works at Advicas Group Consultants Inc., a Quantity Surveying and Sustainability Consulting company (ADVicating Integrated Cost And Sustainability). Known as the driving and cheery force behind the sustainability division of Advicas, her role is as a Sustainability and LEED Consultant supporting project teams in their quest toward sustainable and LEED certified buildings. Prior to her current position, Wendy was employed as a mechanical consultant where she did HVAC design and building energy modeling. She is also a member of the CaGBC's Energy and Engineering Technical Advisory Group.

1. Tell us about your career and how you came to be involved in the sustainability field.

As a kid I had a case of what might be referred to as "save the world syndrome". When it came time to choose a career path I looked to engineering thinking that technology had got us into this mess, so surely technology could get us out. I chose Mechanical Engineering as my discipline and hoped to pursue work in the renewable energy industry. Among my co-op experiences I had a couple that were instrumental in affecting my career path: one with BC Hydro Power Smart in the Technical Services and Research Department studying the impacts of Power Smart programs, and the other in the Building Physics Department at the University of Kassel, Germany helping develop their in-house building energy model. Through these I became inspired by the challenge of demand side management.

After graduation I was working with a mechanical consulting firm in Victoria, BC, when LEED v2.0 came on the scene and they supported me in becoming a LEED AP. An opportunity came up to take a position at TBKG (precursor to Advicas) supporting Andy Kesteloo in doing LEED Consulting work. As a Cost Consultant, Andy had repeatedly been asked the question "We'd like to build green, but how much will it cost?" and became an early advocate for LEED. He encouraged me to dive in the deep end working as a sustainability consultant. After Andy's untimely passing, I took over the Sustainability division. In this role, I've found my happy place merging my people skills and technical background to help encourage project team members toward the goal of successful and sustainable buildings.

2. You've worked as a LEED Consultant for 10 years, of all that time – what are the things that most stick out in your mind?

Ten years of LEED Consulting, but I was doing energy simulations using a 486 computer in 1993, so in some ways I've been involved in the industry for awhile. Coincidentally, what sticks out for me is the mutable concept of time in terms of pacing, speed, growth. On the one hand, the industry has changed quickly: in a matter of a few years, technologies which were rarities have become commonplace. On the other hand, it still feels like we are moving too slowly. It's tricky. We are attempting to advance rapidly in ways that are new to us to create buildings that will last for decades. Balancing innovation with wisdom is critical otherwise innovation can be just dabbling, or worse: eco grand standing. We need to move with speed but also with care and consideration. The challenge: how fast a tortoise can we be without becoming a hare?

3. Are there any other particular projects that you've been involved in that stand out the most and why?

I have a soft spot in my heart for our BC Housing projects as they so wonderfully combine social and environmental sustainability: they are "feel good" all around. The story of a formerly homeless person moving into Camas Gardens, seeing his new residence and beginning to cry is striking to me, especially when I know that his surroundings were constructed using low-emitting materials, his shower is heated with solar hot water, his apartment is ventilated and conditioned with HRV and heat-pump, and outside are growing native and drought tolerant plants. Beautiful.

4. What have you learned most working on LEED projects? Any advice you would convey to other project teams?

Simple and obvious enough advice: be gentle with yourself and kind to each other. I'll take this opportunity to share a quote that I believe is relevant to many of us in this industry. Thomas Merton said:

"There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

This quote is pinned up in my office cubicle where I can best rush past and ignore it.

5. You've said that you believe that technology must be accompanied by social support, in order for meaningful change to occur. What do you mean by this?

I mentioned going into Mechanical Engineering hoping to save the world. I didn't mention that mid-way through schooling I became disillusioned, coming to the belief that technology could be available if there was only the will for it. I sensed the loss of will came from a loss of connection with nature, and I began to feel that many have lost touch with nature because they had lost touch with themselves. I began studies in psychology, sociology, and social work. I eventually completed my engineering degree, but my pull to the human side has remained.

I continue to believe the human side plays a significant role in the environmental movement. Cultural cognition studies are indicating people downplay or disbelieve climate change data if it is out of alignment with their personal values. Twenty years later and I still see how strongly issues of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health play into the environmental movement. My questions: why would a person even want to "save the planet" if they are too busy to notice the environment they live in, are afraid of it, or are unhappy in their own lives?

6. Where do you see the future of green building headed in the near and more long-term future?

In the near term, I suspect there will be renewed interest. The effects of climate change are becoming tangible to more people so I anticipate a demand for strategies that incorporate climate change mitigation and resilience. Previously, I spoke of there being a lack of will to use the technology: I think we are now (or shortly will be) in a place where both the will and the technologies are available. People are starting to realize that ignoring mitigation efforts will result in the need for greater adaptation efforts. When they say there is no money for sustainability, many are beginning to recognize the falsehood in this statement as they factor in life cycle costs.

As for the longer term, I'm even more hopeful. You know that Miles Kington saying "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad"? I believe we are currently in the stage of amassing knowledge in sustainability and regenerative design and we will eventually move into the wisdom phase. The areas I see the most potential for growth are in systems thinking, permaculture concepts, sharing models. This applies widely, from financing strategies, to idea sharing, to specific technologies. For example: aversion to initiatives such as car-pooling, high mass radiant systems, district energy, and on-site stormwater management arise from our current cultural bias toward individualism. We sometimes sacrifice elegant and efficient design because we cannot envision how it might improve on our "my way, on my schedule" way of being.

The tomato/fruit analogy illustrates the importance of relationships and broader ways of thinking. Knowing tomatoes don't go well with grapes requires knowledge of both tomatoes and grapes. In case I'm getting too abstract: not carpooling is like saying "I don't know who else goes with tomatoes, so I'll stay a lone tomato rather than risk riding with a grape". The mixing of flavours, like the building of complex systems, requires wide spread wisdom and the willingness for things to get a little messy. In time, I do believe we will ease into the type of wisdom which allows numerous opportunities for efficiency and resilience. A move from science to artistry.

7. Please add anything here that you'd like the industry to know or think about.

Well, since you asked…as a Gen X'er observing this phenomenon: I'd like to mention that I believe we are in the midst of a rare and time limited opportunity in our industry. We have a large number of Baby Boomers who have amassed significant expertise. We also have the Millennials/Gen Y's near the beginning of their careers, who are known for their "anything's possible" attitude. This combination has the potential to result in that magical fast tortoise: innovation backed by experience. The key to the magic is to be willing to get messy, make the space to listen to each other, and recognize our own and each other's gifts. It's worth remembering we're all good people working toward the same glorious goal. (And frankly, that's what makes working in this industry so much fun.)