Bullitt Center in Seattle
Photography: Nic Lehoux The Bullitt Center in Seattle, one of many award-winning, high-performing projects from Norman Strong, FAIA, and Miller Hull.

The last few years have been a boon for energy efficiency and sustainable design. Ideas that were niche and segmented have spread throughout the profession, gaining more and more traction as the world finally stirs to unite against the threat of climate change.

But before there were Web-based project data reporting tools and the 2030 Challenge, before the Predicted Energy Use Intensity metric was on the tips of tongues, there was Norman Strong, FAIA, who has spent the bulk of his 30-year career focused on energy.

“Back in the late 1970s,” Strong says, “we were working on energy efficiency before it became ‘sustainability.’ The whole idea of ‘sustainable design’ occurred after we were involved. I think the earth-sheltered movement in the late ’70s and some of the passive solar work we did at that time made us aware of the importance of not only sustainability, but also high-performance and energy-related projects.”

“When I was in school,” he adds, “the idea of sustainable practices was ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ Now it’s, ‘What’s your carbon footprint?’ It’s a new way of looking at it.”

Walking the Walk

Strong has traveled across the country preaching the need for high-performance and carbon-neutral buildings, bringing energy-centric ideas to audiences before they seep into the profession, let alone enter broader culture in general. He’s a trendsetter, albeit a reserved one.

“He has a huge depth of knowledge and history in this field,” says Maurya McClintock, Assoc. AIA, director of McClintock Façade Consulting and Strong’s associate on the AIA’s Energy Leadership Group. “And yet, like most of the people involved, he plays it down. He’s very modest about his capabilities.”

His track record speaks for itself. Since 1979, he’s been with the Miller Hull Partnership (2003’s AIA Architecture Firm Award recipient with offices in Seattle and San Diego), whose work on the Bullitt Center in Seattle placed on the AIA COTE Top Ten in 2015. He was named a Fellow of the AIA in 2004, which was followed by a stint as AIA national vice president from 2005 to 2007. He also chaired the Sustainability Discussion Group, a gathering of similarly minded energy aficionados who tackled endeavors such as providing 50 strategies that would produce 50 percent fossil-fuel reduction in buildings.

“Back in 2005,” he says, “I was a part of the AIA’s Board of Directors and we voted on what were then these outrageous and incredible, but important, goals of sustainable reduction. Reduction in carbon emissions and the use of best practices: That, in itself, was the starting point of what came next.”

“I completely credit Norm for my career path,” says Maureen Guttman, AIA, president of the Building Codes Assistance Project and a fellow member of the Energy Leadership Group. “We served on the [AIA National] board of directors at the same time, and the importance of the sustainability position statement he advocated for in 2005 was so vital and necessary to our continued viability as leaders. He and his firm are among a very small number who talk the talk and then walk the walk.”

A Unique Focus on the Future

Yet Strong’s goals, while moral and ethical in nature, aren’t part of a single-minded focus on saving the planet. As a key partner at an influential firm, he can be a realist when it’s needed; he cherishes the impact of his work while recognizing that environmentally beneficial projects won’t get the needed buy-in unless they’re also good business.

“What’s wrong with saving a client money?” he asks. “That’s critical. It cuts beyond it being a political issue and becomes a smart business decision where—oh, by the way—it also helps the world if you do this.”

He’s also not a buzzword fan. He knows there are catchalls that speak to a larger audience, but he’d rather use a term that sums up what he really means.

“The word ‘sustainability’ is used and misused in a lot of ways,” Strong says, “but ‘high performance’ is something you can get your arms around. It also helps expand what we’re aiming for: high performance in energy, water, wind—any resource that goes in or comes out of the process.”

And that is Strong’s main focus for 2016: what comes next. Having been around the energy game for decades, he’s looking at what will matter to those who will take up his life’s work among today’s emerging professionals.

“Certain parts of the country are now more aware of what we’re doing to both the climate and the planet,” he says, “but we’re getting to the point where full buy-in is needed today, not in the future. Because the future is now, we need to take on the next big hurdles, like building renovations.”

A large part of that is moving past the traditional scope of architecture: For example, the AIA 2030 Commitment has launched a new Design Data Exchange tool that its firms use to report their projects’ energy data, but Strong believes we need something that evolves over time to include water and capture a building’s broader performance.

“We’re hiring people with chemistry or science backgrounds that go beyond the applied sciences of design,” he says. “Design is important, but you also need to know what’s in that design, what’s in that building. “It’s not typical,” he adds, “but it’s something that’s needed.”