Published December 3, 2020
By Jen Levisen
Mortarr and Stahl have been engaged with each other around the idea of sustainability and improving upon the industry’s current ‘best practices’ for the past year. Stahl provides professional consulting; development; general contracting, construction management, design / build, and IPD construction services, with offices in Minneapolis, Minn., and Des Moines, Iowa. Recently, The Forum’s Editor, Jen Levisen, sat down with Jessie Houlihan, Stahl’s President, to have a conversation about what drives her work, inspires Stahl’s approach to sustainable practices, and Stahl’s continuous improvement initiatives.
JEN: Jessie, I’d love to start with you. What interested you in a degree in environmental science, policy, and management?
JESSIE: At seventeen I decided to pursue two degrees – one in environmental science and one in journalism. I looked for schools specifically around those focus areas. I loved the intersection of earth science, ecology, biology, and chemistry with human sciences, sociology, culture, communication, and behavior. I sought to be the person connecting people with compelling information that would help evolve how we lived. I dreamed of traveling and working for National Geographic.
JEN: How has that degree impacted your career and your career at Stahl?
JESSIE: I have a scientific, curiosity-rooted approach to my life and work. I’m always wondering what’s around the corner and love the practice of creating collaboratively. One of my favorite quotes says, “that all men should learn before they die what they run to and from and why.” My personal practices are rooted in expansive meditation and inquiry that has helped me refine what I want to magnetize and manifest and also develop a real love for the challenges that help me refine and grow. So, as I’ve moved through my career, which has been varied, these principles have led the way.
In college I tried my hand at the sectors of work I thought I wanted to do – government, non-profit, publishing, University – and learned things about myself through each experience. When I graduated in 2008, the marketplace was not strong for writing work rooted in journalistic integrity (and we’re seeing the negative impact of that now as there are very few researched, trustworthy news sources) or progressive scientific work. Thankfully, I got a job for a small environmental consultancy based in Amsterdam, through which I started working on renewable energy carbon credit projects through the UN and doing supportive work alongside architects in the Twin Cities that were pushing for sustainable design. Through that experience, I learned how to cold call, identify pain points and opportunities, market, and produce the technical work. I left that experience to work for an environmental tech company, called Verisae. The organization was evolving rapidly, and I had the opportunity to work for the CEO, write the board reports and support in the creation of a market and the resulting company that was going to fill the need we identified. It was wild and I tried new things and help create strategies every single day and got to see through how we executed against that and the learning cycles. The CEO there helped hone me into the aggressive, strategy-rooted, leader that I am today. “Leave your ego at the door and fight it out amongst friends,” he would say. And we took it to heart. We shared our insights, ideas, thoughts and then, together, vulnerably would put our egos aside and dig into what was possible and create the shared vision and strategy.
This work style really resonated with me and is a model I have lived as I moved into my time with Stahl Construction. When I shifted out of tech, I wanted to focus on the built environment because it has a massive long-term impact and, frankly, buildings account for over 20% of the total delivered energy consumed worldwide.
I joined Stahl in 2012 to help them restructure and recover after the recession. Wayne Stahl, our owner, founded the business around the core value of integrity and sought to do work with transparency as a true partner. The team was salt-of-the-earth good but needed strategy, vision, a new structure, marketing, you name it. After a deep market study, I put together a SWOT study and 5-year repositioning plan and we dug in. We finished that work in three years and, during that time, we over doubled our total revenue and volume of work. With that, we expanded our sector focus, sought more market share, opened an office in Des Moines, added deep preconstruction and concept-shaping services, and started partnering economically on some of our projects.
As we’ve evolved, our core values, mission, vision, and focus have been mined and aligned, which really helped unite our whole Company around delivering #LikeNoOther and correcting many of the practices in our industry that have a negative impact – from diversity issues to waste generation. I have stayed at Stahl because of the incredible team I have the honor of leading and because this sector needs to continue evolving. Our vision is to bring a level of excellence, craftsmanship, communication, and positive impact to our work that is unparalleled in our market.
JEN: Where is the commercial construction industry headed concerning sustainability and green building?
JESSIE: Well, this is an interesting time to ask this question. When we first started this conversation back in January, I would have said we were pushing and searching for clients that are open to producing work in innovative ways and looking at environmental as well as human health impact of our work. Now, we are many months into the coronavirus pandemic where the structure of our society and economic system is continuing to erode and evolve. And, surprisingly, I think resilience as an element of sustainability is on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.
Big picture, our consumption and the resulting waste we create as people, businesses, cities, just doesn’t work for the long-term. There are more problems than the existing model can solve. So, it is time for an expansive revolution.
This moment in history has enabled us to see more clearly and live life differently, breaking the pattern we’ve replicated for generations. We got off the wheel, in a sense, and we’ve had the chance to question what works and what doesn’t. We can be more mindful about how many trips we take, how much we consume, how we’re focusing our time at work, and the initiatives we’re choosing to invest in and explore.
I know I’m incredibly social and really miss working and adventuring with people. I live in Minneapolis and adore our local restaurants, distilleries, and venues but, I’m willing to shift how I live to enjoy what I’m doing more, with intention, and to create a smaller carbon footprint. I think we are living in a shifting time where, I hope, the businesses and organizations that are innovating and producing regenerative, adaptable, sustainable solutions will start to win the day.
We’ve shown that we can all make a difference with our choices, especially if we can bring that to scale.
JEN: Tell me more about resilient communities and regenerative cities.
JESSIE: I had the pleasure of co-creating the Resilient Communities Product Council with my co-chair John Shardlow, of Stantec, through the Urban Land Institute of MN. The council convenes sustainability experts in the region twice annually for presentations, networking and workshopping the concepts we’re all exploring and trying to practice.
The language “resilient communities” came from the idea that we should be studying not sustainability, simply, but we should be looking at how we adapt with a changing world. So, resilient communities are ones that are assessing their risks (everything from 100-year rain events increasing in frequency and the resulting infrastructure needs shifting, to the risk of affordable housing availability for workforce) and are creating and implementing resulting strategies to reduce their risk and plan for how our approach may need to shift as the environment changes.
If resiliency addresses how we recover and rebound, regenerative takes it to the next level.
The concept of a regenerative development (or, someday, city) is one where the overall system of creating, consumption, and waste management is handled more regionally and creates more positive good than negative impact. Regenerative projects or developments consider an expansive list of focuses including expanded equitable stakeholder engagement — What does the community need? Are there indigenous peoples we should invite to participate? —, stormwater management (we need to change the models we use for planning to be accurate with global warming), renewable energy generation (solar, geothermal, waste-to-energy), energy and water use efficiency in a design (LED, daylighting, low flow plumbing fixtures, water capture, and reuse), artistic and compelling design (beautiful spaces affect how we feel, think, and behave), local materials production and strategies for reducing shipping and packaging, reused materials, the human health impact of the building materials (adhesives are especially tricky but low-VOC options are a good place to start – air quality has a huge impact on people), native plants and healthy ecosystems onsite, food production, access to transit, job opportunities in the area, the quality of the education, and so on.
Let’s not just rebuild what was when things go wrong. Let’s make something that works better. Better even yet, let’s adapt before we have really difficult events that challenge our systems and equity.
JEN: How can people start on the journey of applying this thinking to their work?
JESSIE: Examples of these practices integrated into the built environment exist globally. And there are many of us passionately fascinated with this who are devoted to attempting to find win-win-win scenarios where the investment in these measures has an economic return to the investor as well. Locally, in Minnesota, there are design firms we partner with who have amazing expertise in this work and there are fantastic resources for learning more about these topics that I’d love to share.
JESSIE: I have read countless books on the evolution of cities, regenerative infrastructure, landscape architecture, studying indigenous nature-integrated living cycles, you name it. So, please reach out if this topic is fascinating. If we all stoke our curiosity here, we will have a revolution on our hands.
There have been a few buildings that have surpassed even net zero standards (having no negative environmental/societal cost) to create a positive human and environmental impact. These “unicorn projects” are a feat to find and serve as incredible opportunities for deep work in this area. These are the horizons we aim for, the aspirational projects. But, we also endeavor to start where we are and apply this thinking on all of our projects from building schools and athletic complexes to our downtown Urban Infill multi-unit projects. If we start by looking at the areas of biggest impact spread across our projects, we can move the needle and have a long-term impact. In Minnesota, some of the major elements we can look at are:
+ The tightness of our building envelope, considering our climate and need for conditioning.
+ The energy efficiency of our systems, mechanical, lighting, etc.
+ Waste mitigation – reuse of materials, resourceful use of materials, reduction in packages, diversion of waste streams for reuse.
+ The durability and adaptability of the design. By this, I mean creating buildings that intend to be useful for the long-term and are designed to adapt with changing needs. This also means building with durable, healthy materials that won’t be replaced and discarded in a few years if styles change.
+ Utilization of local materials and reduction in shipping.
JEN: Congratulations on the completion of the MSR Design project! What are some of the highlights of the project?
JESSIE: The MSR new office project is a joint attempt by their firm and ours to create and deliver a Living Building Challenge certified project. We worked to achieve the beauty, equity, and material selection petals. It was incredible to see our teams really rise to the challenge and dive into the material supply chain to find options with low carbon footprints, made locally, surplus or reuse opportunities, and wildly healthy for human health.
I really love the Michelangelo grade sculpture marble that we were able to take out of a different Stahl job, save it from the landfill, and refinish it for use in the MSR space. The HVAC system provides a healthy current of air soundlessly that has been filtered through a powerful plasma filtration system, which can filter out things as small as the coronavirus and ensure optimal air quality, which is closely monitored. The space features a variety of work settings, plenty of daylight, access to transit, and an art installation bringing beauty and creativity to life.
For our team, this was our first zero waste construction project. That is quite the feat in construction, an industry that generates 40% of the world’s annual waste.
JEN: Outside of considering environmental initiatives, are there other practices Stahl utilizes in their work?
JESSIE: We are a Traction Company, which means we are rooted in our core values and have a flexible, evolving structure that adapts with our goals long-term enabling us to enliven our entire workforce to lead and deliver #LikeNoOther with purpose, passion, and strategic focus. I utilize some nature-based management systems in our business cycles (and highly recommend “Leading from the Roots” by Dr. Kathy Allen). More broadly, we employ lean construction tactics in our construction management practice.
JEN: What do these practices mean for your clients?
JESSIE: Our overall process is designed so that we can align deeply, powerfully with our clients and partners goals. We do this, often, in a collaborative alignment workshop. From there, we build our team and strategy around bringing value to the broader team and delivering to these expansive goals. Traction has helped us get really clear about what success looks like and how we can deliver excellence to our clients through all of the life cycles of a project, from fundraising and expanded stakeholder engagement to risk management, site logistics, and overall financial and schedule delivery. Proactive, clear communication is a fundamental that consistently demonstrates the Stahl Difference. The scientific, curious lens through which I see my team, our ecosystem, helps me foster an environment where everyone’s voices matter and we can manage risk and capitalize on opportunities together. Because no one of us is as strong, capable, intelligent as all of us together. Our lean approaches are related to this thinking as they are rooted in learning from everyone engaged on our project to gain insights and lead a stronger, more engaged team to deliver on goals that we can only accomplish together.