Virginia Tech Magazine
Fall 2009

Hokies Thinking Green by Denise Young
the sustainability
efforts of
Virginia Tech
It isn’t just faculty, staff, and current students whose research and endeavors are contributing to a more sustainable future. Countless Hokies across the globe are involved in efforts to reduce our impact on the environment, whether that means thinking more sustainably when it comes to architecture, water conservation, or renewable energies.

This article focuses on a small number of Virginia Tech alumni who are working toward a better--and greener--future for people and the planet.

Green roof installation between Seitz and Fralin halls on the Virginia Tech campus


"There's no such thing as 'green architecture,'" says Mike Brady (architecture '04), a LEED*-certified architect for Clark Nexsen, an international architecture and engineering firm. "There is good design and bad design, and 'green architecture' is just one aspect of good design."

It is important to incorporate sustainable aspects into building design, notes Brady, due simply to the facts: Building waste can represent as much as 30 percent of total landfill waste, and buildings consume one-third of all energy produced. "Sustainability and resource management are global problems, and the architecture profession is just as accountable as anyone else for doing the right thing."

Bill George (architecture '90), also a LEED-certified architect with the firm, began his foray into sustainable building practices in 2000, when he designed an Army barracks complex at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, the first LEED-certified building for the Army and the first LEED Silver certification in Europe for the federal government.

"The ever-increasing pace of development in the world throws many natural and manmade systems out of balance, and the focus on sustainable design is necessary to address this imbalance," says George.

LEED Silver-Certified Building
Bill George, a LEED-certified architect with Clark Nexsen, helped to design the Army barracks complex at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. The project was the first LEED Silver-certified building for George and the first one for the federal government in Europe.
He notes that a growing awareness of the planet's frailty has come from a rather unexpected source. "Ironically, the pioneering of space travel, in itself a very non-sustainable activity, has enlightened the world like nothing else of how limited our planet's resources are, how interrelated we are to each other, and how manmade development is having a global impact on the planet."

According to Robert T. Gunn (architecture '72), also with Clark Nexsen, "The trend toward green has expanded from a handful of proponents to a major component of the last presidential campaign and cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. The trend is in every major aspect of commercial and retail sales. It is quickly going from a trend to a given."

For Gunn, sustainability must begin at the foundation and work its way up. "The most important aspect is designing it from the beginning to be green. Thinking that you can conventionally design a building and then sprinkle some green on it at the end is where most clients go wrong.

"Green architecture is important to me personally--we have traded two gas guzzlers for two Priuses--and plan to have expansions and renovations to our house LEED certified. It is important personally as well globally because it is the right thing to do on every level," says Gunn, who adds that his years at Tech prepared him for the work he does now.

Mike Brady also credits his experiences in the architecture program at Tech with preparing him for his career as a LEED-certified architect. "The Virginia Tech architecture program does its best to instill the sensibilities of good design into its graduates, giving them the opportunity and responsibility of incorporating that into their professional lives."

"At Tech I was taught to look at things in a new and fresh way; this creativity helps in all aspects of design, including green architecture," says Rebecca Brady (architecture '07), who is also LEED certified and an intern with Clark Nexsen. She adds that in order to think green, people need only to reflect on three R's--reduce, reuse, recycle--and put these concepts into practice.

* Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design


For Janelle Hope Robbins (M.S. biological systems engineering '03), ensuring that people from the Ganges to the Gulf of Mexico have access to safe, unpolluted drinking water is just another part of her role for the Waterkeeper Alliance. Across the globe, members of the alliance are working to stem water pollution, patrolling waterways in kayaks or research vessels, advocating for stronger enforcement of environmental laws in the courtroom, rallying community support in town meetings, or educating young people in the classroom. Robbins serves as staff scientist for the organization, providing scientific and engineering support to Waterkeeper organizations worldwide.

Janelle Robbins, staff scientist for the Waterkeeper Alliance

Janelle Robbins serves as the staff scientist for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the world’s water resources.

She also coordinates the group's anti-coal campaign ( and co-coordinates the storm-water campaign, in addition to serving as the Gulf of Mexico regional coordinator by providing strategic planning, capacity building, and other services to Waterkeepers in that region. "The fight for clean water is a fight for one of the most basic and essential human rights," she says.

For Robbins, pursuing a career in sustainability came easily, as it fulfilled her passion for the environment--she even dressed as a recycling bin one year for Halloween.

During her studies, she developed a growing awareness that many non-profit organizations are underserved by individuals with hard technical skills like engineering. "You have to understand the facts and be able to analyze the data because strong, effective environmental advocacy is based on fact and good science, not spin. From there, it was easy for me to see the way to apply my passion to my career," says Robbins.

The worldwide water situation is grim, she notes. More than 3.6 million people die each year from water-related diseases; 84 percent of those deaths are children under the age of 15. Ninety-eight percent of those deaths occur in developing nations--in the U.S., people often take for granted that in most cases they can turn on the tap and get clean and safe water, says Robbins.

However, she adds, even in the U.S, drinking-water supplies are also in danger, from coal mining and combustion waste, endocrine-disrupting compounds from wastewater discharges, and numerous contaminants from industry. "When your water has been contaminated, that polluter has stolen your right to clean water. Unless we all take a more active role in our communities, the situation will get worse before it gets better."

For Robbins, fighting for water resources is just one aspect of a larger picture, ensuring that the planet remains a life-sustaining, healthy place for people to live. "Protecting our natural resources is a necessity, not a luxury, and we all have a part to play in that--whether it's in the little choices we make at the grocery store or the bigger choices like where you live and how you commute to work."

Robbins' advice for those looking to go green is simple: just make small lifestyles changes, such as using a reusable water bottle or coffee mug or using canvas shopping bags instead of disposable plastic. "I think there's a huge misconception that in order to be sustainable or an environmentalist you have to be uncomfortable, but that's just not true--many changes make you more comfortable," says Robbins, whose sustainable lifestyle includes membership in a community-sponsored agriculture program, growing her own vegetables, raising her own chickens, using rain-water barrels to collect water for her plants, and weekly jaunts to the local farmer's market.


Solar-powered generators

For Jenny French, her experiences at Virginia Tech and in a cooperative education experience at NASA solidified her awareness of the earth’s frailty. Today, French and her husband co-own half of SUNRNR, a company that sells solar-powered generators.

Jenny French's (aerospace and ocean engineering '85) experiences always seem to end up with her looking toward the sky. Her journey began as a Virginia Tech Cooperative Education student working at NASA and took to the skies during her years as a flight instructor and jump pilot. From an education in aerospace engineering, she has landed in the solar enery sector.

"My experiences at Tech solidified my view of the Earth as a fragile blue ball; my fascination with orbital dynamics; interest in flying and zero gravity; understanding that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed; and the diversity of my analytic and problem-solving skills," says French.

In the late 1980s, French was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., and working on special projects. On a trip to visit her family in Virginia, French met her future husband, Scott, a skydiver. The two moved to Harrisonburg, Va., soon after, where she began a new career as a certified flight instructor and jump pilot.

Then, in 2008, a longtime friend approached French and her husband with a business proposal they couldn't refuse. The couple now owns half of SUNRNR, a company that produces and sells solar-powered generators, providing a solar solution for those living off the grid. "We saw the need and potential and joined in, and like good pilots, we have been learning ever since."

One of the obstacles, says French, is that the generators have so many potential markets. "We fit everywhere a fossil fuel-powered generator could be used," she notes.

"Of course, solar and wind power will help cut our emissions in the U.S., but I think personal or communal stored alternative-energy systems will make the greatest impacts in third-world and non-grid countries where they will help provide fresh drinking water, increase productivity, foster education and communication, deter disease, and be available for disaster relief."

French tries to remind others that although the U.S. has an inexpensive electrical grid, it should really be utilized only during shortages, failure, or in cases of hyperinflation, like water during a drought. "Getting off the grid is like privatizing the commodity and working toward self-reliance, independence, and sustainability. We should be reducing (conserving), reusing (storing for later), and recycling (renewing) electricity for ourselves and the earth."

Whether protecting water resources, designing sustainably from the ground up, or providing solar storage for those living off the grid, these Hokies and many others are helping to craft a greener future, one step at a time.

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