The Optimist: Miranda Gardiner Says Newfound Interest in Sustainability is 2020’s Silver Lining

The Optimist: Miranda Gardiner Says Newfound Interest in Sustainability is 2020’s Silver Lining

On November 13, the US Green Building Council celebrated leaders in the sustainability industry, including its 2020 LEED Fellow class. We spoke with one of them, HKS’ Miranda Gardiner – the first woman in the firm awarded this distinction – to discuss her work, life lessons she’s picked up in surprising places, and how coming from a family of educators has fueled her passion for continuous learning.

HKS: You’ve been with HKS since September 2019. Describe your role at the firm and your other industry engagements.

MG: I’m based in our Los Angeles office and manage sustainability strategies, projects and certification efforts in the America West region. I support regional and international project pursuits, including proposals and interviews for global design services, health care and higher education facilities.

Outside of these commitments, I write conference session abstracts and support, educate and promote sustainability efforts within HKS’ offices. This past year alone, I volunteered with AIA-LA COTE (Committee on the Environment) and the Design Awards committee, USGBC-LA Women in Green, SDGBC Greenbuild Host Committee (co-chair for Partnerships) and the inaugural Greenbuild Advisory Board.

The HKS DesignGreen team in Dallas for 2019 retreat.
The HKS DesignGreen team in Dallas for 2019 retreat.

HKS: You’re also SCUBA certified, you run marathons and are Wilderness First Aid and CPR certified. You have a deep love and appreciation for the outdoors. Do those personal passions drive your professional approach to helping solve climate change?

MG: There’s no doubt they’re intertwined and I believe it makes me a better candidate to work with clients on integrating sustainability in their projects. It is part of a synergistic ecosystem that is connected to community resilience and environmental health. Having lived in other parts of the world and worked on projects in Abu Dhabi, the EU and even the North Pole, [it] has given me an appreciation and broader understanding of our interconnectedness. LEED and the entire spectrum of sustainability certifications are not about checking a box or getting a plaque on your building, but about the real-life implications and impacts the built environment has at home and around the globe.

First Marathon in Washington, DC, 2009, Trail Running in Lake Tahoe, 2016, Kayaking in New Zealand, 2014
First Marathon in Washington, DC, 2009, Trail Running in Lake Tahoe, 2016, Kayaking in New Zealand, 2014

HKS: You grew up in San Francisco and your family moved around a bit. Describe how your upbringing and early experiences informed who you are today.

MG: I was born in San Francisco and was in preschool when my father was accepted to pursue his PhD at the University of Iowa. Following that, he was awarded a Fulbright professorship in Old English Literature in West Germany – this is before the wall came down and German reunification. In Germany, especially for children, there is a huge focus on an outdoor lifestyle, going for hikes and understanding nature, so it was a wonderful place to gain greater appreciation for the natural environment.

Both of my parents are professors, teaching technical writing and editing, along with holding fulltime jobs in tech companies. I believe my writing and communications skills derive from an earlier time in my life when my sister and I didn’t have traditional chores as kids but instead, helped them with copy editing. We waded through the technical jargon and corrected grammar, capitalization and punctuation.

Many people in my family are academics, so education was always stressed and valued. I had incredible female teachers as role models as well. And San Francisco, like Germany, has a culture of sustainability before we called it that. The city was an early proponent of curbside recycling and before that was implemented, I remember separating our green and brown glass bottles with my father at the recycling center at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. When we went trick-or-treating in the Sunset District, the neighborhood where we lived, we always had UNICEF or Save The Rainforest boxes to collect spare change while we collected candy. We had a sense of a bigger global connection to our own community and taking part in it was important.

Yearbook picture from 1991
Yearbook picture from 1991

HKS: How did you get interested in architecture?

MG:  I went to a tech arts high school where the endowment is tied to all students learning to draft, working with tools in the various shops, and choosing a senior project related to the field. Some people made beautiful stained-glass projects and another friend made a carved music stand. I was already engaged with architecture, and one of my projects was, what I considered to be, affordable housing. I created building modules with shared courtyards for the units. There were no backyards, but instead planned community and gathering spaces. I remember my narrative was focused on engagement, not separation – and that people don’t need a four-car garage or seven bedrooms to be happy. This was my design thinking at age 17 that stuck with me as I earned a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and it remains with me today.

Miranda and the USGBC Staff in 2009
Miranda and the USGBC Staff in 2009

HKS: When you’re in a client interview and you’re hearing resistance to applying sustainable design strategies on a project, how do you help move a client from ‘no thanks’ to ‘let’s do this’?

MG: A longtime friend of my parents commented recently that she noticed in me the ability to read people as a young child. She said, “You have that same capacity today to perceive, to read a room, that you did back then.” It was an interesting observation and it’s something I’ve kept in mind when walking into unfamiliar situations throughout my career. It’s a such a wonderful tool and piece of the communications process to support how we sell and work through projects together.

My favorite thing is going into a meeting or working on a project when a colleague says that a client is difficult to deal with or doesn’t want to respond. Getting them engaged and excited about our work is the kind of challenge that gets me up in the morning. It’s like a puzzle rather than a negative ending – it’s about developing a strategy for getting a client or project partner to a place of understanding so we can move successfully forward.

It’s like a puzzle rather than a negative ending – it’s about developing a strategy for getting a client or project partner to a place of understanding so we can move successfully forward.

HKS: Architects aren’t necessarily trained to sell services – they’re good at providing them. Seller-doers, as we often call architects in the industry, seem to prefer to “do” versus “sell.” Where did you hone your sales skills?  

MG: After receiving my undergraduate degree at Georgetown, I decided I needed a break and wanted to do something entirely different. I worked in Washington D.C. as a bartender and in promotional marketing for Red Bull. A colleague at the bar noticed I wasn’t making eye contact with patrons and said that I seemed reticent—and for anyone who knows me, that’s not who I am. The conversation led to strategies for working through fear or rejection in any professional setting; he made me “get out of my own way.” And future bosses have made similar points: someone may not want what you’re offering in any given moment but come back in an hour and things can change. People shift, situations shift, and it isn’t personal. A ‘no’ can be merely the jumping off point in a negotiation.

I began to build confidence and within six months I earned a prime location behind the bar. What is great about that lesson is the same principles apply no matter the occupation.

HKS: What is your superpower?

MG: I think people may underestimate me at times because I enjoy my work and it brings me a great amount of joy. I like talking to people and approach projects with enthusiasm, which can be misconstrued that I’m unserious – here’s this sustainability person, who’s just having fun – but does she know what she’s doing? When they test me with questions and I respond in a technical and knowledgeable manner, it’s like, oh, wait a second. I don’t know if that’s sort of a disguise or morphing, but in a way it’s my superpower.

I feel lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to engage with teams across the firm, and not just on design. I work with the marketing communications staff and our business development teams because sustainability storytelling is important in our interviews, proposals and external communications. On the flip side, I also dig into the architecture. I like to get into the calculations. I like working with teams on project documentation and helping them see things they may not see or understand. I enjoy all parts of the process.

HKS: Sustainability is serious business because we’re in a climate crisis and integrated building design must play a role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. How do we make that happen?

MG: Sustainability is often underfunded and an afterthought in the design process, so we need to change that. What I love about working with challenging clients or projects is the opportunity to shift that approach. Because I am a dedicated marathon runner, I use that training process – all the gadgets, coaching, all the training – when it comes to drawing analogies for altering a client’s approach and mindset to delivering a sustainable project. You may have a $300 pair of shoes, but it won’t matter if your mindset is not focused on finishing the race. That is what is exciting about our challenge – we may have some projects that don’t reach their sustainability goals, but with the right approach, the majority are going to get there. If you put in the work, prepare and instill joy in the journey along with a willingness to take on the challenge, you’ll be able to finish.

To that point, we have so many architects and engineers who have various backgrounds and education to deliver – we just need to motivate and understand how to apply these skill sets differently.

HKS: For all of the hardship the world has endured in 2020, we’re at an interesting crossroads with the pandemic and the awareness it has raised around designing for community, well-being and equity. What are you hearing these days in client meetings around opportunities to make progress?

MG: The election brought out a huge number of new and young voters who want action on climate issues – this rising level of engagement is where we’re going to make traction. I wrote a paper in 2016 comparing Germany to the U.S. and who is delivering more effectively on climate action. My conclusion was each nation has advanced technologies, a lot of innovative thinkers, multiple policies that support taking action, but, ultimately, it comes down to behavioral change. Political movements and people are forcing big corporations and politicians into regulating emissions, mandating green building requirements, and holding polluters accountable.

HKS: Are you encouraged that the pandemic appears to be moving the needle on sustainable design? That it is no longer viewed as a choice, but an imperative?

MG: COVID-19 laid bare how we, as designers, have primarily ignored low income communities and communities of color in community master planning and building design – partially due to the lack of diversity in our firms. The silver lining of 2020 is an awakening to the links between sustainability, access and equity.

As challenging as it has been in the past to talk to clients about sustainable design, I’m seeing a definite change in our interviews, project kick-off workshops and clients requesting information in their RFP’s on how we would deliver on these topics. They’re curious about our engagement in the AIA 2030 Commitment and HKS’ commitment to the UN Global Compact. They want to work with a firm that aligns with their own values and commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

There is less emphasis and focus on fees, and more importance placed on building performance that benefits all stakeholders. That’s not to say clients aren’t also focused on the ROI, but increasingly we’re working with people who perhaps grew up like me and want to balance sustainability goals with equal weight to costs.

In 2021, I don’t see the momentum slowing and we’ll keep moving in this positive direction for our future. It’s an exciting time and I’m thrilled to be here at HKS for it.