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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.