September 21, 2010
Beth Forer, Eisner Design, New York, NY
What did your life look like before you worked in the green building field?
I’ve had several careers. I started off in academics, majoring in Russian Studies at the University of Michigan, with the intention of going into journalism or the foreign service. I always liked designing and making things, and when I took an elective in Industrial Design, I loved it and decided to go to graduate school in ID. However, my real love was ceramics, and I worked as a potter for years and got very involved in the fine craft movement. This was a wonderful part of my life. After my son was born, I got a job with a more regular schedule, doing product development for a commercial ceramics manufacturer. Not surprisingly, it barely drew on my knowledge and experience with clay and was more about making objects cheaper and faster with the most mass appeal. However, I did get to travel to China several times, to remote places where the ceramics factories are located, and that was an unforgettable experience.
About two years ago, I decided to look for a new job outside commercial ceramics. This is when I found Eisner Design.
What is the scope of your responsibilities at Eisner Design? Do you work exclusively on green projects?
I am involved somewhat in the architectural side of the firm, but mainly I run their sustainability division, EisnerGreen, which is focused on greening existing residential buildings. The principal of the firm is a LEED-AP and the company has been practicing environmental responsibility for a long time, but we realized the best way to truly make an impact on the environment is to retrofit existing buildings.
Describe your “Eureka!” moment that shaped your desire to transition into green building.
I didn’t have one specific moment like that with green building. I’ve been a believer in the environmental movement since my college days; it always seemed obvious and made sense to me. Once I got a job in an architectural firm, it was a simple and logical step to sustainable design. Some day there won’t be a distinction; all buildings will be green in the future.
How did you transition? Did you take any courses?
I already knew a lot about architecture and design, and I knew about construction through my husband. He had been a cabinet maker and master carpenter during out craft days, and over the years I helped him with many projects, working with him in his shop, installing cabinetry and assisting with renovations. He now works as a field superintendent on large residential buildings, so I know about that end of construction as well. Also, my varied background turns out to be an asset. It helps to have eclectic and diverse skills in running a business. I can write a press release, design a business card, and learn computer programs with equal ease.
What was your biggest fear before the transition?
Actually, none. I feel very at home in this field.
What have you learned so far?
First of all, I learned how widespread and vibrant the movement is, with people working in so many different areas. I had known the broad gist of what’s going on, but now I see all the ideas and inventions that are bubbling under the surface. Soon there will be enough critical mass to really explode. That’s what I meant earlier when I said someday all building will be green. I like the expression “the new normal.” People will just assume a way of life that is sustainable.
I also came to realize just how much policy matters in getting people to change. Not too long ago I read an interview with Thomas Friedman. The interviewer asked him why he wasn’t more enthusiastic about programs to change incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent ones, which is the easiest and most cost effective step anyone could take. He reply was that people think that by changing bulbs they’ve done enough. The quote that most stuck with me was: “Don’t change your light bulbs, change your leaders.” Changing policy is one of the quickest ways to change the way people act.
What do you love most about what you do?
The sense that I am contributing to the greater good, which, despite my total dedication and love of ceramics, is something I never felt when I was a potter. Also, I like the people I work with. Folks who get involved in the sustainable field do so because they’re passionate about it, and there’s a sense we’re all building something important together. The atmosphere will probably change as “greenwashing” becomes more prevalent, but for now I’ve found a great bunch of people
What is your proudest accomplishment so far?
That’s a tough question – I feel like I just got started. I’m proud of the system I developed at Eisner Green, simplifying the greening process for buildings. It’s confusing to a lay person to take a building and make it function more efficiently. We can help people who may not know anything about the technical side of buildings, like members of coop boards who work in other fields, to make educated decisions about greening their buildings. We walk them through not only the actual retrofits, but also the financial side: tax implications, government rebates and grants, etc.
What qualities do you look for in an ideal colleague or team member on a project?
Competency and thorough knowledge of their field is important, of course. But they also have to be sincere, decent people who understand how to work on a team.
Can you give advice to those looking to transition into a green career?
Learn what’s going on in the field. Find a niche where you can make a contribution. Network, meet people, volunteer while you’re learning. Also, it would help if we had more good people involved in the policy side of things: laws, regulations, and incentives.
Any recommended reading?
I read architecture, design and engineering magazines to keep me abreast of the news. Dwell Magazine does an excellent job of incorporating sustainability into the design, not layering it on top as an add-on. The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, has nothing to do with sustainable design per sé but helps to explain why greening is becoming so popular now. Look into books on vernacular architecture, that’s where all the wisdom of the ages is evident. Read about European and Middle Eastern sustainable movements; they’re ahead of the United States in this regard.
Interview conducted by Mary Tchamkina.