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Urban ecosystems: An interview with Denis Hayes (Part II)

In a previous column I outlined Denis Hayes’s role in constructing the Bullitt Center, a self-sustaining green building in Seattle. Now I would like to take a step back to look at Denis’s history with Stanford and what we can learn from him about turning thought into action.

Denis not only attended Stanford but later served as an adjunct professor and on the governing board. He chuckled when I asked him how his experience as a student prepared him for what he’s doing now. “You mean how did seizing and occupying buildings prepare me to build one?” He went on to explain that in law school he gained experience negotiating with contractors and addressing financial considerations – which were “vastly more complicated” than he expected.

Such practical skills for navigating society and industry are as key to making change as vision and ambition. For Denis, an integral part of realizing his idea was finding people who had a relaxed schedule and the determination to figure out how to make things work. Some building developers want to do everything as quickly as possible, but novel projects like the Bullitt Center require flexibility and resolve to develop new technologies and methodologies along the way. The same could be said of cutting-edge efforts in other fields.

So what can Stanford students do to help turn talk into walk? With regard to sustainability, Denis advises looking inward to the University itself and exerting leverage on the administration. Consider how much construction is going on on campus right now: a demolished library, three new dorms and a renovated gym, to name a few. New buildings are a golden opportunity for Stanford to start thinking in the long term. Although developers want to offer the lowest upfront price they can, the most durable and resilient buildings often have the highest upfront costs. Yet such buildings are not only cheaper in the long run but also a better investment: “You have a secure rate of return in things that decrease utility bills and running costs,” Denis explains.

Another critical component of turning dream into reality: Build on what’s already there. Denis reminds us to tap into existing university resources, such as the renewable energy expertise of Professor Emeritus Gilbert M. Masters, to help shape new sustainability programs and educational efforts.

And the good thing is, once the path is there, it’s easier to make people walk. In light of Denis’s lessons in leading by example, we can consider an ongoing environmental effort on campus: the student-led petition to replace Stanford’s grass landscaping with drought-tolerant native plants. Right now resistance comes largely from the upfront costs of redoing Stanford’s lawns, including time, money and convincing people that the University’s image won’t be tarnished by the change. Since the new construction projects will require new lawns, we have a great opportunity to implement native vegetation and persuade people that the transition makes long-term sense – and doesn’t decrease the campus’s beauty at all.

What about pursuing change in the world outside sustainability? Denis has experience with that as well. As an undergraduate at Stanford, he got involved with social activism. With issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War making daily headlines, “the world had a lot of immediacy,” he recalls. Students in his generation felt that there was no community to champion those causes, so they took the burden on themselves. During his senior year he set out to ban classified research at Stanford – a goal others thought exceedingly difficult, but one he saw achieved by the time he graduated. Of the accomplishment, he says, “Idealism coupled with determination can let you go farther than people think you can go.”

His generation had a desire to “do it better and smarter” and to “pass on a better world than we inherited from our parents.” But in his opinion, “we kind of failed you.” He would advise Stanford students to get engaged while they still have the flexibility, energy and intellectual base to give them confidence. “The most valuable thing in your life is your time,” he says.  “You shouldn’t waste it waiting to be five or ten years older before you get involved.”

At 70 years old, Denis is free to admit that there is “not a man [his] age” who wouldn’t give everything he has for youth. But the years he’s spent in pursuit of change have given him an equally valuable skill set: knowledge, experience and the foresight to pass them on. And these qualities are just as important for making a difference – one building at a time.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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