By LOUIS B. PARKS Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 15, 2008, 2:31PM
At home, office and university, living green is a focus for architect and teacher Donna Kacmar. Kacmar, 43, lives in a 1,400-square-foot house designed for sustainability. She works with clients at her company, architect works, inc., to build environmentally sensitive homes and buildings. An associate professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston, Kacmar also teaches green design. Writer Louis B. Parks talked with Kacmar in her metal-clad home in Houston's West End.
Q: We use "green living" as a catch-all for many things. What does it mean to you?
A: Being aware of the impact of every decision and being responsible to that in a larger context. Thinking of the broader implications of things we do. Living in a more modest way. Resisting the urge for a new hybrid car, or for lots of things with packaging. Living more like our grandparents did.
Q: How do you accomplish that?
A: I try to be as conscious as I can. I live in a small house, do recycling, do cleaning with nonhostile chemicals. I try being aware when I make purchases, that sort of thing.
Q: Describe what you teach.
A: I teach Architecture and Design studio. I've taught a materials course, and I am currently teaching conceptual structures. In the spring I'll teach conceptual sustainability and systems.
Q: Sustainability and systems?
A: It starts from the site, and the site is the Earth. Your site may be a piece of land in Houston, Texas, but in a larger context it's on this planet, so we have to understand the things that function on this planet. What are the resources we have? How does the sun move, how does wind move? How to site buildings correctly, to use passive strategy first. Then getting into more technical systems to make buildings function for human comfort.
Q: Don't some of your clients back away from their original green plans when they see what they might have to do to build and live green?
A: My job is to remind them of their initial strategy. What is our goal here? I once had a client interview me. She wanted to do a green house. I suggested they could combine some of their (rooms). She said, "Oh, no, I need 9,000 square feet; I just want it to be very green." (Kacmar laughs.) I didn't get the job. Some clients don't want to be educated. Some builders don't want to be educated. You try to find out where they are at the beginning of the process. I want to learn, so I want to work with clients who want to question and test what is appropriate.
Q: What led to your interest in building and teaching in this way?
A: My father is an engineer, which gives you kind of a practical upbringing. I spent a semester in Florence, Italy, which was very formative. The awareness and responsibility they had to the environment in their culture was very apparent, and different from my upbringing in the suburbs of San Antonio. I also came from a very modest background, so we weren't wasteful.
Q: Is it important to try to live green if only in small ways?
A: I think so. Everybody can buy less. There are unique circumstances everybody has. I found myself driving to the gym to work out. Well, it seemed dumb to drive somewhere to work out. I might as well exercise in route, so now I drive my bike or walk.
Q: It can be tempting to do things the old way rather than take a green approach.
A: A lot of it is retraining. A couple of weeks of being really good at turning off water when you brush helps you to feel weird if you leave it running. (She laughs.) My students keep me honest. You don't want them catching you. You have to practice what you preach.
Q: We've seen, as with public smoking or racism, that people change as the perception of what is acceptable changes.
A: They do. Even a year ago people looked at you a little weird if you went into Whole Foods with a canvas shopping bag. Now, you're a freak if you don't.
Q: What do we need to do to change perceptions in favor of a need for greener living?
A: Thomas L. Friedman advocates increasing the cost of gas. I'm a big believer in that. Put gas at $10 a gallon and use the difference to pay for research for cleaner energy sources, more efficient energy sources. Developments that are not car-oriented but transit-oriented. We have built an infrastructure based on dollar-a-gallon gas. It may work at $3 or $4 a gallon, but not at $5 a gallon for a lot of people. At $10 it's not going to work for a lot more people.
This interview was reported, edited and condensed by Louis B. Parks.