When Bob Berkebile rushed to the chaotic scene of the Hyatt Regency disaster, his first thought was, Did I kill these people?
It was the night of July 17, 1981. Berkebile and his wife, Libby, were on their way to a dinner party in the Lakewood neighborhood. As they rounded the southern edge of downtown Kansas City, the couple couldn't help but notice the wailing of sirens and a staggering parade of speeding firetrucks. When they arrived at the party, Berkebile says, the hostess met them in the yard and rushed them inside to the TV news reports.
At 7:05 that evening, as a live band began playing "Satin Doll" for hundreds of spectators and dancers, the fourth-story skywalks at the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed, catapulting dozens of people into the air and sending twisted metal and slabs of concrete onto the packed lobby floor.
Berkebile jumped back in the car and rushed to the Hyatt. By the time he arrived, less than an hour after the collapse, the area was choked with shocked spectators and frantic family members. The entry was lined with police. Berkebile walked up to the first one he saw and told the officer who he was: the architect in charge of the hotel's design.
He was ushered inside. Pipes torn away from the walls pumped water onto the scene. Arms and legs jutted from the debris. Police officers tried to extract lifeless victims in blood-soaked clothing; fatal gashes left skulls exposed. Bodies piled up five-high on a wooden pallet in the corner of the dust- and exhaust-filled lobby. An adjoining conference room, prepared for a floral convention, quickly became a makeshift morgue.
Rain speckled the ambulances that buzzed between the Crown Center hotel and Truman Medical Center, until rescue workers delicately extracted the last survivor at 4:30 a.m. Three hours later, construction workers peeled away the last concrete slab, revealing 31 bodies. A police spokesman announced that all of the victims had been recovered.
The final count: 114 dead, 216 injured.
"I spent a really long night on the rescue team. And as we were pulling those dead people, those seriously injured people, out, I was confronting totally new questions," Berkebile says.
He had been one of two principal architects in charge of the design of the Hyatt skywalks. Not even 24 hours after the collapse, accusations flew from city officials and local architects: The design was flawed; any skilled practitioner could have seen that the airy bridges, suspended by just a handful of inch-thick steel rods, would fail. The lawsuits and investigations that followed ate up most of Berkebile's time for nearly two straight years. He spent more hours than he can count in conference rooms, staring at lawyers, going over what, up to that time, was the nation's most deadly structural failure.
"It was surreal, just ugly," Berkebile says of the legal process.
Tom Nelson, a partner in Berkebile's architecture firm, says he was convinced of two things in the aftermath of the collapse. First, he was certain that it wasn't the architects' fault. He was right. The National Bureau of Standards determined that the engineers, not the architects, had made a fatal mistake in calculating the strength of the hanger rods. But Nelson was also convinced that any company with a connection to the disaster would never resurrect its business.
"I went to an interview for a project two days after to make the point to the staff, to make a point to everybody that, despite this horrible thing, we were going to stay in business," he says. "But I didn't believe it."
Berkebile plunged into a personal investigation of his own. The judicial system couldn't hold him responsible for the deaths of those 114 people, but his conscience did. It was that pain and the desire to redeem himself and his profession, he says, that led him to question the nature of architecture.
"We were winning awards, but were we, in fact, improving [our clients'] well-being, their health, the vitality of their neighborhoods and the planet?" Berkebile recalls wondering. That wasn't easily answered. It had been more than a decade since the first Earth Day, but there was little discussion about the impact of buildings on the environment. The phrase green building wasn't part of the architectural lexicon, let alone a household term.
Berkebile helped change that. His determination not only kept his firm afloat but also positioned it at the front of a progressive — and profitable — new trend. In the past 25 years, Berkebile has moved from notoriety as the man in the middle of the Hyatt disaster to international respect as a key figure in making his industry more Earth-friendly.
For Berkebile, though, the stakes are still high. He may have changed the direction of his industry, but he's not done yet.
Berkebile started his architectural career building treehouses at his childhood home in the countryside of North Kansas City. His family lived on his grandfather's farm, a sprawling expanse with an orchard, a forest and a stream running through it. His mother planted one of the largest vegetable gardens in the city. His father was a third-generation German craftsman, a successful contractor who staked his name on frugality and conservation. "He taught me, 'Don't waste anything. Savor everything; reuse it,'" Berkebile says.
His family was politically conservative and attended the First Baptist Church of North Kansas City. Berkebile started questioning his religious upbringing in high school. By the time he left for the University of Kansas, he had rejected it completely. That void of inspiration was filled his sophomore year, though, when he was selected by the dean as one of 15 to study under famed architect Buckminster Fuller.
An early environmental activist, Fuller preached the value of resource conservation and was best-known as the inventor of the geodesic dome. Nearly half a century since he was under Fuller's tutelage, it's hard to spend an hour with Berkebile without some reference to "Bucky."
"From his point of view, we are cutting butter with a chain saw," Berkebile recalls of Fuller. "And that sort of vulgar, overmuscled, polluting approach emerged out of Western scientific thought. He thought that was a bad course."
That influence set Berkebile on a different course himself, as both an architect and an environmentalist.
"But first, I unfortunately had a little detour to Vietnam," he says. Berkebile was planning for graduate school when he got his draft notice. He was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean that became a flagship during the Vietnam War.
When he completed his service requirement, he married Libby Pottle — a fellow Kansas Citian he'd met through friends while the two were in college. An outdoorswoman herself, she was excited about settling down in San Francisco, a coastal city close to mountains. But the environmental couple returned to Missouri because Berkebile could get licensed far sooner in his home state.
That proved to be the right decision. Berkebile was hired by the respected Kansas City architecture firm Kivett and Myers. When he was 28, his design was selected in 1965 as the template for the new Kansas City International Airport. A few years later, he was on a flight returning from Munich, Germany — another airport project he was tapped to help design — when he and a colleague, Bruce Patty, decided to strike out on their own.
Their firm, Patty Berkebile Nelson Architects, opened shop in 1970, the same year President Richard Nixon enacted a sweeping array of environmental laws. Berkebile celebrated by hanging an Earth Day flag — fashioned from green felt pulled from his in-laws' old poker table — in his new office window.
The firm made a name for itself in preservation architecture, winning contracts to redevelop an old post office in St. Louis, a courthouse in St. Joseph and a performing-arts center in downtown Kansas City. "The Folly Theater was the world's largest pigeon hotel for a number of years, and now it's a poster child for the National Trust," Berkebile says.
Then the firm secured work on a project that promised to vault them to even greater national status — the $50 million, 40-story Hyatt Regency Hotel at Crown Center. Berkebile and another local architect, Herb Duncan, were the two principals on the project. Berkebile led the design work, which envisioned a set of four airy walkways with glass railings. The 120-foot-long "sky bridges" would cross the glass atrium like the center of an architectural "H," connecting the restaurants and conferences halls on the south side of the hotel to the rooms on the north side. It was Berkebile's signature across the seal on the envelope approving the final schematics for the skywalks. It was his name that was indicted in newspaper articles in the days after the collapse.
His guilt about his role as an architect drove him to delve into the environmental ethics of his industry. He went back through his firm's past projects. He learned more about the materials used and where they came from. He decided that designs were either restorative or destructive; there was no middle ground.
Nelson, Berkebile's longtime partner, says Berkebile's environmental research was nearly all-encompassing. "For several years, he had an almost total concentration on the environmental side, and that didn't do anything for the bottom line," Nelson says. "And there was some tension, some 'Bob, you've got to back off a little bit. The rest of us are carrying the architectural load.'"
Berkebile has little allegiance to conventional wisdom, though. He wears a colorful bow tie to business affairs where everyone else is in nearly identical suits. He's known for his offbeat socks — such as the black-with-red-hearts he sports the week of Valentine's Day. While many successful professionals were fleeing to the suburbs in the 1970s, he moved from Prairie Village to Kansas City's urban core, where he restored an antebellum mansion and then went on to design a modest, efficient set of townhomes in Hyde Park. For years, he had a passion for flashy, powerful cars; then he got the first Honda Insight hybrid to hit Kansas City. He stopped pushing the speedometers in BMWs and Porsches and started boasting about getting 80-plus miles per gallon.
The constantly traveling architect admits that his work consumes him. He sees his two grown children infrequently. He thinks his son, Tyler, recently married his Brazilian girlfriend. His daughter, Amy, lives in Maryland, and he's lucky if he sees her every couple of years. Even his wife, he says, has to be patient with his career. For years, their vacations have been a few odd days tacked on to the end of business and research trips to places such as New Zealand and Kenya.
Like his family, though, his partners knew that Berkebile wasn't out in left field when the Hyatt collapse led him to start on an environmental mission. "We also recognized there was something there," Nelson says. "We believed in it ourselves. Not to the extent that Bob did, with the fervor and zealousness about it, but we began to see it would pay off."
It did more than that. It jump-started a national movement.
At first, Berkebile's environmental zeal didn't sit well with those at the top of his industry.
By the late 1980s, Berkebile was energized from discussions with experts around the country. He took trips to the Land Institute to meet with agriculture innovator Wes Jackson. He went to Colorado to meet with green philosopher Amory Lovins, who established the Rocky Mountain Institute. Bill Browning, a green-building expert, was at that meeting. "He [Berkebile] was asking questions about who's doing what in terms of architecture and the green movement at the time," Browning says. "And the answer was no one."
So Berkebile lobbied the American Institute of Architects, a national industry group with more than 83,000 members. He wanted the national board of directors to create a committee to study how buildings could be designed in more environmentally minded ways.
Vernon Reed, a Kansas City architect, served on the national AIA board at the time. In early 1989, Berkebile and Kirk Gastinger were leaders of the local AIA chapter and confronted Reed about their concerns. "Kirk and Bob simply announced they were going to take control of the national conference because they thought the AIA had its head in the sand and was not tuned in to what the real issues were," Reed says. "I tried to calm them down and said, 'We've got to take your energy and work within the system to do some good, so you don't come across as wild-eyed loose cannons.'"
So Berkebile and Gastinger penned a resolution that would establish and fund an environmental committee, the creation of an environmental resource guide for architects and a materials-testing laboratory. They called the measure "CPR: Critical Planet Rescue." Reed says some of the national board members thought the dramatic wording was childish, that the whole CPR concept was gimmickry. They declined to endorse the resolution.
Gastinger and Berkebile began lobbying fellow chapters across the country, rallying enough support to get the resolution through, even if the top brass wasn't behind it. In May 1989, Berkebile and Gastinger took a train to St. Louis to present their resolution on the floor of an AIA convention attended by several thousand architects from across the country. The measure struck a chord, and CPR passed unanimously.
That didn't mean much, though, because the AIA shifted the proposal to an underfunded committee. So Berkebile set out to get funding himself. He took a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Bill Reilly, the top administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency at the time. Reilly, who had read of Berkebile's efforts, agreed to give the AIA a $1 million grant for environmental research. "I took that commitment, walked down the street to AIA headquarters and said, 'I'd like you to reconsider. I'd like a real committee, and maybe this million dollars will help,'" Berkebile recalls.
Reed says Berkebile effectively reversed the direction of an organization that was scaling back its environmental research. The new group — the Committee on the Environment — was chaired by Berkebile for the first two years and published the first Environmental Resource Guide in 1992. "I'd go so far as to say the whole green-building movement came from that committee," Reed says.
Green building isn't as expensive or high-tech as it sounds, Berkebile explains. Currently, U.S. commercial buildings devour 70 percent of the nation's electricity, consume 30 percent of the nation's raw materials and spit out 30 percent of America's waste. Green design uses the sun to help heat and light buildings that are constructed with locally available resources and recycled materials. Green buildings also include natural systems, such as native grasses, to suck up runoff and cleanse it of pollutants without the help of a water-treatment plant.
Those once-radical ideas have started to go mainstream. In 1993, Berkebile helped create a new group that wasn't confined to architects: the U.S. Green Building Council. The inaugural meeting of the council fit into a conference room at AIA headquarters. Last November, more than 22,000 green-building advocates and entrepreneurs traveled to Chicago for the council's annual conference.
Berkebile's firm, which became known as BNIM Architects in 1991, has been one of the leading environmental design outfits in the country. It designed an eight-level, 195,000-square-foot nursing complex for the University of Texas in Houston with Earth-friendly elements. It has won national awards for its environmental design of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Jefferson City. The firm has expanded to include offices in Des Moines, Houston and Los Angeles.
That doesn't mean Berkebile doesn't open his own wallet now and again. One of the most frequented green buildings in Kansas City is the Discovery Center, a facility operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation and designed by BNIM. Berkebile wanted to find recycled wood within the city limits. He got a list of all the condemned buildings in town and scoped them out. None had enough lumber for the Discovery Center's needs. Then he spotted a four-story warehouse in the City Market that was being demolished. "So I went home all depressed, and at dinner Libby said, 'You'd really like to buy that wood, wouldn't you?'" Berkebile says. "So we did. Libby and I bought the wood, talked to the guy, rented some trucks and a warehouse in the East Bottoms."
That kind of passion has gained him national recognition. In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced an effort to make the White House a model for green homes. At the request of the AIA, Berkebile helped recruit experts to come up with ways to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency. He has even been called to the outer edges of civilization — the icy reaches of Antarctica — to work with the National Science Foundation in making the McMurdo Research Station more environmentally friendly. He helped the station slash its energy use by 50 percent and reduce waste by 75 percent. But the researchers posed a larger task.
"They said, 'Bob, if you don't go home and change the way we design and build American communities, you will take our children off the planet,'" Berkebile says.
He took that challenge to heart. If you ask this architect, it's past time to try to repair the planet one building at a time.
It's time to tackle entire cities.
On a recent Wednesday, the shades are drawn on the 29th floor of BNIM's office in downtown Kansas City. On a projection screen, a slide show flickers with pastel images of a futuristic building with a jagged roof and walls made almost entirely of windows. BNIM architects spread diagrams and maps across the table as their client, Steve Hewitt, stands with his hands on his hips, evaluating their work.
It seems like any other consultation — except for the TV crew hoisting microphones and trying to maneuver clunky video cameras in the small space.
Hewitt is the city manager of Greensburg, the Kansas town that was obliterated by a tornado last May. The BNIM architects are presenting a new city that will be built to the highest environmental standards, and the Discovery Channel has been watching their every move for months, capturing footage for a reality series called Eco-Town. With a little narration help from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the show is scheduled to debut this summer.
Just before lunch, Berkebile ducks around the group and takes a seat at the back of the room. He chats quietly with one of the production assistants. He may be the man in charge, but Berkebile keeps a low profile.
"Hey, Bob, didn't see you sneak in," Hewitt says a few minutes later.
That's the way Berkebile wants it, though.
He didn't want to blow into rural Kansas as a big-city architect dictating the direction of the town. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius announced early on that she hoped Greensburg would be rebuilt as an environmental model. Berkebile wanted to help — but only if the residents of Greensburg invited his team to do the work.
Berkebile has been down this road before. In 1993, the entire town of Pattonsburg, Missouri, relocated after being ravaged by two floods. The town's mayor, David Warford, invited a team of experts led by Berkebile, who helped create a new master plan for the town that incorporated green principles.
A decade later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Berkebile was helping plan a 35th-anniversary party for the firm's clients. Instead of spending $25,000 on the anniversary bash, BNIM donated the money to Tulane University's community rebuilding efforts. Since then, Berkebile has taken a number of trips to the Lower 9th Ward, where he's working with the Holy Cross Neighborhood and actor Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" organization to rebuild homes that are affordable and environmentally sustainable.
To date, Greensburg has paid BNIM $286,000 to create a master plan for the town and design a new city hall, Big Well Museum and a "business incubator" center used to encourage start-up businesses. Earlier this year, the local council committed to becoming the first city in the country to have every city-owned structure meet the Green Building Council's highest platinum ranking.
While Greensburg officials are eating sandwiches and snickerdoodles for lunch, Berkebile asks about the prospect of combining the county and city governments for the sake of efficiency. With a streamlined system, he adds, they might be able to fit all government services into one building and vacate the old courthouse. If that space were converted into housing units, it would qualify for historical tax credits, he suggests.
"That's radical," one of the city staffers says. The Greensburg officials chuckle.
Hewitt talks about rebuilding Greensburg as though he's scouting for a football team: "Stronger, bigger, better." But he appreciates Berkebile's vision, even when it's a little out there.
By the end of the day, Hewitt and his crew are back on the road to central Kansas. The city manager acknowledges that Greensburg is still not much to look at. But the city and BNIM have wrapped up phase one — they've even put together an impressive video model of what the entire town will look like. "We'll see a big blitz this spring and summer," Hewitt says of construction plans.
Berkebile hopes that blitz keeps its environmental edge. And not just in Greensburg but in Kansas City, too.
As audience members polish off their salmon and wild rice during a recent environmental luncheon at the Hilton President Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Berkebile paces calmly under the glint of a gold chandelier at the front of the ornate ballroom. He challenges the group of business leaders and government types with disturbing charts of thickening hurricane patterns, spiking carbon-dioxide graphs, and images of planet Earth smoldering in what looks like an erupting volcano. "We're 2 degrees from total disaster," he says of global warming.
His message isn't easy to hear, but Berkebile tries to balance his sense of urgency with spirituality. Yes, he believes humanity is facing dramatic challenges, but he's a big-picture guy who believes in having a vision. He keeps a notebook by his bedside to capture ideas that come to him while he's sleeping. He has a daily meditation practice and attends the Center for Spiritual Living.
One of his biggest breakthroughs recently came from a couple of Aborigines who visited last summer to work on a mural at the Kansas City Zoo. One morning, one of the indigenous artists forgot his painting supplies. Berkebile offered to return to the house to retrieve them. Instead, the man sat in silence for a few moments, and, within the hour, his companion showed up with all the items he needed. The secret, the Aborigine told Berkebile, is easing into the silence and letting the universe deliver. "I'm trying to be quiet more," Berkebile says.
And his message is getting through to a growing audience.
On a recent Friday morning, Berkebile looks small on the stage of the J.C. Nichols Auditorium at Liberty Memorial. Behind him, a banner touts the annual Governor's Summit on Regional Economic Development hosted by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Drinking from a green Nalgene bottle and wearing one of his signatures bow ties, he looks out on hundreds of area CEOs and government officials. Many of the business leaders have signed the chamber's Climate Protection Partnership, an initiative to reduce their contributions to global warming. Also in the audience are area mayors, including Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who have signed a national initiative to slash their cities' Earth-warming pollution.
When he approaches the podium, Berkebile has Sebelius to his left and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt to his right. "Today, I'm proud to announce a new initiative to become America's greenest region," he says.
The audience members thumb through their binders, reading through the 17 goals outlined in the proposal, including a regional transit system and a "zero waste" economy. It's not for the fainthearted, Berkebile says. But it's the kind of vision that his own mentor, Buckminster Fuller, would have embraced. "Bucky felt that we're all born geniuses and we're gradually de-geniused by our parents and our teachers," Berkebile tells the crowd.
After nearly two hours of stifling yawns, the crowd chuckles. It seems like a small gesture. But to Berkebile, that's the most important step. Just 48 hours earlier, as he was cruising back from the Discovery Center with the Greensburg team, he was worried that Blunt might tune him out. But he appears to have everyone's attention.
"We invite you to join us in reclaiming our genius," he finishes.
He's already far past retirement age. But he's not going to hang it up until he sees that the mayors and business leaders who have jumped on the green bandwagon follow through on their green promises.
"This can happen, but can it happen soon enough and strong enough to make a difference?" he asks. "I don't know yet."
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