A leader in sustainable design, Bob Berkebile, FAIA, not only co-founded the Kansas City, Mo.–based firm BNIM—established in 1970 and winner of the 2011 AIA Architecture Firm award—he is also the founding chair of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment, and helped found the U.S. Green Building Council.
This Q+A has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your greatest achievement?
Co-founding a firm that has chosen to change the future of design and human development on the planet.
What is the most memorable moment of your career?
It was walking onto the floor of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City following the collapse of the skywalks as a part of the rescue team and being overwhelmed with the question, Did I kill all these people? That was my epiphany. It was a horrible tragedy, but it raised the questions within me that I believe led to the global collaboration that probably created this award. Experiencing the suffering and the lives lost gave me a new clarity to look beyond the negative press, lawsuits, and craziness that followed, and look at what is important: life, health, resilience, vitality, and designing to increase the positive interrelationship between nature and humans.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career?
Understanding how the Hyatt collapse occurred, what it meant, and what it could mean for humankind was my greatest challenge. I was blessed with family, friends, and a firm that really supported me, but also that Bucky Fuller had prepared me by teaching that failure is the greatest access to breakthrough thinking.
Other mentors appeared as if Joseph Campbell’s helping “invisible hands” were calling for their arrival. People like Leon Shenandoah, the head of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, who taught me about the Great Spirit and eternal truth. He said, “Bob, you’re surrounded by wonderful loving people, but at this moment in your life and the planet’s life, you need to seek the eternal truth. They are not carrying it for you. It’s inside. You have access to it; get quiet and ask the important questions, and listen for the answers. If you do that, some people are going to think you’re crazy, but that will always provide the truth.” I can say 40 years later, that was great advice. I always encourage everyone to do the same because it is a universal human pathway to spirit, truth, and clarity.
What inspired you to get involved with AIA?
I returned from Vietnam in the late 1960s, in time for the civil disturbances. In Kansas City, anger was expressed through demonstrations and fires, which destroyed businesses on Troost Avenue. As citizens, my wife Libby and I reached out to the Council on Religion and Race and helped create a two-year Black-white dialogue program. As an architect, I started trying to understand this from the point of view of community. Did community design failure lead to this unrest? I felt that beyond racism, block-busting, redlining, and limited design led directly to this outcome.
About that time, the Chamber of Commerce published an anniversary issue in which they featured the importance of the playgrounds and parks of Kansas City with pictures of children enjoying the most beautiful playgrounds. At the time, I was a young architect and volunteering as one of the writers for Skylines, the local AIA magazine. I wrote an article that borrowed Civil Rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr.’s phrase “Our thunderous silence” for the title and substituted photos I had taken on the East side in areas that were deeply affected by the civil disturbances and positioned them over the chamber’s captions. It created quite a ruckus at the time and brought attention to the disparities in our city and designs, but it also allowed me to discover the importance of the printed word and the importance of professionals speaking up for what they care about.
What have you hoped to accomplish through your AIA advocacy?
That has evolved overtime. When I first approached AIA in the late 1980s, it was about designing healthy buildings and communities without negative impacts on the environment. I asked that AIA create a committee and fund the research to start understanding the unintended environmental impacts of our designs. I was turned down; the reaction was that this was a big idea that should happen, but it sounded really expensive and more of an environmental problem than a professional problem.
There was an article in the Business Journal at the time that accelerated the process. The article was focused on our belief in the need for research and AIA Kansas City challenging the profession to recognize the unintended consequences of design on human life and the planet. Because of that article, the reaction that AIA board members all over the country had when they read it put more energy into this conversation. More importantly, I was invited to present to the executive staff at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and they committed a million dollars to begin the research. I had identified a major problem—the negative environmental impacts of design—and acknowledged my/our ignorance and asked for help. And the response was ultimately broad support to fund the research and better understand the impacts of our designs and material choices on human, community, and environmental health.
What’s your approach to architecture?
To work with nature, rather than try to bend it to my will. Bucky Fuller taught me this. He said “Bob, everything you do has an impact on planet Earth, good or bad, no exceptions. So, it’s important to figure that out before you make design decisions.” From that point forward, with a lot of help from many others like Janine Benyus (a leading advocate for biomimicry); Jane Goodall (who helped me design a chimpanzee habitat); Leon Shenandoah (who taught me about Spirit–“the eternal truth”); and many others who have informed my approach. We forget that our designs either enhance the vitality and resilience of nature and the support system for human life, or they don’t.
What project that you’ve worked on best reflects that approach?
In terms of celebrating the genius of caring people and a place, it would be the Omega Institute for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., the first LEED Platinum- and Living Building-certified building. Robert "Skip" Backus and his team at Omega, together with [biologist] John Todd, and my colleagues at BNIM, became a collaborative team of designers, educators, and change-makers. We replaced their obsolete sewage treatment plant with a “living machine” (a biological wastewater treatment facility) that has become a powerful tool for education by immersion and is now home for conversations about the future of the Hudson River Valley and the built environment. BNIM Principal Laura Lesniewski, FAIA, and I have presented there with President Bill Clinton, Janine Benyus, [urban revitalization strategist] Majora Carter, and [lawyer and political commentator] Van Jones on Living Systems, regenerative design, and human potential.
In the urban context, the growing need for systems thinking and regenerative design is so great, I look for opportunities for what [architect and Brazillian politician] Jaime Lerner calls "urban acupuncture." One example would be the new master plan and revitalization of the Manheim Park neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo., and the adaptive reuse of the Bancroft School, which had been left unused and dilapidated for 20 years, in the middle of the neighborhood. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and other elected officials in the area asked us to work with that neighborhood as volunteers based on our post-natural disaster work in Greensburg, Kan. (following the destruction of the town by an EF5 tornado in 2007). After working with 12 communities in post-natural disaster environments, we have discovered that natural disasters reveal man-made disasters that were present prior to the event. Every community has been diminished/limited by obsolete thinking, ignorance, racism, and disinvestment. Why not address them before they are exposed by a natural disaster?
We facilitated the visioning and strategic development plan with the Manheim Park community to envision an entirely new future, and we helped them find a developer to redevelop the Bancroft School as LEED Platinum housing and a community center. Phase two was to acquire and rehab some of the abandoned houses as LEED Platinum houses. Phase three was to insert new LEED Platinum houses on vacant lots; this wasn’t required because private developers initiated it. Crime was down 27% in the neighborhood in the first year. This project is a true example of urban acupuncture, and it redefines urban redevelopment. It highlights the importance of working with existing communities, initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders—all races, ages, and incomes—and helping them claim their new regenerative future. If we look at Manheim Park’s environmental records now, the results are outstanding, though that wasn’t the main theme. The neighborhood embraced regeneration and community vitality, and it has become the norm. They have created a positive future, including the best urban garden in the Kansas City region in the center of their neighborhood.
This has influenced my thinking, and the work we are doing now with the Foundation for Regeneration is utilizing the same approach at a larger scale. We are working in the Blue River Valley with disinvested neighborhoods and with the remnants of industries that created a superfund site and countless brownfield sites and then abandoned them for tax credits elsewhere and left the neighborhoods without jobs and with the burden of their pollution. Our initial findings show that by using regenerative strategies (socially, economically, and environmentally), they can restore what is damaged, recapture vitality, and create a new ecosystem for citizens in the most damaged part of our city if the community claims this future.
The next three years (or what was 10 years until Antarctica became 70 degrees hotter than it should be) are the most critical in human history. During this time, we must focus on adaptively reusing our current buildings, avoid building new structures, and sequestering carbon aggressively if we want the human family live successfully on Spaceship Earth.
What’s the best description of your leadership style? How has that approach changed over the years?
I discovered over time that it is really important for me to lead with my strong suit, ignorance. Einstein said we are far more ignorant than knowledgeable. I agree. I have always been passionate so people always knew what I felt, but the more I could admit that I saw a problem, but I didn’t have the solution, I found greater access to support.
During the lawsuit that followed the Hyatt Regency collapse when I was confused about life in general and reading everything I could, one of the things I read was an anniversary issue of Smithsonian magazine. They named six people on the planet most likely to change the outcome of the human story. I thought maybe these people could help me answer my new questions about the real impact of our designs. The first [person on the list] I called was Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute who is a physicist and an energy expert. He said, “Bob, I don’t have the answers to your questions, but they are important, and they have never been asked before. I’ll do whatever I can to help and connect you with people who might help.” I called them all, and they all pretty much said the same thing. I thought: Wow. How brilliant, how generous. And I was quick to accept their help.
That worked so well, I’ve stayed with it—expressing an idea or question that I feel strongly about and sharing what I know, and more importantly, what I don’t know, and asking for help. It has become a global collaboration. That’s what makes me uncomfortable about this award. While I am receiving the award, it is the result of an international collaboration. It’s a shift that needs to happen if we expect human life to survive.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
Our greatest challenge is to recognize the existential threat of climate change and the urgency of acting today in greater numbers with more collaboration, clarity, passion, and knowledge than we currently have; to do the very best we can to create regenerative, carbon-sequestering designs; to focus on existing structures rather than new; and to focus on large landscapes and communities in order to make them more resilient and to sequester more carbon.
What should architects do to respond to that challenge?
In my case, as Libby (my wife) says, “You’ve become a farmer!” I have concluded after spending 40 years trying to reduce carbon outputs from the built environment by design, that for human life to survive, we must return much of what we have already put in the atmosphere back into the Earth. There are technologies and materials that will capture some carbon, but not enough to offset embodied carbon. If we want to sequester carbon aggressively, it requires using the soil, and the soil and food systems benefit. When considering building reuse projects, I’m considering the potential of all the land around it to add resilience and sequester carbon. I spent all day yesterday in the Blue River Valley [in Kansas], and more than buildings, we looked at thousands of acres that could, with the right management and the right strategy, transform the region’s soil and food health, water management, and carbon sequestration.
What is your favorite building?
That’s difficult because there are a lot of great buildings. One that has always touched me is E. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas. It celebrates nature and is an integral part of it. He designed it in that way. Because it was in the middle of a pine forest, he was concerned about heavy equipment destroying the forest (like the concrete and lumber trucks), so he designed a structure of light components that two men could carry into the woods without any equipment. The structure is a beautiful lattice of wood and natural materials, in a beautiful forest. It’s stunning. Other favorites include Ronchamp, Corbusier’s chapel of light in France, and Gaudi’s work in Barcelona.
What would you have been if not an architect?
Without question, I would have been the German craftsman contractor that my family expected me to be. I still find a great joy in building things. I have designed and am building a pergola and free library for our home. I love working with beautiful materials and transforming.
What does winning the Edward C. Kemper Award mean to you?
One of the things that it means, that is not new or surprising, is how brilliant, talented, collaborative, and supportive our colleagues at BNIM are. I am overcome with gratitude for my colleagues and beyond BNIM, for other architects and non-architects—scientific advisers, environmentalists, and thousands of inspiring volunteers across the planet—who stepped up and helped create new regenerative solutions. The results have been impressive, and a lot of awards, this one included, have been given because of their contributions. Sadly, what we have accomplished is not nearly enough; human life is still at risk! The question that we are all confronted with is: Can we learn from our successes and failures to create regenerative design solutions that will allow human life to continue to thrive on Earth?
This article appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.