A former president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the 2011 recipient of AIA’s Edward C. Kemper Award for service to the profession, Chet Widom was appointed California State Architect by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2011.
His long career in architecture includes acting as Senior Architectural Advisor for the Los Angeles Community College District’s $6.1 billion construction program. His public service includes membership on the Building and Safety Commission, the City Planning Commission and the Hospital Building and Safety Board for the State of California. In December of 2011, he served as member of the Bond Oversight Committee for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, he is co-chair of the Advisory Board for the 2012 Green California Summit. In a Green Technology interview, he talks about his new duties and his commitment to sustainable design for California schools.
You’ve had a long career in architecture and been involved in a wide range of projects. What opportunities did the State Architect position offer you?
I believe highly in service to my profession and my community and I saw opportunities to help DSA achieve its goals. Often, we perceive government or regulators as obstacles. As opposed to being the obstacles, I want my team to be partners with the school districts, reaching toward quality of design. That’s a cultural shift, but we’re working hard at it and making some headway. I’ve got a great staff that’s really working at it.
I also wanted to make sure that we look at increasing the quality of design in public schools and community colleges. Even though I don’t have specific design authority, I’d like to use this position to raise the consciousness of design across the entire community – specifically, in regard to sustainability because I believe in it.
Sustainability is not a new thing – I was trained as an architect to do it 50 years ago, but I’m glad to see that it’s really taken hold. I would like to see sustainability become part of the process, not an add-on, not another requirement but, rather, part of the process of great design.
I saw this job as a great opportunity to make a difference.
Are there other things you’re hoping to achieve?
We have the goal of trying to align the [state and federal] accessibility laws. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements changed in March of this year and I have an opportunity, with my staff, to re-write the accessibility codes to bring greater alignment between the two so that in fact it will make it easier for our public and for schools to really provide quality access. I’m not talking about substantive changes, I’m talking about aligning the codes so that they in fact work well together.
This is not necessarily a sustainability issue, but in many respects it is. We are looking at buildings that are going to last and be productive for 50 years. Our real goal is to educate young people - or in the case of community colleges, all kinds of people - and you can’t do that without accessibility.
How do you hope to influence school construction in California?
From a big picture standpoint, I believe that schools should be educating young people about sustainability. If we’re going to change a society we need to start with the young people. It should be obvious to the people in the building that we are making changes to become more sustainable. That should be an educational process. At LACCD, we were putting in monitors that were showing the amount of energy that was being used in the building.
In terms of the buildings themselves, we really need to start at the beginning. You don’t start with solar panels. You start with reducing the amount of energy that’s required at the very beginning. That’s really important. It doesn’t mean that you turn the lights out and work in the dark, it means you start with natural lighting. Start with natural ventilation if you can do it. In working on a number of buildings in Los Angeles I learned that the air conditioning is really only used 20 percent of the time. Why are we not taking advantage – especially in Southern California – of this great opportunity for natural ventilation?
You start by reducing the amount of energy that’s consumed, the amount of water that’s consumed. Then you say, “Now we need X amount of power – is there an efficient way that we can do it?” We’re finding photovoltaics are probably one of the most efficient sources that we can get right now.
We’re working on a program right now where we will be talking to school districts about simple changes that they can make – changing light bulbs; very minor, simple things. At LACCD (Los Angeles Community College District), we called it design-side management; going in and working out how to systematically reduce the amount of power, the amount of water that we’re using.
Have we arrived at a time when “green” construction techniques and materials should be part of every school construction project?
I would agree with that completely. I believe it’s just part of good design to do all of these things.
LACCD was using LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as their base. When I first got there, it was looking at LEED Certified. By the time I left, we were doing LEED Platinums. Every building that was coming in was at least LEED Silver. The contractors were talking about it, everybody was talking about it and it wasn’t a big deal to achieve. The contractors were saying it was very little financial premium, or no premium at all. It’s a matter of changing habits.
There are some high levels - when you want to really move and start becoming totally efficient and becoming zero energy based - that take more work, but we are in the process of trying to make that happen.
New school construction projects that receive state funding will have to meet CALGreen requirements. How will the application of CALGreen evolve in the future?
As it stands today, CALGreen is required for any new campus that’s built. In addtion, if you’re going to take an entire campus and totally rebuild it, CALGreen would be required.
We’re proposing it to the Building Standards Commission that all new buildings on existing campuses and new campuses meet the CALGreen requirements. Frankly, it’s not difficult to meet the requirements. I know that there’s some opposition and some people think that it’s going to add more cost, but I think that it’s a very minimal amount.
Could it eventually apply to remodeling projects?
We’re certainly going to use the bully pulpit to try to make that happen, but I don’t think that will become a standard in terms of actual code in this next cycle.
For schools, DSA proposes regulations and the BSC approves them. Renovation is difficult to pull under the CALGreen code because there are so many variations. Are you doing anything with air conditioning? Maybe you’re not. Maybe all you’re doing is re-surfacing corridor walls. Maybe you are strictly upgrading technology, to improve computer access, etc.
If it goes this route eventually, it will be a very difficult process to come up with a code for it. It would be a tremendous re-writing.
Over time, could the CALGreen code become the most common “standard” for green school design?
CALGreen is a code and CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) is standard or rating system, the same way that LEED is a rating system. There are two different approaches – regulation versus some sort of a rating standard.
The USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) has done a big job of making LEED a public rating system. Most people know about that system. I don’t think that CALGreen is going to become a standard in that sense. I think there’s a chance that CALGreen could become a standard for the development of codes across the country – we’re the first one to have a code. It’s not complete – it does not include the energy piece, because in California that’s done by the Energy Commission. So in order to have a full code you have to take part of the Energy Commission’s and you have to take CALGreen and then put them together – we state that in the CALGreen code.
I would like CALGreen to raise the standard, but I think the idea was to put a toe in the water and get people comfortable with the idea and then begin to raise the standards as time goes on.
What’s your sense of the current activity level in school construction?
There was a high peak in the last number of years, and it’s going down. We’re still seeing a lot of smaller projects coming through. There’s still a lot of work out there.
You still have a number of unfunded local bonds – they’ve been approved and they will be funded if this economy starts rolling. That’s a conundrum, because these projects would help get the economy going.
LA Community College has over a billion dollars in work that has not commenced. They went into a moratorium, but from what I understand they’re finally beginning to loosen up.
Where are the opportunities for companies that offer design and construction services?
If you’re in it for the long hall, I think you’ve got some great opportunities.
Right now, there are an awful lot of districts that would like to lower their energy costs. Companies or consultants could help districts reduce their day-to-day costs by some very simple low-hanging fruit changes. I think that is a real opportunity – and, of course, adding on to that is the potential for energy development – solar PV or other systems.
As co-chair of the Advisory Board for the Green California Schools Summit, what would you like to see this conference achieve in 2012?
For those folks that are already involved in sustainability, I would want to see them take the things that they are doing, or about to do, and use them as opportunities for their students to learn about the future. At the end of the day, what I do is not about bricks and mortar. It’s about teaching people and it’s about inspiring people.
The other piece is what I talked about earlier – there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. I don’t think that it’s all about adding energy production. It’s also about lowering your energy cost.