Praxis (Building Solutions)

UPenn Green Campus Partnership Profile Interview

Max Zahniser

Originally published in University of Pennsylvania's Green Campus Partnership's News Blog

PROFILE: Max Zahniser

Business Services Director of Sustainability

DECEMBER 15, 2011


The new Director of Sustainability for Penn Business Services, Max Zahniser, is a sustainability integration facilitator and educator. Before coming to Penn Max was founder of the technical sustainability consulting company Praxis Building Solutions LLC, as well as The Sustainability NEXUS, a non-profit organization which is working toward synchronizing social and environmental initiatives in the Philadelphia region. He has served as director of sustainability at Wallace Roberts & Todd (or WRT, a planning, landscape and architecture firm with a rich heritage in sustainable work), and as LEED certification manager and LEED process & integration program manager for the U.S. Green Building Council. 

In these roles Max served as final arbiter of about 200 LEED® green building certifications, supported the technical and process development of nearly every LEED® program, managed USGBC's creative collaboration with Google, Adobe, Autodesk, and others, and provided support to both customer project teams and LEED® technical staff in a variety of ways. Max has been interviewed/quoted as an expert on sustainability, green building, LEED® and/or Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, numerous trade magazines, and on NPR. He also acted as a contributing author for a book published by Wiley in April of 2009, titled: The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building - Redefining the Practice of Sustainability.  Max currently develops and teaches sustainability curriculum as USGBC LEED Faculty, and at Drexel University, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Moore College of Art & Design, and other institutions.


OCG: How did you become interested in sustainability and environmental issues?

MZ: I think like most human beings I was born with a sense of connection to nature (other living systems) and a fascination that goes hand in hand with that connection. Because my parents involved me in some early environmental education (cub scouts, camps, etc.) modern American life just didn’t fully condition out of me that sense of awe and relationship.


OCG:  Given all your experience with LEED and the U.S. Green Building Council, have you had the opportunity to check out any of Penn’s LEED-certified buildings yet?

MZ: I’m arranging a visit to Morris Arboretum’s LEED Platinum Horticultural Center so that I and about 20 students in a sustainability class I’m teaching can explore that building and its approach. I’m looking forward to that visit and getting to know the many other great buildings at Penn, LEED certified and otherwise.


OCG:  What are some of the initiatives you’re most excited about working on as the new Director of Sustainability for Business Services?

MZ: There’s a tremendous amount of intelligence and energy already going into social and environmental progress at Penn, and I’m very excited to simply learn about it all, and do what I’m calling an inventory. This will be critical within Business Services, but also throughout the institution as there are a multitude of interdependencies between BSD and the other major areas of Penn. If we don’t understand these links then we can’t capitalize on the opportunities for synergies they represent. I’m excited to be doing this at an institution that can certainly take some credit for being one of the earliest to introduce such a cross-disciplinary perspective, and look forward to discovering with all my colleagues many initiatives that drive us closer to our larger university sustainability goals.


OCG:  What’s one simple sustainable action you take in your daily life that you could recommend to everyone in the Penn community?

MZ: Well, If you distill all of the environmental initiatives in the world to their fundamental intent, almost all of them come down to some form of protecting or increasing the vitality of life. I know it’s very philosophical, but I think people need underlying concepts and philosophy to really motivate change. To me it’s much more meaningful to turn a light off, or not let a faucet run while brushing, or pack a lunch, when you’re connecting to this underlying motivation – the vitality of life. So I guess I would sort of cheat in answering this question, and suggest that seeing our actions through that lens is the most important simple thing I do, and which influences so many behaviors.


OCG:  Do you have a favorite book, movie or show that focuses on environmental issues?

MZ: Well, I’m a bit of a Sci-Fi nerd, and my all-time favorite fiction book is probably Dune, by Frank Herbert, which does in fact focus on ecological dynamics quite a bit.

I’m also addicted to movies, so picking a favorite is pretty difficult. I’ll just say that the movie that got me most excited recently, with regard to sustainability, was actually Moneyball – a film that came out earlier this year starring Brad Pitt, and which, despite appearances, is not at all about baseball. What I like most about the film is that it does an exquisite job of expressing the mindset shifts that are necessary for substantial, systemic progress to occur. It profiled beautifully the personality archetypes that are generally in play in a culture (corporate, institutional, or otherwise) when a new set of ideas or a new approach comes along; some violently oppose it, some accept it, and some champion it, all largely regardless of the actual merits of the new paradigm itself.


OCG:  Are you involved with any sustainability or environmental initiatives outside the office?

MZ: Yes, my wife and I are both true believers that humanity can and must strive to reach harmony with other living systems. So we try to live our lives in such a way that we meet our needs with as little negative impact on our world’s life-support systems as possible. So in addition to reducing our energy loads, buying 100% renewable energy, not owning any cars, composting, purchasing less and buying local (though not often enough), we also happen to live in a home that a sustainable design professor at Penn named Don Prowler had turned into a solar technologies demonstration project in the late 70’s, early 80’s. It was the headquarters of his small architecture firm and the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Association. We’re struggling a bit to maintain it, but hoping to renovate it back into a more durable and more comprehensive demonstration of sustainable living.

I’m also supporting several organizations and programs that are seeking to drive systemic and market transformation in our world. I’m a technical advisor to the STARS program for sustainability in higher education institutions, I support the B-Corporation certification for sustainable company’s (which is driving towards an economic and corporate model that short-circuits the false-choice between money-centric for-profits, and do-gooder non-profits), and I still support the continuous improvement process for LEED via a couple of national committees. I co-founded a non-profit (the Sustainability NEXUS), which I still support in a steering capacity. My wife and I are also supportive of our neighborhood initiatives like the Grays Ferry Triangles project of the South of South Street Neighborhood Association – we’re contributing with the hopes that we can help to turn the Graduate Hospital Neighborhood, or G-Ho, into Green-Ho!


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A technical sustainability consulting company with clients and strategic partners including University of Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, B Lab, the U.S. Green Building Council, Autodesk, Con Edison Company of New York, Wallace Roberts & Todd, Humanscale.