Kansas City–based Robert Berkebile of BNIM Architects is a recipient of a 2009 Heinz Award, which focuses on an individual’s contributions to create “a cleaner, greener and more sustainable planet.” The 72-year-old architect was founding chairman in 1990 of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE). Under COTE’s auspices, Berkebile brought environmental and industry groups to the table, eventually hosting the meetings that led to the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). When that new group began development of what became the LEED system, BNIM provided several pilot projects. “My colleagues made it happen in real masonry and steel,” says Berkebile.

His interest in sustainability came from what he describes as “a painful epiphany.” He was the designer of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel whose 1981 walkway collapse led to 114 deaths and more than 200 injuries. Working on the rescue team, Berkebile asked, “What is the real impact of our designs on the people we serve?” For years afterward, he spent 85 percent of his time dealing with lawyers and lawsuits related to the tragedy. But the remaining 15 percent was devoted to talking to experts—scientists, environmentalists, architects, engineers, and others—about the larger ideas he grappled with on that tragic 1981 night. That initial small investment of time provided a framework for much of the conversations on sustainability that drive the profession today.

The $100,000 award is one of 10 given annually by the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Family Foundation to honor the memory of U.S. senator John Heinz.