May 25, 2021 - 05:14 pm CDT

Net-Zero Hero David Brearley

 

I’m helping to make Austin net-zero by: building a green home using reclaimed materials and generating power on-site

 

David and MollyMeet David Brearley, a solar energy professional and technical writer. David serves on the Board of Directors for both the Texas Solar Energy Society and Solar Austin. In early 2015, David embarked on a journey to build a green accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that could accommodate guests and also be used as a short-term rental property.

To build it, David and his wife Molly collected a variety of materials from renovation and demolition projects of homes, schools, and even the State Capitol. They also installed a solar array at the property, LED lighting, energy-efficient appliances, and more. Read on to discover what inspired David to build green, what his toughest challenges were, and how he incorporated Craigslist finds into the building's design. 

On Sunday, June 13, their property will be featured on Austin Energy Green Building's virtual Cool House Tour!

 

What inspired you to build a green home?

As a university student, I was blessed with the opportunity to take an American Studies class taught by Barry Lopez, whose works—including, Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men—are part of a proud tradition of American naturalists and cultural critics that stretches from Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams and beyond. I was profoundly influenced by Barry’s class. For the better part of the decade that followed, I worked by day in the building trades and immersed myself by night in environmental literature.

Fast forward to the Taos Solar Music Festival in the summer of 2002, where I met Carl Bickford who had recently founded a Renewable Energy Program specializing in solar photovoltaic system design and installation at a community college in Farmington, New Mexico. Looking at San Juan College's mobile solar trailer, I realized on the spot that it was possible to combine my skills in construction with my passion for the environment. Later that year, one of our hands-on class projects was to add stand-alone power capabilities to Carl’s net-zero energy home in Aztec, New Mexico. Since 2003, I have worked as a solar professional in a variety of roles. As a true believer in green building and renewable energy, I am always looking for opportunities to walk the talk.

 

Home with solar panel on roof.

 

How did you do it?

To start, we designed and built a small structure. This was partly a function of the fact that we were building an accessory dwelling unit, which is a form of urban infill that increases density and reduces reliance on cars. When we started designing our project, the City of Austin limited ADUs to a maximum of 850 square feet (SF) of interior space. While our permitting was ongoing, this allowance was expanded to 1,100 SF. We stuck with our plan to build a small alley flat with a 550 SF guest suite upstairs and a modest 100 SF of conditioned space downstairs that serves as my home office. We also gained covered off-street parking and much-needed storage space. Given that our 100-year-old front house is only 1,000 SF with a single closet, this modest increase in square footage on the back of the property has a huge impact on our quality of life.

Smaller structures require fewer energy inputs. This is especially true if you focus, as we did, on design features that drive down the long-term cost of ownership. We specified oversized structural framing and used spray foam insulation to fill those deeper stud bays. We specified Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting. We installed a highly efficient ducted Mitsubishi mini-split system with an additional wall-mounted cassette for the downstairs office. We leveraged a Texas Gas rebate to install an ultra-high efficiency Rinnai condensing on-demand water heater. We leveraged Austin Energy rebates to install a 4.1-kilowatt roof-mounted Sun Power solar array by Freedom Solar. This small solar array generates more electricity than the back house uses, precisely because the structure is small and efficient.

Building small also allowed us to afford some luxuries that would have otherwise been outside of our budget, such as high-end finishes and custom built-ins. Perhaps most importantly, we rarely paid retail prices for these finishes. Before our construction project began, I salvaged antique longleaf pine out of two houses that were slated for demolition in our neighborhood. We used this salvaged wood for exterior soffits, exterior, and interior trim details, interior accent walls, and even some custom furniture. A friend of ours sold us some salvaged maple gym flooring that we used throughout the upstairs apartment. Other friends donated remnant Italian glass tiles from a public art installation, which tiled our shower stall (with five tiles to spare). My wife, Molly O’Halloran, spotted an oversized longleaf pine door on Craigslist, which we discovered came out of the Texas State Capital. She also found a soapstone countertop on Craigslist. I found remnant pieces of exotic hardwood languishing in the corner of a warehouse.

The interaction of these Craigslist scores and donated or salvaged materials are happy accidents that not only pushed us out of our comfort zone but also gave the project its unique character. The front porch is a good example, as the door, flooring, and wall cladding are all Craigslist scores. The longleaf pine shiplap on the ceiling is salvaged. If we had had an unlimited budget, the results would undoubtedly have been a lot less interesting. The happy accidents resulting from our budget constraints are a perpetual source of joy.

 

Front door surrounded by wood walls.  Person working on placing blue tile.

 

What was the toughest part of making this project a reality, and what did you learn?

Having to work two jobs for at least 18 months was definitely the toughest part of realizing our vision. My wife and I were working with a relatively modest budget. At the same time, we had high standards and expectations for quality of work and building performance. Given these constraints, we did a lot of work by owner. Molly served as the general contractor of record, design consultant, and inspector whisper. I served as the in-house project manager, chasing estimates and coordinating subcontractors and artisans. Anything that fell outside the scope of a subcontractor, Molly and I did ourselves. This included the front and back porches, exterior soffits, interior, and exterior trim, interior accent walls, pocket doors, interior painting, and the electrical finish out. We also had to solve all of the interior and exterior design problems ourselves, such as material selection, paint colors, finishes, treatments, and so forth.

As a result of this DIY work process, construction ran from December 2015 through April 2017, when we closed out the permits. In practice, my work salvaging materials and prepping the site began in early 2015; I did not finish the storage and office spaces downstairs until late 2017. It was a long couple of years. In addition to acquiring some new skills, we learned that dogged persistence pays—eventually.

 

Collage of David working on constructing the house.  Collage of Molly working on constructing the house.

 

What was the greatest reward?

Being able to host friends and family members is by far the best reward. Molly’s parents come here to escape the Chicago winter for two to six weeks at a time. Other friends visit from up north annually. When we do not have personal guests in town, we operate the apartment as a licensed short-term rental unit. Having a steady stream of rental income is very much a quality of life improvement, as it allows us to save more for retirement and will help us age in place. Today, we live in the front house and rent the smaller back house. At some point in the future, we may live in the back and rent out the larger front house. It is also very rewarding to read the positive reviews. Many of our guests report that staying in the East Austin Nest is their favorite Airbnb experience.

 

What is your favorite aspect of this project?

My favorite part of the project is being surrounded by the good works of so many of our talented friends and neighbors. Aldo Valdez-Bohm built our kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanity, window bench seat, and three sets of built-in shelves (kitchen, bathroom, and living room); Aldo also helped me assemble a live edge pecan tabletop. Todd Campbell, a fine art metal worker, built a custom queen-sized bed frame, two table bases, curtain rods, and floating shelf brackets; Todd also loaned us some sculptural pieces. Brent Clifton built us some custom sliding barn doors. When I needed to show proof of insurance to salvage longleaf pine out of a 100-year-old house, Tommy Jacoby, a colleague in the solar industry, not only arranged the paperwork but also got sweaty and dirty with me. Shawn Latta, a former solar colleague who is now a project lead for Open Envelope Studio, built a handsome steel fence on the back of the property as well as exterior stair railings. When I needed to install the longest pieces of shiplap months later at an uncomfortable height, another former college, Aaron Cloninger, walked a high plank to help me out. Stan and Martha Pipkin, who own and operate Austin’s Lighthouse Solar, donated Italian glass tiles to our project and helped us find a steel erector; Lighthouse Solar also rebuilt the main electrical service on our property to accommodate the back house. Last but not least, my dad, who passed away before he could see the fruits of our labor, took some ceiling joists that I salvaged and built a beautiful longleaf pine slat table that is a featured part of our guest suite.

 

Exterior shot of home.

 

What advice would you give others?

Do your homework and start with the fundamentals. Molly and I started by attending Cool House Tours (the next one is coming up on June 13!) and Green By Design workshops hosted by Austin Energy Green Building. We have a legacy library of green building reference books, which is almost as useful and comprehensive as all of the free online resources and tutorials on YouTube. We visit Gail and Pliny Fisk at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems at every opportunity. You also want to do your homework when shopping for tradespeople. During construction, we made sure to get at least three quotes for each scope of work that we subcontracted out.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, work with an architect. Mistakes in the built environment remain visible for decades. You typically have only one chance to get it right. Molly studied architecture at university and her very first pen and ink sketch from 2014 captured 85% of the back house as it stands today. Getting that final 15% right was a long meditation that required the guidance of a professional with relevant experience and expertise. We worked with a local architect, Craig Nasso, who not only specializes in small spaces but also builds a lot of his own projects on a tight budget using salvaged materials. By working with an architect, we were able to meet our goals and build something that contributes positively to the neighborhood, the built environment, and the natural environment.

 

Wood slat table.  Collage of building built-in shelves.

 

Check out David's property on the Cool House Tour!

Join the Cool House Tour on Sunday, June 13, 2021, from 10:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. to see more images of the property, learn the complete design-build story, and more. Learn more about the event and get your tickets here.

 

Home entry with warm wood

 

Learn more about climate change in Austin and check out our draft Austin Climate Equity Plan.

Share your net-zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to sustainability@austintexas.gov.

Apr 22, 2021 - 02:54 pm CDT

Inhale, exhale. The simple act of breathing is something that most of us have taken for granted at some point or another. But, breathing clean, fresh air is necessary for people to survive and thrive. Perhaps there is no better time to focus on air quality and respiratory health than during a global health crisis spurred by a disease that targets the lungs. 

Because of human-induced climate change, our air quality is in danger of becoming worse. Wildfires, one of the worst causes of air pollution, are happening more often due to our changing climate. Suffer from seasonal allergies? Climate change is making our allergy season worse and longer, too. And, hotter temperatures can lead to an increase in ozone, a harmful pollutant. 

Since it’s not always easy to “see” when the air quality is unhealthy, it’s helpful to know what causes poor air quality and what we can all do to keep our air clean.

The “bad” kind of ozone and particulates 

In Central Texas, our air quality is generally pretty good. However, in the summer, there are times when levels of “bad” ozone — called “ground-level ozone” — reach concentrations that can negatively affect public health. This type of ozone is created when sunlight triggers a chemical reaction between oxygen-containing molecules and pollution that comes from cars, power plants, factories, and other sources. When concentrations become high, “Ozone Action Days” are triggered. We typically have between 5-10 Ozone Action Days per year in Central Texas.

For sensitive populations, such as the very young or elderly, people with respiratory issues like asthma, and those who work outside, avoiding outdoor activity is recommended on Ozone Action Days. This is because ozone is a highly reactive molecule that can irritate and damage airways and make it difficult to breathe. On Ozone Action Days, people can help by avoiding traveling alone in a car, and instead, work from home or use a sustainable form of transportation. Conserving energy is also especially important on these days.

Another big contributor to air pollution is particulates — the fine and coarse particles that spew from construction sites and things that burn fuel, like cars, power plants, and wildfires. Particulates, unlike ozone, can cause health problems year-round. Like ozone, particulates have been linked to a worsening of lung problems, especially asthma. Both particulates and ozone also are associated with increased cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart attack.

Knowing our history

In Austin, the City’s 1928 master plan segregated the city along racial lines and forcibly relocated Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities East of what is now IH-35. East Austin was then designated for industrial development, meaning communities of color living in this area were now more likely to live near a source of ground or air pollution. These health inequities still persist to this day, and low-income communities and communities of color are statistically more likely to suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders in our community.

Additionally, people who live near major roadways with higher concentrations of particulate matter, such as IH-35, are more likely to develop lung issues. Particulate pollution is also linked to cognitive decline in the elderly. This can have a big impact on people experiencing homelessness, for example. 

The ability to breathe clean air is a human right, and we must continue to work together to advocate for clean air in our community. We hope you’ll join us during Air Quality Awareness Week, May 3-7, to help spread the message about why air quality is so important for our health. You can check current air quality conditions in our area at www.airnow.gov and visit our website for more information.

Apr 06, 2021 - 05:34 pm CDT

 

Reflecting on 2020 while celebrating 10 years of sustainability leadership in Austin

Our team is often asked, “What does ‘sustainability' really mean?” To us, it means protecting and improving Austin’s quality of life now and for future generations. The ways we work towards this are numerous. Specifically, our office leads efforts to strengthen our local food system, achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions, and identify ways to make Austin resilient in the face of climate threats. We also work across multiple City departments, helping to connect the dots in sustainability efforts happening across our organization and more broadly in the community.

When Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, a pioneer in green building and sustainability, was hired to lead the office 10 years ago, she was tasked with establishing priorities for the newly-formed Office and setting a course for its future. Today, she leads a staff of 12 full-time employees focused on developing initiatives to lower our emissions and reach community members to help them make sustainability a priority in their daily lives. Here are our top 10 highlights from the past 10 years:

 

  1. Achieved 100% renewable energy for all City operations starting in 2011, resulting in a 72% reduction in annual carbon emissions reduction.

  2. Led the creation and implementation of the City’s Community Climate Plan including a 2020 Equity-focused update and the first Community Climate Ambassadors Program.

  3. Developed a Climate Resilience Action Plan to increase the resilience of City assets and operations in the face of extreme heat, flooding, drought and wildfires.

  4. Selected as one of 25 US Cities to be awarded a $2.5M support and technical assistance package to participate in Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge.

  5. Created the Austin Green Business Leaders program, a voluntary scoring system to recognize local businesses for sustainability and provide a peer group of 279 businesses.

  6. Launched the Bright Green Future Grants program to fund K-12 teacher- and student-led sustainability projects, which has funded 397 projects since 2012.

  7. Collected data to inform policy decisions, published in the State of the Food System Report (2015 and 2018 update) and the Food Environment Analysis (2017).

  8. Piloted the Good Food Purchasing Program to adopt healthy, sustainable, and humane foods with Austin ISD, the University of Texas, and the Austin Convention Center.

  9. Helped launch the Fresh for Less program, which brings fresh food to neighborhoods with lower access to healthy food through mobile markets and corner stores.

  10. Built a building performance dashboard that gives City facility managers better visibility to their energy and water usage, helping departments save money and resources.

 

View more of our office's accomplishments here>

Mar 26, 2021 - 02:51 pm CDT

We’re pleased to introduce you to Emmie DiCicco, a new Food Policy Planner working with our Food Team on a temporary assignment. We asked Emmie a few get-to-know-you questions so you can learn more about her and her background.

Q: Where are you from and what do you like best about your hometown?

A: I’m from Philadelphia, PA — the home of soft pretzels, ‘wooder ice,’ and the beloved mascot Gritty. I have so much love for Philly, particularly the attitude and the people. What other city can pull off the slogan, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care?’ In reality, there is such a caring, vibrant, and connected music, art, DIY, and activist community that finds room for everyone. It’s a bit of a hike from Texas, but you’d be missing out if you never visited.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what interested you in joining the Office of Sustainability.

A: Growing up working class in one of the country’s poorest cities inspired me from a young age to want to work towards a more just world. During my undergraduate journalism program at Temple University, I primarily covered community issues in low-income, neighborhoods of color — often blurring the lines between journalist and organizer. After graduating and working on political campaigns, I co-founded a grassroots organization to end corruption and voter suppression at the state level in PA. Seeing the crisis of how special interests, like big agriculture and big food, are able to prevent reform and enact real policy changes spurred me to continue my career in public policy.

In August, I started the Master of Global Policy program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in food policy’s intersection with poverty, racism, and environmental devastation. My policy interests have been heavily influenced by both my lived experience and previous advocacy work, including with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is picking up where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr left off to end poverty.

After meeting Food Policy Manager Edwin Marty during a discussion in my ‘Green New Deal and Food’ class under Dr. Raj Patel, I immediately wanted to join his team to work on food systems at the local level in Austin. I feel really lucky to join the office and some of the best thinkers on sustainability.

Q: What are you most excited to accomplish during your time with the Office of Sustainability?

A: Right now, I’m excited to be working on a report that identifies the various policy levers that cities have to create a more resilient food system and decrease food insecurity — a task more critical than ever while we just experienced a crisis on top of a crisis. I’m also following state legislation introduced that could reduce barriers to access food safety nets.

I really appreciate the opportunity to gain experience working for the first time in government, rather than outside of it on the advocacy side.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go in Austin?

A: Since moving to Austin, I have become a breakfast taco fiend, and trying new taco places is still one of my favorite things to do. Mr. Natural and Vegan Nom are at the top of my list, but Nissi VegMex is my next spot to check out.

One of my favorite places to unwind around Austin is volunteering at the Central Texas Pig Rescue. Before moving to Texas, I had no idea the joy that comes from sitting among hundreds of pigs. While I’ve enjoyed a slower-paced Austin than I’m used to, I look forward to shows and festivals returning to the city (whenever it’s safe to do so!)

Q: What is your favorite sustainable thing to do in your personal life?

A: Following a vegan diet is my favorite thing I do to reduce my carbon footprint because not only does it help mitigate climate change, it saves animals! I’m an avid cooker and baker, so I love finding new vegetables to prepare, ‘veganizing’ deserts, and sharing recipes. I also bike over driving whenever possible to reduce GHG emissions and sneak in exercise.

Q: What is your favorite food and why?

A: There are very few foods that I don’t like! One of my absolute favorites is mushrooms — they are funky, earthy, and can create some really wonderful textures. If I see something with mushrooms on the menu, I have to order it. I recently tried making pasta for the first time using a recipe for porcini mushroom ravioli from the ‘Wicked Healthy Cookbook’ by Chad and Derek Sarno and they were fabulous. Highly recommended!

Feb 04, 2021 - 03:43 pm CST

We’re pleased to introduce you to Keoni James, a new Austin Corps intern in our office who attends Akins High School. We asked Keoni a few get-to-know-you questions so you can learn more about him and his background.

 

Q: Where are you from and what do you like best about your hometown?

A: I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is known for its beautiful beaches. I moved around a lot because I was in a military family, but what I loved best about Hawaii is being able to hike. When I was younger, I absolutely loved the tropical region and rainy weather. I also loved the people since it just felt like a big family to me.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what interested you in joining the Office of Sustainability.

A: I am currently a senior at Akins High School. I am a part of the LGBTQ community and I have a dog and a guinea pig. What interested me in joining the Office of Sustainability was that they acknowledge climate change and equity. I feel like those are the two most important issues that'll help our future as a city.

Q: What are you most excited to accomplish during your time with the Office of Sustainability?

A: I am very excited to accomplish better public speaking skills. I tend to be a shy person at first, so speaking in front of people usually makes me feel hesitant. I'm excited to hopefully speak to other students and learn to have fun with it.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go in Austin?

A: My favorite place in Austin is honestly just my neighborhood. It is very green and spacious; I also love how you can sometimes see deer in certain areas. I usually walk with my siblings to the park to just get some fresh air and stay active.

Q: What is your favorite sustainability-related thing you do in your personal life?

A: I think my favorite sustainable thing to do is cook. I like to look up vegetarian or vegan recipes and go shopping at the farmer's market for fresh food. I also know that I want to get into having plants to take care of.

Q: What is your favorite food and why?

A: My favorite food is a Hawaiian dish called Loco Moco, which is white rice topped with a hamburger, a fried egg, and brown gravy. When I was in California I went to a Hawaiian restaurant and the taste was just phenomenal, it just brought back memories of the food from my home.

May 13, 2019 - 10:29 am CDT

Photo of a man with a long beard wearing a blue t-shirt standing on a roof with solar panels. There is a graphic overlay that reads "Jerry Bramwell Net-Zero Hero"

I’m helping to make Austin Net-Zero by: minimizing energy and water consumption in my home to the greatest extent possible.

 

Headshot-style photo of Jerry with a blue shirt on.Meet our newest Net-Zero Hero, Jerry Bramwell! In 2013, Jerry and his wife Lauree made the decision to move from Houston to Austin to be closer to family. They ended up buying the home right next door to their daughter Amy, and began a four-year remodeling journey to create a contemporary, energy-efficient home that would allow them to age with family close by.

Jerry ended up taking on much of the remodeling project himself. He did all the framing, window installation, waterproofing, insulation, interior and exterior trim, and decking with only one or two helpers. Impressively, he also designed, drafted, and permitted the home's 6,700-gallon rainwater system, which provides water for the toilets, pool topoff, and future vegetable garden irrigation. The home also features Austin's first residential gray water system, which could be a model for future systems. It's no wonder that his family describes him as the "ultimate DIY-er".

On June 9, the Bramwell's home will be featured on the 23rd annual Cool House Tour. We spoke with Jerry about his interest in building an energy efficient home, what challenges he faced in the process, and what advice he has for others. 

What inspired you to take action?

I have been interested in sustainable building techniques since the early 80’s when I designed and built a passive solar house for my family outside Denver, Colorado. Our original idea for our retirement home was an off-grid house on some land outside of Austin, but when the opportunity to live next door to our daughter and grandchildren came up, my wife and I could not refuse. I knew I wanted to build the house myself without hiring other people to do it and challenged myself to incorporate as many water and energy efficient elements as possible. It was a personal challenge to see what I could achieve by myself with the technology on hand.

Jerry in his workshop building a frame.

Jerry looking at the gray water system outside of the house. How did you do it?

Research, persistence, and a little trial and error. I worked closely with my daughter, the architect, on the design for the house and how to conceal the rainwater tanks (originally only for irrigation) under the back porch. After that, everything developed organically as I intensely researched and talked to people about what was possible. I credit Chuck Deatherage, Water Protection Specialist at the Austin Water Utility, for helping me understand everything I could do with rainwater — including flushing the toilets and topping off the pool.

I really was interested in incorporating a gray water system. To find the right kind of low-maintenance systems with an automated filter backflush, I looked at systems commonly permitted in Arizona and California where whole-house gray water systems are much more prevalent.  

Early on in construction, I went down to the City to see what it would take to incorporate gray water. After getting passed around between departments, a very excited person from the City called and told me that they had recently approved whole-house gray water systems, but I would be the first one to go through the process. There were no established protocols, so it might take some extra time to get it done. They were very supportive and really wanted to help me figure it out to pave the way for more people to be able to incorporate the technology as well.

 

Gray water and black water piping with labels.  Jerry underground with the water storage tanks.

Photo of the back porch of the house.

Whats's been the toughest part?

Communicating with the City and helping them understand the scope of the project and the systems. Once they understood what I was trying to achieve, they were very excited and tried very hard to help, but there wasn’t always a clear path to get there. I had great relationships with my inspectors and they were very helpful throughout the process, but no one really knew how to inspect the rainwater and gray water systems and they told me so. Ultimately, the head of residential inspection came personally to review the systems.

Have there been any unexpected benefits?

The interest of my neighbors and community in my experience has been really wonderful and unexpected. Being a pioneer for whole house gray water systems in the City of Austin is not something I planned on, but I am very proud of the outcome and hopeful it will be beneficial to others. On June 9, my home will be featured on the Cool House Tour, and I’m really excited to share my journey with other Austinites who are interested in green building. Of course, the greatest reward is living in an efficient house right next door to my granddaughters.

Photo with Jerry, Lauree, and Amy Bramwell standing in front of green grass, trees, and a playscape.

Interior shot of the living room.  Jerry's granddaughter sitting in a window seat reading a book.

What advice do you have for others?

Don’t be afraid to do it yourself, try new things, and push the boundaries.

You can check out Jerry's hard work by participating in the 23rd annual Cool House Tour, an annual self-guided tour produced by Austin Energy Green Building and Texas Solar Energy Society. The Tour showcases homes that are designed and built to high standards of energy efficiency, comfort, and design. On the tour, homeowners and building professionals are on-hand to share their experience on bringing these sustainable homes to fruition.

Jerry with his arms outstretched standing on top of a roof. There is a solar heating system installed on his left and a solar energy system on his right.

To learn more about Austin's Net-Zero Goal, view the Community Climate Plan.

Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to sustainability@austintexas.gov.

Feb 26, 2018 - 10:20 am CST

Becoming a green school: Eastside Memorial High School's Journey, photo is a girl carrying a hose.

Eastside Memorial High School is known for tackling environmental issues head-on. This became even more evident when they became the first high school in Texas to be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as an Eco-Schools USA Green School.

The road to becoming a Green School began in 2014, when the school embarked on a campus-wide beautification project. The overall effort included building a garden, compost system, flow form, and wicking bed for plant propagation. They also built an outdoor learning area using grant funding from the City’s Bright Green Future Grant program. The “big picture” was an integrated system that would produce food and fertility for future generations while achieving a creative solution to a well-known local environmental issue — water usage and drought.

Then, in 2015, the school decided to focus on waste by conducting an audit through Keep Austin Beautiful‘s Generation Zero Program. Through the audit, they discovered that 82 percent of the school’s landfill waste was recyclable or compostable. In response, the school’s Green Teens club made recycling bins available in each class, making it easier for students and staff to recycle. Additionally, the construction tech class built 3D display boards to remind the campus community to recycle.

Students being presented with a big check for the project at their school.

Students working soil on a school campus.  Outdoor classroom made of large stones outside of a school.

The students and staff are very proud of these initiatives, and this year, they are looking to do even more. For the 2017-18 school year, Eastside Memorial was awarded a Bright Green Future Grant to solve the problem of erosion on campus. For the project, students from the Environmental Systems and Engineering classes will work with Engineers Without Borders in designing, building, planting, and caring for a rain garden. This will provide students with real-world experience in solving an environmental issue that directly impacts a space they use daily.

The students started on the design phase last fall and will begin construction this month. They hope to complete the project in May with the help of UT students, Keep Austin Beautiful, and school staff.

Kudos to the students, faculty, and partners of Eastside Memorial High School for their dedication to making their little corner of Austin a little greener for everyone!

Eastside memorial students with City staff pose behind a garden on campus.

Feb 23, 2018 - 02:41 pm CST

Net-Zero Hero Chris Brooks, Photo of Chris with a green background

I’m helping to make Austin Net-Zero by: involving kids in sustainable practices in meaningful and fun ways.

 

Chris Brooks headshotMeet Chris Brooks, Environmental Science teacher at Clint Small Middle School. Chris has been teaching at Small for 16 years, and has been involved in shaping the school’s Green Tech Academy curriculum. Small is one of the first Austin-area schools to implement green programs in the classroom, beginning with waste audits in the early 2000’s. Now, the school has an abundance of sustainable features — including rain gardens, vegetable gardens, rainwater catchment cisterns, a large greenhouse, an outdoor classroom, composting, and more. They also raise chickens, ducks, goats, and sheep at the school campus. Chris is helping his students learn how to build and design these various systems, and explore the ways in which they are connected. The aim is to give kids the hands-on experience needed to cultivate a greener world. 

We spoke with Chris about his commitment to Net-Zero, what his toughest challenges have been, and what advice he has for others looking to live Net-Zero. Read more below.

 

What inspired you to take action?

My inspiration came from several places. Permaculture helped me see that most of the major issues and problems we face — environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social justice — are connected. Biomimicry provided the question required to make all design sustainable: "How would nature solve this problem?" And David Bamberger — a former chicken tycoon turned conservationist — demonstrated the promise of sustainability in action when he restored a 5,500 acre ranch to its original habitat.

 

How did you do it?

The short answer would be trial and error — and finding support in a diverse network of local community, education, government, and business groups

 

Whats's been the toughest part?

Getting past misconceptions, like “technology and nature are opposed”, the environment is some place “‘out there”, and “new, complicated ways are superior to old, simple ones”. Once kids have the experience of interacting directly with the world — whether it is holding a chicken, designing and building a rain garden, or growing their own food — they don't need to be further convinced that sustainability can be fun.

 

On a daily basis, the benefit is kids reconnecting with nature by caring for animals, growing food, composting, harvesting water, etc. Long-term, I hope that the habits they develop will create a generation of systems-based thinkers and designers.

 

The facts are clear; the story needs to change. Rather than presenting sustainable living as a mere lifestyle — or worse, as giving things up – the story has to be about opportunity, creativity and community. In other words, it has to be about doing more good rather than doing less bad.

Chris Brooks with two small sheep on leashes in a school parking lot.

We took so many great photos for this piece, we couldn't include them all! See more photos of Chris and his students.

 

To learn more about Austin's Net-Zero Goal, view the Community Climate Plan.

Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to sustainability@austintexas.gov.

Feb 21, 2018 - 04:08 pm CST

City of Austin "Waste Not" Challenge Winner: Sarah Seidel

Photo of Sarah Seidel with a green background.

City of Austin employees recently competed against each other in a week-long "Waste Not" challenge. The challenge tracks "green" actions taken by participants, and is done through our Rethink/ app. In the end, Sarah Seidel with Austin Public Health claimed the top spot — by only one point! We asked Sarah a few questions about how the challenge went for her. Here's what she had to say.

What was your favorite part about competing in the challenge?

My favorite part was being able to share all the different ways throughout the day that I practice green living. I’ve made a personal and household commitment to doing so many of the things in the app, but I’ve also tried to institute the practices on a larger scale for the condo complex we live in. As HOA manager there, I’ve implemented composting, native and drought resistant landscaping, single stream and hazardous waste recycling collection, etc.

At the office, Janice Savengrith (5th place winner) and I tried to document some of the ways employees are encouraged to “waste not”. For example, our kitchen has reusable mugs, cups, plates, bowls, and silverware; we have a CFL and battery recycling bin; every cubicle or office has a recycling bin; and we have water bottle refill stations to encourage people to bring and use refillable water bottles.

What obstacles did you face while competing in the challenge?

It’s time consuming to document things you do all the time without thinking (i.e. every time you recycle, compost, bring your lunch, use reusable silverware, and pick up dog waste)!

Anything else to add?

The app actually helped me identify some new things I hadn’t thought about doing at home, which was great!

The combined actions of all challenge participants resulted in the following:

1.4 thousand pounds CO2 saved, 344 pounds waste diverted, 1.7 thousand gallons water saved

CITY OF AUSTIN WASTE NOT CHALLENGE | Final Leaderboard

Sarah Seidel, Austin Public Health — 729 points

Albert Navarro, Austin Parks and Recreation — 728 points

Andrea Rose, Law Department — 679 points

Janice Savengrith, Austin Public Health — 602 points

Cathy Jackson, Purchasing Department — 499 points

 

Apr 22, 2021 - 02:54 pm CDT

Inhale, exhale. The simple act of breathing is something that most of us have taken for granted at some point or another. But, breathing clean, fresh air is necessary for people to survive and thrive. Perhaps there is no better time to focus on air quality and respiratory health than during a global health crisis spurred by a disease that targets the lungs. 

Because of human-induced climate change, our air quality is in danger of becoming worse. Wildfires, one of the worst causes of air pollution, are happening more often due to our changing climate. Suffer from seasonal allergies? Climate change is making our allergy season worse and longer, too. And, hotter temperatures can lead to an increase in ozone, a harmful pollutant. 

Since it’s not always easy to “see” when the air quality is unhealthy, it’s helpful to know what causes poor air quality and what we can all do to keep our air clean.

The “bad” kind of ozone and particulates 

In Central Texas, our air quality is generally pretty good. However, in the summer, there are times when levels of “bad” ozone — called “ground-level ozone” — reach concentrations that can negatively affect public health. This type of ozone is created when sunlight triggers a chemical reaction between oxygen-containing molecules and pollution that comes from cars, power plants, factories, and other sources. When concentrations become high, “Ozone Action Days” are triggered. We typically have between 5-10 Ozone Action Days per year in Central Texas.

For sensitive populations, such as the very young or elderly, people with respiratory issues like asthma, and those who work outside, avoiding outdoor activity is recommended on Ozone Action Days. This is because ozone is a highly reactive molecule that can irritate and damage airways and make it difficult to breathe. On Ozone Action Days, people can help by avoiding traveling alone in a car, and instead, work from home or use a sustainable form of transportation. Conserving energy is also especially important on these days.

Another big contributor to air pollution is particulates — the fine and coarse particles that spew from construction sites and things that burn fuel, like cars, power plants, and wildfires. Particulates, unlike ozone, can cause health problems year-round. Like ozone, particulates have been linked to a worsening of lung problems, especially asthma. Both particulates and ozone also are associated with increased cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart attack.

Knowing our history

In Austin, the City’s 1928 master plan segregated the city along racial lines and forcibly relocated Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities East of what is now IH-35. East Austin was then designated for industrial development, meaning communities of color living in this area were now more likely to live near a source of ground or air pollution. These health inequities still persist to this day, and low-income communities and communities of color are statistically more likely to suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders in our community.

Additionally, people who live near major roadways with higher concentrations of particulate matter, such as IH-35, are more likely to develop lung issues. Particulate pollution is also linked to cognitive decline in the elderly. This can have a big impact on people experiencing homelessness, for example. 

The ability to breathe clean air is a human right, and we must continue to work together to advocate for clean air in our community. We hope you’ll join us during Air Quality Awareness Week, May 3-7, to help spread the message about why air quality is so important for our health. You can check current air quality conditions in our area at www.airnow.gov and visit our website for more information.

Sustainable Austin Blog
Apr 06, 2021 - 05:34 pm CDT

 

Reflecting on 2020 while celebrating 10 years of sustainability leadership in Austin

Our team is often asked, “What does ‘sustainability' really mean?” To us, it means protecting and improving Austin’s quality of life now and for future generations. The ways we work towards this are numerous. Specifically, our office leads efforts to strengthen our local food system, achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions, and identify ways to make Austin resilient in the face of climate threats. We also work across multiple City departments, helping to connect the dots in sustainability efforts happening across our organization and more broadly in the community.

When Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, a pioneer in green building and sustainability, was hired to lead the office 10 years ago, she was tasked with establishing priorities for the newly-formed Office and setting a course for its future. Today, she leads a staff of 12 full-time employees focused on developing initiatives to lower our emissions and reach community members to help them make sustainability a priority in their daily lives. Here are our top 10 highlights from the past 10 years:

 

  1. Achieved 100% renewable energy for all City operations starting in 2011, resulting in a 72% reduction in annual carbon emissions reduction.

  2. Led the creation and implementation of the City’s Community Climate Plan including a 2020 Equity-focused update and the first Community Climate Ambassadors Program.

  3. Developed a Climate Resilience Action Plan to increase the resilience of City assets and operations in the face of extreme heat, flooding, drought and wildfires.

  4. Selected as one of 25 US Cities to be awarded a $2.5M support and technical assistance package to participate in Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge.

  5. Created the Austin Green Business Leaders program, a voluntary scoring system to recognize local businesses for sustainability and provide a peer group of 279 businesses.

  6. Launched the Bright Green Future Grants program to fund K-12 teacher- and student-led sustainability projects, which has funded 397 projects since 2012.

  7. Collected data to inform policy decisions, published in the State of the Food System Report (2015 and 2018 update) and the Food Environment Analysis (2017).

  8. Piloted the Good Food Purchasing Program to adopt healthy, sustainable, and humane foods with Austin ISD, the University of Texas, and the Austin Convention Center.

  9. Helped launch the Fresh for Less program, which brings fresh food to neighborhoods with lower access to healthy food through mobile markets and corner stores.

  10. Built a building performance dashboard that gives City facility managers better visibility to their energy and water usage, helping departments save money and resources.

 

View more of our office's accomplishments here>

Sustainable Austin Blog
Mar 26, 2021 - 02:51 pm CDT

We’re pleased to introduce you to Emmie DiCicco, a new Food Policy Planner working with our Food Team on a temporary assignment. We asked Emmie a few get-to-know-you questions so you can learn more about her and her background.

Q: Where are you from and what do you like best about your hometown?

A: I’m from Philadelphia, PA — the home of soft pretzels, ‘wooder ice,’ and the beloved mascot Gritty. I have so much love for Philly, particularly the attitude and the people. What other city can pull off the slogan, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care?’ In reality, there is such a caring, vibrant, and connected music, art, DIY, and activist community that finds room for everyone. It’s a bit of a hike from Texas, but you’d be missing out if you never visited.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what interested you in joining the Office of Sustainability.

A: Growing up working class in one of the country’s poorest cities inspired me from a young age to want to work towards a more just world. During my undergraduate journalism program at Temple University, I primarily covered community issues in low-income, neighborhoods of color — often blurring the lines between journalist and organizer. After graduating and working on political campaigns, I co-founded a grassroots organization to end corruption and voter suppression at the state level in PA. Seeing the crisis of how special interests, like big agriculture and big food, are able to prevent reform and enact real policy changes spurred me to continue my career in public policy.

In August, I started the Master of Global Policy program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in food policy’s intersection with poverty, racism, and environmental devastation. My policy interests have been heavily influenced by both my lived experience and previous advocacy work, including with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is picking up where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr left off to end poverty.

After meeting Food Policy Manager Edwin Marty during a discussion in my ‘Green New Deal and Food’ class under Dr. Raj Patel, I immediately wanted to join his team to work on food systems at the local level in Austin. I feel really lucky to join the office and some of the best thinkers on sustainability.

Q: What are you most excited to accomplish during your time with the Office of Sustainability?

A: Right now, I’m excited to be working on a report that identifies the various policy levers that cities have to create a more resilient food system and decrease food insecurity — a task more critical than ever while we just experienced a crisis on top of a crisis. I’m also following state legislation introduced that could reduce barriers to access food safety nets.

I really appreciate the opportunity to gain experience working for the first time in government, rather than outside of it on the advocacy side.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go in Austin?

A: Since moving to Austin, I have become a breakfast taco fiend, and trying new taco places is still one of my favorite things to do. Mr. Natural and Vegan Nom are at the top of my list, but Nissi VegMex is my next spot to check out.

One of my favorite places to unwind around Austin is volunteering at the Central Texas Pig Rescue. Before moving to Texas, I had no idea the joy that comes from sitting among hundreds of pigs. While I’ve enjoyed a slower-paced Austin than I’m used to, I look forward to shows and festivals returning to the city (whenever it’s safe to do so!)

Q: What is your favorite sustainable thing to do in your personal life?

A: Following a vegan diet is my favorite thing I do to reduce my carbon footprint because not only does it help mitigate climate change, it saves animals! I’m an avid cooker and baker, so I love finding new vegetables to prepare, ‘veganizing’ deserts, and sharing recipes. I also bike over driving whenever possible to reduce GHG emissions and sneak in exercise.

Q: What is your favorite food and why?

A: There are very few foods that I don’t like! One of my absolute favorites is mushrooms — they are funky, earthy, and can create some really wonderful textures. If I see something with mushrooms on the menu, I have to order it. I recently tried making pasta for the first time using a recipe for porcini mushroom ravioli from the ‘Wicked Healthy Cookbook’ by Chad and Derek Sarno and they were fabulous. Highly recommended!

Sustainable Austin Blog
Feb 04, 2021 - 03:43 pm CST

We’re pleased to introduce you to Keoni James, a new Austin Corps intern in our office who attends Akins High School. We asked Keoni a few get-to-know-you questions so you can learn more about him and his background.

 

Q: Where are you from and what do you like best about your hometown?

A: I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is known for its beautiful beaches. I moved around a lot because I was in a military family, but what I loved best about Hawaii is being able to hike. When I was younger, I absolutely loved the tropical region and rainy weather. I also loved the people since it just felt like a big family to me.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what interested you in joining the Office of Sustainability.

A: I am currently a senior at Akins High School. I am a part of the LGBTQ community and I have a dog and a guinea pig. What interested me in joining the Office of Sustainability was that they acknowledge climate change and equity. I feel like those are the two most important issues that'll help our future as a city.

Q: What are you most excited to accomplish during your time with the Office of Sustainability?

A: I am very excited to accomplish better public speaking skills. I tend to be a shy person at first, so speaking in front of people usually makes me feel hesitant. I'm excited to hopefully speak to other students and learn to have fun with it.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go in Austin?

A: My favorite place in Austin is honestly just my neighborhood. It is very green and spacious; I also love how you can sometimes see deer in certain areas. I usually walk with my siblings to the park to just get some fresh air and stay active.

Q: What is your favorite sustainability-related thing you do in your personal life?

A: I think my favorite sustainable thing to do is cook. I like to look up vegetarian or vegan recipes and go shopping at the farmer's market for fresh food. I also know that I want to get into having plants to take care of.

Q: What is your favorite food and why?

A: My favorite food is a Hawaiian dish called Loco Moco, which is white rice topped with a hamburger, a fried egg, and brown gravy. When I was in California I went to a Hawaiian restaurant and the taste was just phenomenal, it just brought back memories of the food from my home.

Sustainable Austin Blog
May 13, 2019 - 10:29 am CDT

Photo of a man with a long beard wearing a blue t-shirt standing on a roof with solar panels. There is a graphic overlay that reads "Jerry Bramwell Net-Zero Hero"

I’m helping to make Austin Net-Zero by: minimizing energy and water consumption in my home to the greatest extent possible.

 

Headshot-style photo of Jerry with a blue shirt on.Meet our newest Net-Zero Hero, Jerry Bramwell! In 2013, Jerry and his wife Lauree made the decision to move from Houston to Austin to be closer to family. They ended up buying the home right next door to their daughter Amy, and began a four-year remodeling journey to create a contemporary, energy-efficient home that would allow them to age with family close by.

Jerry ended up taking on much of the remodeling project himself. He did all the framing, window installation, waterproofing, insulation, interior and exterior trim, and decking with only one or two helpers. Impressively, he also designed, drafted, and permitted the home's 6,700-gallon rainwater system, which provides water for the toilets, pool topoff, and future vegetable garden irrigation. The home also features Austin's first residential gray water system, which could be a model for future systems. It's no wonder that his family describes him as the "ultimate DIY-er".

On June 9, the Bramwell's home will be featured on the 23rd annual Cool House Tour. We spoke with Jerry about his interest in building an energy efficient home, what challenges he faced in the process, and what advice he has for others. 

What inspired you to take action?

I have been interested in sustainable building techniques since the early 80’s when I designed and built a passive solar house for my family outside Denver, Colorado. Our original idea for our retirement home was an off-grid house on some land outside of Austin, but when the opportunity to live next door to our daughter and grandchildren came up, my wife and I could not refuse. I knew I wanted to build the house myself without hiring other people to do it and challenged myself to incorporate as many water and energy efficient elements as possible. It was a personal challenge to see what I could achieve by myself with the technology on hand.

Jerry in his workshop building a frame.

Jerry looking at the gray water system outside of the house. How did you do it?

Research, persistence, and a little trial and error. I worked closely with my daughter, the architect, on the design for the house and how to conceal the rainwater tanks (originally only for irrigation) under the back porch. After that, everything developed organically as I intensely researched and talked to people about what was possible. I credit Chuck Deatherage, Water Protection Specialist at the Austin Water Utility, for helping me understand everything I could do with rainwater — including flushing the toilets and topping off the pool.

I really was interested in incorporating a gray water system. To find the right kind of low-maintenance systems with an automated filter backflush, I looked at systems commonly permitted in Arizona and California where whole-house gray water systems are much more prevalent.  

Early on in construction, I went down to the City to see what it would take to incorporate gray water. After getting passed around between departments, a very excited person from the City called and told me that they had recently approved whole-house gray water systems, but I would be the first one to go through the process. There were no established protocols, so it might take some extra time to get it done. They were very supportive and really wanted to help me figure it out to pave the way for more people to be able to incorporate the technology as well.

 

Gray water and black water piping with labels.  Jerry underground with the water storage tanks.

Photo of the back porch of the house.

Whats's been the toughest part?

Communicating with the City and helping them understand the scope of the project and the systems. Once they understood what I was trying to achieve, they were very excited and tried very hard to help, but there wasn’t always a clear path to get there. I had great relationships with my inspectors and they were very helpful throughout the process, but no one really knew how to inspect the rainwater and gray water systems and they told me so. Ultimately, the head of residential inspection came personally to review the systems.

Have there been any unexpected benefits?

The interest of my neighbors and community in my experience has been really wonderful and unexpected. Being a pioneer for whole house gray water systems in the City of Austin is not something I planned on, but I am very proud of the outcome and hopeful it will be beneficial to others. On June 9, my home will be featured on the Cool House Tour, and I’m really excited to share my journey with other Austinites who are interested in green building. Of course, the greatest reward is living in an efficient house right next door to my granddaughters.

Photo with Jerry, Lauree, and Amy Bramwell standing in front of green grass, trees, and a playscape.

Interior shot of the living room.  Jerry's granddaughter sitting in a window seat reading a book.

What advice do you have for others?

Don’t be afraid to do it yourself, try new things, and push the boundaries.

You can check out Jerry's hard work by participating in the 23rd annual Cool House Tour, an annual self-guided tour produced by Austin Energy Green Building and Texas Solar Energy Society. The Tour showcases homes that are designed and built to high standards of energy efficiency, comfort, and design. On the tour, homeowners and building professionals are on-hand to share their experience on bringing these sustainable homes to fruition.

Jerry with his arms outstretched standing on top of a roof. There is a solar heating system installed on his left and a solar energy system on his right.

To learn more about Austin's Net-Zero Goal, view the Community Climate Plan.

Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to sustainability@austintexas.gov.

Sustainable Austin Blog
Feb 26, 2018 - 10:20 am CST

Becoming a green school: Eastside Memorial High School's Journey, photo is a girl carrying a hose.

Eastside Memorial High School is known for tackling environmental issues head-on. This became even more evident when they became the first high school in Texas to be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as an Eco-Schools USA Green School.

The road to becoming a Green School began in 2014, when the school embarked on a campus-wide beautification project. The overall effort included building a garden, compost system, flow form, and wicking bed for plant propagation. They also built an outdoor learning area using grant funding from the City’s Bright Green Future Grant program. The “big picture” was an integrated system that would produce food and fertility for future generations while achieving a creative solution to a well-known local environmental issue — water usage and drought.

Then, in 2015, the school decided to focus on waste by conducting an audit through Keep Austin Beautiful‘s Generation Zero Program. Through the audit, they discovered that 82 percent of the school’s landfill waste was recyclable or compostable. In response, the school’s Green Teens club made recycling bins available in each class, making it easier for students and staff to recycle. Additionally, the construction tech class built 3D display boards to remind the campus community to recycle.

Students being presented with a big check for the project at their school.

Students working soil on a school campus.  Outdoor classroom made of large stones outside of a school.

The students and staff are very proud of these initiatives, and this year, they are looking to do even more. For the 2017-18 school year, Eastside Memorial was awarded a Bright Green Future Grant to solve the problem of erosion on campus. For the project, students from the Environmental Systems and Engineering classes will work with Engineers Without Borders in designing, building, planting, and caring for a rain garden. This will provide students with real-world experience in solving an environmental issue that directly impacts a space they use daily.

The students started on the design phase last fall and will begin construction this month. They hope to complete the project in May with the help of UT students, Keep Austin Beautiful, and school staff.

Kudos to the students, faculty, and partners of Eastside Memorial High School for their dedication to making their little corner of Austin a little greener for everyone!

Eastside memorial students with City staff pose behind a garden on campus.

Sustainable Austin Blog
Feb 23, 2018 - 02:41 pm CST

Net-Zero Hero Chris Brooks, Photo of Chris with a green background

I’m helping to make Austin Net-Zero by: involving kids in sustainable practices in meaningful and fun ways.

 

Chris Brooks headshotMeet Chris Brooks, Environmental Science teacher at Clint Small Middle School. Chris has been teaching at Small for 16 years, and has been involved in shaping the school’s Green Tech Academy curriculum. Small is one of the first Austin-area schools to implement green programs in the classroom, beginning with waste audits in the early 2000’s. Now, the school has an abundance of sustainable features — including rain gardens, vegetable gardens, rainwater catchment cisterns, a large greenhouse, an outdoor classroom, composting, and more. They also raise chickens, ducks, goats, and sheep at the school campus. Chris is helping his students learn how to build and design these various systems, and explore the ways in which they are connected. The aim is to give kids the hands-on experience needed to cultivate a greener world. 

We spoke with Chris about his commitment to Net-Zero, what his toughest challenges have been, and what advice he has for others looking to live Net-Zero. Read more below.

 

What inspired you to take action?

My inspiration came from several places. Permaculture helped me see that most of the major issues and problems we face — environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social justice — are connected. Biomimicry provided the question required to make all design sustainable: "How would nature solve this problem?" And David Bamberger — a former chicken tycoon turned conservationist — demonstrated the promise of sustainability in action when he restored a 5,500 acre ranch to its original habitat.

 

How did you do it?

The short answer would be trial and error — and finding support in a diverse network of local community, education, government, and business groups

 

Whats's been the toughest part?

Getting past misconceptions, like “technology and nature are opposed”, the environment is some place “‘out there”, and “new, complicated ways are superior to old, simple ones”. Once kids have the experience of interacting directly with the world — whether it is holding a chicken, designing and building a rain garden, or growing their own food — they don't need to be further convinced that sustainability can be fun.

 

On a daily basis, the benefit is kids reconnecting with nature by caring for animals, growing food, composting, harvesting water, etc. Long-term, I hope that the habits they develop will create a generation of systems-based thinkers and designers.

 

The facts are clear; the story needs to change. Rather than presenting sustainable living as a mere lifestyle — or worse, as giving things up – the story has to be about opportunity, creativity and community. In other words, it has to be about doing more good rather than doing less bad.

Chris Brooks with two small sheep on leashes in a school parking lot.

We took so many great photos for this piece, we couldn't include them all! See more photos of Chris and his students.

 

To learn more about Austin's Net-Zero Goal, view the Community Climate Plan.

Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to sustainability@austintexas.gov.

Sustainable Austin Blog
Feb 21, 2018 - 04:08 pm CST

City of Austin "Waste Not" Challenge Winner: Sarah Seidel

Photo of Sarah Seidel with a green background.

City of Austin employees recently competed against each other in a week-long "Waste Not" challenge. The challenge tracks "green" actions taken by participants, and is done through our Rethink/ app. In the end, Sarah Seidel with Austin Public Health claimed the top spot — by only one point! We asked Sarah a few questions about how the challenge went for her. Here's what she had to say.

What was your favorite part about competing in the challenge?

My favorite part was being able to share all the different ways throughout the day that I practice green living. I’ve made a personal and household commitment to doing so many of the things in the app, but I’ve also tried to institute the practices on a larger scale for the condo complex we live in. As HOA manager there, I’ve implemented composting, native and drought resistant landscaping, single stream and hazardous waste recycling collection, etc.

At the office, Janice Savengrith (5th place winner) and I tried to document some of the ways employees are encouraged to “waste not”. For example, our kitchen has reusable mugs, cups, plates, bowls, and silverware; we have a CFL and battery recycling bin; every cubicle or office has a recycling bin; and we have water bottle refill stations to encourage people to bring and use refillable water bottles.

What obstacles did you face while competing in the challenge?

It’s time consuming to document things you do all the time without thinking (i.e. every time you recycle, compost, bring your lunch, use reusable silverware, and pick up dog waste)!

Anything else to add?

The app actually helped me identify some new things I hadn’t thought about doing at home, which was great!

The combined actions of all challenge participants resulted in the following:

1.4 thousand pounds CO2 saved, 344 pounds waste diverted, 1.7 thousand gallons water saved

CITY OF AUSTIN WASTE NOT CHALLENGE | Final Leaderboard

Sarah Seidel, Austin Public Health — 729 points

Albert Navarro, Austin Parks and Recreation — 728 points

Andrea Rose, Law Department — 679 points

Janice Savengrith, Austin Public Health — 602 points

Cathy Jackson, Purchasing Department — 499 points

 

Sustainable Austin Blog