Sep 11, 2021

Introducing Brad Benke

Researcher, Carbon Leadership Forum, University of Washington

Brad Benke

Brad Benke, AIA, is a Research Scientist at the Carbon Leadership Forum focused on creating and improving LCA data, tools, and policies to rapidly scale and advance carbon drawdown strategies for the built environment. With experience in regenerative design consulting and deep-green architecture, he builds resources and agency for designers, builders, and organizations to take immediate action on climate change issues. Brad is a former Senior Architect at McLennan Design, where he led diverse teams and stakeholders towards achieving carbon neutrality goals for buildings and organizations across the country. Brad is also a LEED accredited professional and a former Co-chair of AIA Seattle’s Committee on the Environment.

by Brad Benke

People say that if you want to build a better future for our planet, it has to come from a place of love. I like to think I’ve always followed this advice, but to be honest, it’s taken a lot of years, heartaches, and failures for it to really sink in.

I headed West in search of mountains after graduating with an architecture degree from North Dakota State University. I quickly fell in love with ridgelines, rivers, and forests, which, in turn, became my best teachers on the reality and urgency of the climate crisis. It didn’t take long for my love of wild places to raise questions about my profession on multiple ethical levels. Does this product damage the planet? Where did it even come from? Is its manufacturing choking the rivers I love? And a favorite of mine – should this be made at all, and who gets to decide?

Aldo Leoppold had words about this, “Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.” Even with the best intentions, it is almost impossible to leave no trace and I often felt like I was complicit in the destruction of the very same places I’d go to recharge. I deeply wanted to change that, and fortunately, I found countless mentors who were all asking the same question – How can we do better?

Brad on Olympic mountain

This photo is taken from a ridge in the Olympic National forest. It’s a favorite place to hike for my wife and me (and our dog). Although beautiful, the sunset was only possible thanks to wildfire smoke blowing in from Oregon.

Since then I’ve immersed myself in the world of materials ecology and life cycle thinking while still finding time to immerse myself in wild places of the Pacific Northwest. There has been no shortage of troubling news in the past few years. The painfully apparent effects of social injustice, inequality, climate change, and biodiversity loss can feel like a few centuries worth of bad decisions fell on our generation to solve. Those in the building industry collide with the immensity of these challenges on a daily basis.

I’ve now been working in the “sustainability” space for close to a decade. Even in this short window I’ve seen (and gratefully been a part of) some truly inspiring moments. I’ve had courageous clients who care deeply about sustainable buildings and products, I’ve watched some green building rating systems go from stretch goals to code minimums, I’ve worked with major governments and corporations to take real steps toward carbon neutrality in the built environment, and I’ve collaborated with countless others doing everything they can to catalyze systematic change. This work can be incredibly rewarding. But I’ve also witnessed (and sadly often been a part of) the hesitation, stubbornness, and ignorance of the building industry towards making the type of radical transformations that are needed. Even with positive changes happening, they can often feel miniscule and snail-paced given the storms of this century that we all face.

Out of all the positive changes I’ve seen in the past decade one thing has held true – the biggest ones required a big tent. I’ve learned the importance of not just loving the planet, but loving those who are fighting alongside you, and especially those who aren’t.

Turning the wheel of embodied carbon requires nothing less than all of us and it is what excites me most about joining the Carbon Leadership Forum and the incredible community that supports it. I want to express deep gratitude to each and every one of you who are reading this. I know you’ve likely dedicated countless hours to move these issues forward in your companies and for the profession at large in the spirit of collective action. I hope to return the favor to each of you through my work on improving the messy world of LCA data, tools, and methodologies. I hope to provide examples of how we can do better. If nothing else, please know that it will all come from a place of love.

Email Brad: bbenke at uw.edu
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