Andrea Traber: Visionary Pragmatist

April 1, 2006
By Robert Nieminen • Cover and portrait photography by Liane Enkelis
With a life-long passion for architecture and design, coupled with an enduring awareness for sustainable principles, Andrea Traber has set out on a course to balance her vision of changing the world for the better by practically designing and building better spaces for her clients in which to live and work.
When the Friends of the Earth organization was founded back in 1969, its founder David Brower coined the phrase, "Thinking Globally, Acting Locally," an expression that has since found its way onto bumper stickers and T-shirts all across the world. Wrapped up in that slogan is a very practical philosophy for living and doing business, one that any architect or designer could embrace in their practice of designing healthy, sustainable environments.

Although she doesn't reference the well-known expression, it is evident in talking to Andrea Traber that she lives and breathes this vision in her life and her practice. Traber is the principal of Andrea Traber Architecture + Sustainability, an architecture and sustainability consulting firm in Berkeley, CA. And while hers is not a large, high-profile firm, there is little doubt that the work she does on a local level is making a very real impact on a larger scale.

With over 10 years of experience working with a variety of clients and teams, Traber's projects range from single family residential to commercial renovations, with the added service of providing LEED and green building consulting services to project teams and owners. Traber is a LEED-Accredited Professional and serves on the Steering Committee of the Northern California Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council—the largest chapter in the United States with roughly 400 members to date.

While many in the industry are just now catching on to the idea of sustainability, Traber seems to have had an inherent interest in it her whole life. Even as a child, she had a keen sense about the importance of energy efficiency. She recalls looking out the car window at all the high-rise buildings downtown at night and pointing out to her parents that someone had left all the lights on; a fact that obviously didn't make much sense even to a young child.

Following a lifelong desire to be an architect, Traber discovered that she could pursue her passion and actively engage her personal values of environmentalism and community participation. After a career change from the banking industry, she entered U.C. Berkeley in 1987, where she focused her studies in architecture on climate-responsive design, energy and green materials. At the time however, environmental design wasn't the strength of the University's building program, so Traber and a group of fellow students decided to shake things up by planning events to raise consciousness and awareness of environmental issues.

For example, she and a group of students had the janitors pile up all the trash in the lobby of one of the campus buildings and left it there for a week to make a point regarding waste. "It got a lot of attention," she says with a laugh, "and it was a lot of fun."

Upon graduation, Traber sought out firms that practiced green design and she continued her own education through active participation in several green building efforts. After about five years in the industry, Traber joined Van der Ryn Architects in 1996 as a managing principal where she gained substantial experience and a deeper knowledge of green building through designing and managing a variety of projects. Sim Van der Ryn, who had been one of her professors at Berkeley, was restarting his practice after retiring from teaching, and Traber was given "a wonderful opportunity" to work with one of her mentors.

In 2003, Traber opened her own firm and has been providing full- service architecture and design ever since. Interiors & Sources recently spoke with Traber regarding her practice and her thoughts on sustainable design.

Who or what inspires you to advance the cause of sustainable building and design? Traber: I want to mention that the green building community— colleagues, other architects, engineers, builders, interior designers—there are so many facets; green building is so comprehensive when done properly—that I've always been inspired and motivated by the whole team. There's so much interest and synergy and passion about this when you start talking to people who are doing green design. They're sort of proselytizing, and we're not ashamed of it (laughs). It's really the thing that motivates us all, this shared passion to change the world, one little thing at a time.

I've had the good fortune to work with a lot of visionary owners, people who have to fund the project, who lead it, be the inspiration to the team—that's very motivating. It's so hard to do a project when the owner is greening it just because they have to and comparing that to someone who's totally committed. That's the single thing that can make a huge difference on a project—the owner's commitment. That's really the change agent.

Being based in California, where you're seeing mandates for green building for new government projects, do you think the change toward sustainable design is being driven more from clients themselves or is it coming from the top-down?Traber: It's a combination of both. For instance, now I'm working with a couple of developers—they're for-profit condo developers for residential and commercial, and they're really passionate. They're not required to do this. It does help them a little bit, PR-wise, but really it's coming from their motivation to do better projects.

There have been a number of developers in the green building community for a long time, but we're seeing more of it. I'm seeing more of the younger generation within a development company—maybe the son of a developer—and what's really beautiful is that they can put together the business case too. Clearly, they recognize that's the motivator from their end. It's not just them, and it's certainly not just us as a design team, but making that business case is really important. We want to collaborate on it because there's creativity in that, which is also rewarding.

Do you find it difficult, when you're meeting with new clients that aren't fully aware of green building practices, to make the business case, or is it clear that it's the right way to go?Traber: I think it's very clear to many people. In general, it's becoming clearer. But there are still a lot of people who have heard of, say, indoor air quality issues and they're naturally interested, but they don't know a lot. Even if they're interested, there can be hesitance because there's a sense that it's going to cost more, or it's going to be difficult, or we're going to be using materials that no one else has used before—it's going to be too far out there.

So I definitely try to meet people where they are, to educate and find what's important to them. Are they really concerned about their children growing up in a house with materials that off-gas? And the answer to that question is, yes, of course they're concerned. It becomes really obvious; it becomes a value; it becomes a driving force of the project, so with each material selection, or how you design the ventilation or windows or heating system, you're always referencing back to these values and educating them along the way. We do have a choice in paints; we have a choice in sealants and in all of our other finishes. So there's a lot of education, but people want it—they're very open to it.

Speaking of choices in green products, with more manufacturers introducing products on the market
with claims of being "environmentally friendly," where do you turn for reliable information on product performance—the manufacturer's claims or
third-party certification?
Traber: Whenever possible, I do rely on a third party. There isn't third-party certification on all attributes. I always make sure that it's third-party and not second-party. There are some industry- sponsored, second-party certifications that are not independent and I don't trust them.

You also have to evaluate it at the micro level. Marketing material may make claims in general, but you have to look at the detailed information and really see if it's no-VOC versus low-VOC, or low- toxic or low-emitting. They are very general terms and you do have to investigate.

You also have to weigh importance. Sometimes it's hard if there's a strong emphasis on indoor air quality. You can go a long way with a choice of materials, but will a client decide to go further and go for fully FSC-certified, or 100 percent recycled content on the wood? There's a choice there. Sometimes there's a price impact. It's about providing choices, informing and educating.

What is your approach to meeting new clients and determining what design solutions will best meet
their needs?
Traber: The first thing I do before I even take the project is go to the site and meet with them and spend a couple of hours, at least, and find out what their goals, priorities, desires and budget are. Then the first real meeting is about delving deeper into their priorities and their goals.

It can be more challenging in urban settings, where I do most of my work, but there are also great opportunities for better light and ventilation, better views—sort of recasting the home that is more open and is more conducive to inhabiting the space such that it feels better and is more pleasant.

Most often that's the driving thing, but I find it as a really complementary goal to all the green design goals. They're very much related. And people get this; they don't need scientific data to prove that they function better with daylight.

But there is data suggesting that daylighting and other sustainable design elements have a marked effect on the inhabitants of a space, be it residential or commercial. How do you incorporate this data? Traber: You have to cast it in slightly different terms. It's a quality of life issue when it's a residential project, whereas in a commercial setting, it's productivity—it's staff productivity; it's higher sales. There are definitely studies out there that have shown these correlations. It's definitely a field with a lot of interest and study.

We're still trying to make the financial argument to building owners because they often need hard data to support these decisions. But it's starting to happen and I think it's happening because of a higher level dialogue that's been taking place in the last couple of years. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council has been elevating [green building] to a higher level.

The LEED rating system has obviously gained a foothold in the industry in recent years, while critics point to inherent flaws. What is the USGBC doing to address these problems and where do you see the standards heading?Traber: What I see is, for instance with new products such as LEED-Homes, a new pilot, there is a shift away from so much emphasis in design. There is still emphasis required in design, but what it's shifting to is a situation where you're required to test and verify. So actually, the bulk of the points in LEED-Homes are related to verification that the design and construction met the intent—that they're actually performing to that intent. That to me is a really healthy thing. It changes how an owner approaches a LEED-Homes project. You hear that LEED is way too rigorous and even Draconian, or you hear that it's not thorough enough, and in some ways both are true. There is definitely streamlining—the new products that are coming out are very much aimed at making them easier to use but are still rigorous. I'm hoping that we may be starting to see a shift toward them becoming more a standard in a different way than they have been, meaning a standard that has some credibility from outside, such ASTM or other agencies being able to sanction various aspects of the program. I don't know all of the details of what's happening there, but I'm sensing a move towards third-party verification, or an independent assessment of the standard.Why is sustainability important and how do you think it will shape the A&D profession?Traber: The part about why it's important is so abundantly clear to me. To me, there's a sense of urgency of changing the course of the way in which we build. Our civilization is facing serious issues in terms of global warming, etc. I think it's necessarily raising the bar in the profession—not just to design a wonderful building that people want to be in, but to dig deeper into how it's really impacting a larger scale, how it's impacting people on a deeper level.

There's another level of information that we have to bring into our projects. In a funny way, I've been debating the question: Does this mean there will be more consultants on a project team or fewer? And how do you manage that? What I'm saying is there's actually going to be more. There might be a green building consultant on a team, and there might be more specialists. Then the challenge is, how do you keep this an integrated project so that you do reap the benefits of synergies, so that your initial design approach really does pan out and lower energy use, and better daylighting and better ventilation, and all the benchmarks we have?

It's a struggle, and I feel that's where we need to place some emphasis—on the process—recognizing that the process necessarily has to change and not to be scared by that, but to deeply think about how we can contribute to making it a more fruitful process and invite more players on the team.

Describe your design philosophy.Traber: To me, I've always felt like I am both visionary and pragmatic, while at the same time they're a little bit at odds. I've always felt that in order to fulfill a vision it's got to be grounded in some reality, like it or not. I think that balancing is always going on and it's always a driving thing for me. I'm always aware of (overcompensating) on the side of pragmatism because it might be easier or it might be the only thing possible, versus trying to be too pie-in-the-sky. I think it's important to keep checking that, to keep pushing on the visionary side, to stay open to new things. To check that balance—that's how you move forward. It's not either or, it's both. And you have to keep that in perspective.As an industry, are we weighted too heavy on either side of vision or pragmatism? Traber: I think it's easy to get very engaged and wrapped into the technical, pragmatic side. I find myself doing that daily. I think individuals hold strong visions, but as a collective consciousness, so to speak, I don't think we really have a shared vision of where we're going. I think we're all motivated by knowing that we need to go toward a certain direction or vision, but I'm not sure that we all really know what that looks like.

So I think we're dependent on these models of things like biomimicry or living buildings. These things are pretty abstract, but they're really exciting too. The vision is really wonderful in keeping us moving and motivated.

Where do you see the future of the industry?Traber: Janine Benyus' work on biomimicry is absolutely inspirational, and if we don't adopt biomimicry, for example, what are the options? The same issues solved in the same way will not get us where we need to go. I do feel—or I hope—that (biomimicry) will be a driving force—that we can do better with less technology in a sense. Certainly, biomimicry is technology, it's just a different variety. It's highly technical.

But I hope we're heading toward a nature-based technology. In order to reach the success that we can, I hope we're heading toward living buildings, or buildings that function much more lightly but much more effectively in terms of how they process energy and resources and how they are to be in. In order to reach the success that we can reach, we need to alter the process.

It really needs to be collaborative; it needs to be inclusive, integrated—actually, a lot more fun than the old way. I don't mean that flippantly. There's inspiration there; there's passion there when you're having fun on a project because you're all motivated. I think that needs to come through more, not just slavery and hard work. It feels like that often.

Every day I feel like how fortunate I am to be able to be doing this with my career. The passion and the commitment only get deeper. It can feel so onerous to a design professional, like (sustainability) is another thing you have to pay attention to. It's so rewarding every day to be able to know that you're making a difference. It's a blessing.

Andrea Traber Architecture + Sustainability
2421 Fourth St. Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 486-0640

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