Praxis (Building Solutions)

The Vocabulary of Sustainability

Part 1 - What the heck does it really mean?

By Max Zahniser

(also posted at The Sustainability NEXUS)

A wise man (either Aldous Huxley or Ken Wilber, or both) once said that the language we use often has a great deal more wisdom embedded in it than those who use it (paraphrased). Hence, we can gain a great deal of insight simply by looking up a word’s definition and/or etymology. This simple, yet rarely employed approach has served me well in navigating the ongoing discourse in the sustainability movement; a movement which has become bogged down and confused by cultural over use and misuse of many key words, adding to and even skewing meanings. Although the explosion of social and environmental initiatives and organizations is encouraging, many of these organizations and their leaders are exacerbating the confusion rather than moving toward the clarity we’ll need to really scale up the effectiveness of our collective efforts.

Sustainability itself is already an over-used, seldom understood word. Peter Senge (systems thinking and organization dynamics thought leader) pointed out that the blurriness of the term sustainability is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. On one hand we’re finally discussing some things in one conversation that have been segregated for several generations, and we’re recognizing interdependencies that we have all but forgotten as a human race. On the other hand it is hard to take decisive and effective action when you’re overwhelmed and confused by a lack of clarity. But I believe we can achieve clarity and still more consciously discuss whole-systems.

In seeking a definition and better understanding of sustainability you could delve into the work of the Brundtland Commission, or the Ceres Principles, or LEED or any other sustainability framework, or even just the Wikipedia entry for sustainability; and it would probably all be worth your time (albeit a great deal of your time). But it would really take you beyond definitions, into philosophies and structures that surround the word sustainability, but are not the word itself. I’ll take us into the realm of philosophy in this article as well, but there’s real utility in demystifying the word first, by simply looking it up.

But before we can define sustainability, it is important to address a critical word that I’ve already used once in this article without defining it. Despite the title of this article, we need to first set the context for the term sustainability by establishing the concept of systems.


Etymology: Latin and Greek: Systema - "whole compounded of several parts or members, system", literary "composition"


1. A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

2. A set of elements and relationships which are different from relationships of the set or its elements to other elements or sets.

Source: Wikipedia

Following from system is a cross-disciplinary worldview or philosophy (or perhaps a meta-discipline if you will) that many of us find to be very helpful in navigating the complexity of our reality, also mentioned above: Systems Thinking/Theory. The quickest way I’ve found to establish a simple but fairly deep understanding of systems thinking or systems theory, is to go over some more vocabulary words:



At once part of a greater whole, and a whole unto itself; implying also being comprised of other, smaller wholes. Coined by Arthur Koestler

So the follow-up conclusion that one comes to fairly quickly is that everything is a holon! In the system of reality or existence as we know it, anything we have a name for, and everything else, is a holon, and holons are the elements referred to in the definition of system above. And our reality is made up of an incredible tapestry of sibling systems or holons, as well as nested-systems or nested-holons. E.G. Something makes up quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, and with electrons these make up atoms, which make up molecules, which make up bacteria and viruses and organelles, which make up cells, which make up organs, which make up organisms, which make up species or cultures, which make up ecosystems, which bump into each other in ecotones, which make up bio-regions, which make up the biosphere. If you stay in the realm of physics with this thought experiment, you reach the universe as a whole, and perhaps some of the proposals for the nested system beyond our universe (all of which you may also believe is a living system onto itself). 


Strong Emergence OR Synergy

A phenomenon within complex systems in which the behavior of a system cannot be explained simply by the sum of that system’s constituent parts. 

I.E. – you can’t tell why or how a holon is behaving as it is. This is the magic we’re learning how to deliberately foster in teams of humans; generating amazing ideas and solutions that we never could as individuals or even as un-integrated groups. Some would argue that strong emergence doesn’t actually exist, that we often simply can’t perceive all the constituent elements of a system/holon. And right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, as long as we can consistently make the magic happen.



Detectable effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action.

For an interesting dynamic regarding feedback, look up the meaning of the Pygmalion Effect.



Separation in time and often location between an action and the related systemic feedback (again, the effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action).

These present one of the biggest challenges, even to the most conscious species (as far as we know it) on Earth. Despite our cognitive ability we are failing to recognize the effects of our behavior due to delays, and this simple concept explains most of the crises we’re currently facing. Achieving great solutions to big challenges means reaching across many of these divides.


Now we have a sort of cosmology or worldview, into which we can insert, finally, our definition of sustainability.

First let’s break sustainability down to its root:


To keep in existence; to nurture; to maintain

Source: Wiktionary

Sustainability or Sustainable then, is

A condition or a behavior of a system which can be maintained indefinitely.

If you can sustain a behavior it means that that behavior is indefinitely repeatable; that the behavior does not damage or deplete, directly or even indirectly, the systems/holons that make that behavior possible to begin with. Likewise, sustaining a system or holon means that the behaviors and dynamics of the system do not deplete or damage the meta-system and sub-systems (holons of which that holon is a part, and holons within, respectively) that support the subject holon’s dynamics.

A couple of quick, simplified examples, in case this is already getting too wordy:

1. If you’re planning to build 400 brick exterior homes for a particular population, and you only have 200 homes worth of brick, then either the size or the material, or both, represent an unsustainable design. With regard to resources, and at a level of a larger, more complex holon, this is exactly what we’re doing.  

2. A bitter, angry person that tends to lash out at other people, and burn proverbial bridges, fairly rapidly deteriorates the conditions that allow that person to behave that way within a particular relationship or group of relationships. Even someone that behaves this way only once in awhile may be seen as doing that consistently by some of the circles they are in. So in that sense, their behavior is not sustainable, at least within a particular social system. However, being rejected from circles again and again could reinforce their bitterness, and unless the pattern is interrupted somehow, the reinforced bitterness sustains the behavior. So depending on how you draw your boundaries around the subject, the application of the term sustainability can be applied in more than one way. Many would argue however, that eventually that destructive personality will create or encounter a situation that ends the behavioral pattern if it is not truly sustainable (incarceration, fatal violence, or an epiphany that leads to real personal growth).

So, as you can see, the meaning of sustainable, or sustainability depends a great deal on what subject you are referring to.

What are we talking about sustaining, or failing to sustain?

Our behaviors?

Our designs?  

Our economy?

Our way of life?


Only endangered species?

Riparian ecosystems? ...


In the broadest and simplest sense I think it is this last one, but with the understanding that sustainable behaviors or practices, in serving their primary intent also serve to sustain the systems within which they are nested. And all of the preceding and possible answers to the question above are interdependent, and are nested-holons embedded as a part of the biosphere. So you could say human life, or human civilization, but underlying even that enlightened self-interest, is simply put, Life itself. 


To Be Continued….

Reverse-Engineering a Vision of the Future

The Potential Role of BIM in Changing an Industry

Originally titled  BIM:  Building Information Model-ing

Originally published in  The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability

By Wiley in April 2009

Strong emergence refers to instances in which attributes and behaviors of a complex system do not logically follow from the sum of the system's parts. This phenomenon is sometimes expressed in the form of a mathematical analogy: 1+1=3. A commonly cited example of strong emergence is human consciousness, which appears to be much more than the sum of sensory organs, grey matter and synapses.  Strong emergence stands in contrast to weak emergence, in which the properties of a system are reducible to its individual constituent components only, and is thus easily understood; 2=1+1. An example of weak emergence would be a brick wall emerging by stacking up several bricks.   

The idea of strong emergence as presented here, applies to ideas emerging from a group of professionals that no individual could have brought forth on their own.   This concept often triggers skepticism and makes some scientists and philosophers uneasy, as it looks a bit like magic. A conservative scientific position might argue that if you are observing what appears to be strong emergence, then you simply haven't identified all of the constituent parts of the system. I might not argue against this, but would argue that the laws of physics, or even chemistry and biology, are not always perfectly analogous to systems of thought and ideas. Collective thought and creative collaboration may simply be processes that are interdependent with higher level systems than we've yet managed to fully understand scientifically. I believe that Organization Development and Industrial/Organizational Psychology, as well as some advanced neuro-science, are at their core  burgeoning fields seeking to unpack some of the attributes of these higher level systems along with the work of philosophers such as Arthur Koestler, Ken Wilbur, Mark A. Bedau. .In short, we likely will not put the strong emergence debate to rest here.

But if the goal, at least metaphorically, is to consistently yield this "magical" strong emergence in the context of building projects, then integrative design is analogous to best-practice spells or potions. . . and the potency of that magic elixir is strengthened when information technology is part of the recipe.

Design and construction professionals experienced an evolutionary, if not revolutionary, industry-wide shift in building documentation practices starting at a meaningful scale in the mid/late 1980's and extending through the 1990's by switching from hand drawings to computer-based documents and digital 3D design. The use of Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) tools is now a nearly universal practice among A/E firms and many Builders. Over the last ten years, though, CAD tools have likely evolved to their full potential.   

As CAD approached this optimization, investment of creative energy in the AEC segment of the software industry shifted to developing the next evolutionary leap. That leap has landed at a set of tools that can be categorized under the term BIM (Building Information Model-ing). The fundamental nature of BIM applications is completely different from CAD, aside from functioning as design and documentation tools. Most CAD applications deal strictly in geometry, color, pattern. So CAD is really just a faster way of drawing.

BIM however, is an entirely different way of thinking about representing a building. In fact, using a BIM tool is really a process of producing a virtual building.. Whereas CAD forces one to squeeze spatial ideas into two-dimensional, representational views of a building, BIM enables designers to create the building as a building.

BIM tools can be considered simply 3D graphic interfaces for BIM files, which are really just databases. These databases relate specific, identified objects (e.g. a wall) to attributes, like material type, connections to other objects, etc. Building Information Models, then, are 3D virtual constructs of buildings, in which data related to each component of that building is imbedded.

When drawing a building in a CAD application, one simply draws the same building from multiple views. Each time a change is made, one must determine which views are impacted, and modify each individually. Coordination across disciplines, of course, is also an important issue.

Conversely in BIM applications, because each view of a building is exactly that, a view of a single database, a change made from any view modifies the virtual building itself. Thus coordination across views is not necessary. A quote used commonly in training for these tools is "a change anywhere is a change everywhere". Additionally, when using interoperable BIM tools across design disciplines (architecture, structural, mechanical, etc.) most BIM tools are capable of some level of clash detection. This means that the BIM application can determine when structure, ductwork, pipes, etc. conflict and alerts the user. This alone can radically reduce time spent on coordination for larger projects.

Like CAD, BIM technologies crossed over from automotive and aircraft design. Also like CAD, BIM faces similar market push-back challenges related to change-management issues among its potential consumers.  Despite these age-old organizational change hurdles, BIM's uptake appears to be much more rapid than CAD's was, and even LEED's, though the destinies of LEED and BIM are becoming more intertwined.

It is perhaps obvious that a software application, like any tool, in and of itself does not fundamentally shift a process or enhance its product. If you hold a hammer by its head and smack the handle against an upside down nail, it doesn't work very well. In fact, it makes building whatever it is you're attempting to build even harder than more primitive techniques. But holding it correctly, and swinging it skillfully at a sharp, upright nail can lead to holding wood together quite effectively. This is just the nature of tools; you have to learn the skill of using them well.

Likewise, even with the most promising BIM technologies, if implementation of that technology is not well planned, its use could actually hurt the quality of output. But, much like the LEED rating system, there still is a hidden benefit, even when forced upon a project team via mandates or company policy decisions. Even in the absence of an integrative process, BIM and LEED can reveal integrating forces, albeit uncomfortable and costly ones - using LEED likely delivers a better building than the same project would have achieved without using LEED, but perhaps not in a sustain-ably repeatable way without improvements in the process. But like LEED, BIM is forcing project team members to have conversations that may not have happened otherwise.

That said, the cost effectiveness and quality of the product (the building) will climb enormously by understanding both LEED and BIM as tools that to be used well, require an integrative process. When woven into an integrative process, both of these tools have the potential (now often realized) of delivering an even better building project along with cost savings, instead of cost premiums.    

The video below resulted from a collaboration between myself, while at USGBC, and a team at Autodesk. The aim was to envision an idealized design tool of the future. Built upon a BIM platform and intertwined with simulation engines and a digital building product marketplace, the tool would be capable of giving users near real-time feedback on the building performance impacts of their design changes.

It sounds and looks a bit far-fetched, and intentionally so. The interface, a 4' x 8' multi-touch screen built by Perceptive Pixel, was selected to reinforce the point that this was a vision of the future; a tool that would not hit the shelves tomorrow. That said, the technologies that this application would intertwine basically exist today. As William Gibson (science-fiction author) aptly put it, "the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." In fact, the primary barrier to realizing a design interface like this one comes down to the interoperability of its components, which in turn comes down to business issues and relationships among the owners of those components.

Simply stated, we're moving toward a pre-assembled tool-kit with which project teams, when guided by integrative design principles, can better understand the impacts of their decisions as they make them. In the meantime, we can piece such a tool-kit together.

In fact, BIM applications exist today that can run energy analysis at the touch of button during design and documentation, calculate loads and size structure accordingly, do construction cost modeling in keeping with popular cost estimating compendiums, run artificial lighting and day-light modeling, run computational fluid dynamics simulations (to study airflow), and in some cases nearly all of the above functioning interdependently - all derived from the database(s) running in the background of a BIM application.

By assembling a tool-kit of BIM applications and by appropriately matching their functionality to explore inter-relationships, a project team can align their process, their tools, and the building with the goals of integrative design. BIM tool-sets then, when used across disciplines, can be seen as the design and analysis tool embodiment of systems theory - or at least as another key to illuminating the realities of systems' interdependence.







In Search of an Ecological Architecture

A Retrospective on Green Building Philosophy

Drexel University - Interiors Graduate Thesis Research Paper

by Noelle Via

Advisor: Max Zahniser

Advisor's Note:

Sustainability, the green movement, environmentalism; whatever you call it there's clearly something more significant than a fad happening. The arc of even the most recent chapter of this movement can be tracked across several decades. Behind the recent explosion of unsubstantiated and irrelevant claims of environmental performance (aka greenwash) there's a real demand for a shift in the way humans meet their own needs, and real progress is actually happening. Architecture history textbooks and courses usually lay out a series of cascading movements in thought and practice over millenia. How might our current movement be reflected upon in such media decades from now? In her graduate thesis research paper Noelle Via gives us a possible answer to this, and she finds an interesting evolving pattern of thought and approaches; trends whose trajectory into the future might point the way toward much more than just an eco-aesthetic, and perhaps toward a human society that meets its needs without obliterating its own life-support systems in the process. Her subsequent DESIGN thesis, The EDEN Project, explores an example of what built environment development or redevelopment might look like in this future paradigm which she has found just beginning to emerge.

Click the cover image below to access her research paper. 

bubbles honeycomb living patterns noelle via cover

Strive to Operate within Site's Natural Water Budget

1 of Green Village Philadelphia's Performance Goals

By Max Zahniser and Terrie Lewine

Orginally published in the Green Village Philadelphia Newsletter

A site’s Natural Water Budget is our term for water that can be collected from rainwater or the underground aquifer within the boundaries of the site.

The intent of Green Village Philadelphia with regard to this performance goal is to eliminate our negative impact on natural surface and ground water, as well as energy use related to municipally supplied water, while limiting but meeting our needs for water use.  Our design plans to reduce storm water runoff, infiltrate more rainwater and to have a positive effect on the aquifer.  .

In a natural state, rainwater lands on the surface of the earth, infiltrating and recharging the aquifer, with some runoff into the rivers and streams.   In cities, we are basically ignoring the water that is falling on us, and because we have radically decreased the permeability of the earth in these areas, almost all of the rainwater is flowing directly into stormwater systems, which bypass the aquifers.  By ignoring the rainfall we become dependent on municipally supplied water to meet all of our needs, although in some areas wells are common also.  Municipally supplied water is generally collected from surface water bodies like rivers and lakes, impacting those habitat systems, and is then treated using processes which are energy and chemical intensive.  Moving the water throughout the city is also highly energy intensive, so addressing water source and use also helps us to address another of our performance goals: Strive to operate within site’s renewable energy budget.

Our plan is to collect rainwater, store it, treat it as necessary, use it (to the extent we are allowed to by law) and finally let it recharge the aquifer as it would in a natural state. This will reduce our demand on municipally supplied water, and begin positively impacting the aquifer. 

In general, rainwater is not considered potable by municipalities.  Which means we can use it for waste water conveyance (flushing toilets, for example), and irrigation, but not many other indoor uses.  The possible uses of collected and treated rainwater is an example of policy advances Green Village Philadelphia might influence as a demonstration project.

These current building code limitations might drive us to draw upon well-water for some uses, but our concern will continue to be to return the water to the aquifer after use and treatment. In conjunction with rainwater use, limited well-water treatment and use may enable us to eliminate our municipally supplied water demand.

There are living-systems approaches to water treatment that can be quite attractive, and which GVP intends to integrate into the community. Two examples of this are Living Machines (usually indoor) and Constructed Treatment Wetlands (outdoor).  Tiny organisms that live in the root structures of the plants in these systems destroy the bacteria in our “waste”, providing clean water that can be returned to the aquifer or used again—which generally is not yet allowed by building code.  These living-systems use natural ecosystem processes and are energy efficient. 

We believe Green Village Philadelphia can approach achieving this performance goal by using a balanced combination of the strategies discussed above.


Approach Zero "Waste"

GVP Performance Goal

by Max Zahniser and Terrie Lewine

Originally published in Green Village Philadelphia's newsletter


Sometimes it is very useful to define even commonly used words, as doing so can often cut very quickly to great insight on the given subject. So let’s start by defining waste:


(both selected from the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.)

  1. anything unused, unproductive, or not properly utilized.
  2. anything left over or superfluous, as excess material or by-products, not of use for the work in hand

Before industrialization of human societies there really was no such thing as waste. As William McDonough has been known to point out, we invented the idea of waste, and “in nature, waste is food.”


Generally, waste within a building complex can be clearly divided into two phases:

Phase 1. waste generated during construction, and

Phase 2. waste generated during the occupancy and operations of the buildings (after construction).


In both phases, it is critical to employ two general strategies in order to approach zero waste:

Strategy 1. strive to generate less “waste” to begin with, and

Strategy 2. for whatever waste generation can’t be avoided, seek sustainable forms of “disposal”, or better yet, use.


But we’ve invented a lot of stuff that is not food for any organisms on Earth, and we’ve also combined a lot of materials in our products, making it much harder to reclaim or recycle them individually. So this means that Strategy 1 above is really a process of careful selection of materials and products that do not come with packaging that is, or are not in-and-of-themselves, destined for landfill; i.e. at the end of their useful life, can they be easily reused or recycled?

 Strategy 1 there-by makes Strategy 2 much easier, because you’re only left with products, materials or nutrients that are readily reusable, recyclable, or a valuable nutrient for something else (e.g. compost).

 As a demonstration development, reducing construction waste will have a significant impact on approaching our goal of approaching zero waste.

 Consider this...40% of landfill volume in the US is made up of construction waste!

LEED projects are often easily achieving a waste diversion rate of over 90% (this means that 90% of the waste produced during construction is diverted from landfill, and would otherwise have ended up there).  

 On new construction projects the 10% that goes to landfill is largely product packaging and food waste from construction workers (technically not construction waste anyway).  During construction GVP will development systems to recycle the packaging, and compost food waste in order to divert more than 95% of their waste from landfill, usually at a cost savings, because we’ll be avoiding costly landfill tipping fees!

 Likewise, the EPA estimates that 85% of municipal waste (stuff you throw in the garbage at home or at work) could be recycled! We believe that without even addressing the community’s production of the waste to begin with, we can already approach 90% waste reduction by making the effort to get the material into systems that can use it!

 GVP will institute operational purchasing policies and practices to reduce the generation of true “waste”, material that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted. In addition we will implement aggressive operational recycling practices, supplementing what the city has in place.  This will include programs to assist our neighbors with electronics recycling and less easily recycled plastics, batteries, and products made out of more than one material. What’s left after that is largely compostable material; a.k.a. food for other organisms! GVP will develop various types of neighborhood composting to increase our use of nature’s free energy and nutrient sources, and assist in the achievement other GVP Performance Goals related to food production and healthy ecosystems.

             The above described strategies will get us very close to eliminating all material going to landfill or incinerators, and working to innovate beyond even this level could very well achieve a zero-waste community!  In a community of awareness and mindful practice, approaching zero-waste is actually one of our most easily attainable performance goals. 


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!


 Each issue, we recognize a member of the Penn community for his or her environmental sustainability efforts on campus. If you know someone at Penn who is "leading the green," let us know at

EDEN: Ecological Development. Emergent Neighborhood

Design by Noelle Via

Advisor: Max Zahniser
Master of Science in Interior Architecture and Design Thesis
Drexel University
Best Thesis Award 2010

Advisor's Note: Following her research project, In Search of An Ecological Architecture, which arrived at a visionary conclusion, Noelle bravely and ably tackled the almost ridiculously ambitious goals (listed below) that grew out of that research. She reached for a utopic model of human built+living system development. Dense urban location, mixed-use, transit oriented, passively resilient, neighborhood scale water collection, treatment and distribution, energy optimization and production, food production, and other green infrastructure and ecosystem services were ALL concluded to be requisites of a TRULY sustainable (indefinitely repeatable) future model. Emerging design and fabrication technologies were embraced as also inevitable, and a complimentary match with age-old, climate and context responsive passive strategies. All this yielded a compelling vision for a generative development approach in which built systems truly function as a sensitively, but deeply integrated prosthesis for living systems. A true Thesis (capital T) if I've ever seen one.   

Philosophical Motivation:

The environmental reawakening of humanity demands a new architecture. This architecture will be boldly different from its collaborators to its process, from its form to its performance, from its construction to its disassembly. The process of this ecological architecture will push all those involved to question every method they considered fixed and every course they deemed constant. This new architecture will spawn from a process that mimics nature to create structures that mimic nature. Linear notions of communication, form, technology, society, and economics will be discarded in favor of nonlinear understandings of the systems that make up the planet. This change will not be about form or about function. This change will be a reflection of organization, the process itself. The product of that process, diversity, will be the catalyst that reminds humanity of its connection to the whole.

Project Goals:

Challenge conventional design practice and notions of living to create a high-density mixed-use micro city that looks to nature for solutions.  The design layers urban with pastoral environments and aims to bring human life back in line with natural systems. A cohousing model for residential development renews community connections as integrated gardens renew humanity’s connection to nature.


Former Philadelphia Post Office, 30th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA

Site Overview: A building birthed in the 1920s during a period when machine was king and the fuel-dependent habits of today were burgeoning. The former post office is one of the largest masses in the city limits with a million square feet that barely see the sun. 

Daylighting Analysis:

Through daylight modeling, readings from each equinox and solstice, three times per day, were taken. Images demonstrate the transformative effects between existing and post-design daylighting conditions.

[Advisor's Note: This daylighting-diagnosis led to an intervention involving coring out a large courtyard, which would provide air and light to all parts of the development, make agriculture viable, and allow for a tiered hierarchy of public, retail, community and private spaces; all while fully preserving the magnificence of the building's facade and potentially even its beautiful lobby on the eastern edge of the first floor, thus honoring the historic significance of this mammoth landmark.] 

 Sustainable Strategies:

Sustainable practices were applied according to the necessities for life: energy, air, water, nutrients, and quality of life.

Design Generator:

Bone and spinal structures and their interpretation in architecture through tensegrity structure.





The Grays Ferry Project

A solar demonstration project from the last round of the green building movement

By Max Zahniser

My wife and I, independently, have both wanted to live in a green demonstration project for many years. in 2009 we bought our first home together, and we were lucky enough to happen upon 2233 Grays Ferry Avenue during our real estate search. As the article below explains in detail, the project actually has quite a history, having been turned into a residential solar demonstration project by Don Prowler, an innovative, early sustainable design practitioner and educator who taught just across the river at the University of Pennsylvania, where I have served as Director of Sustainability, BSD, and continue to support several sustainability initiatives. Although the systems described in the 4 page article below were hindered by a subsequent renovation before we bought the house, and those systems have deteriorated a bit over the last 30+ years, we still gain substantial heating benefit and thus energy savings in the winter. We've begun planning for, and hope to implement another renovation to the property soon, turning it back into a demonstration project, this time covering sustainable living in a comprehensive way. We feel blessed to have inherited this sustainable design landmark, and hope to return it to its position of prominence and educational service. 

Current Work

Green Building and Sustainability Projects and Programs Still In Process

Cira Centre South – Chestnut Street Tower (EVO tower / The Grove) 


renderings by Erdy McHenry Architects

Integrative Design Facilitator, and lead LEED consultant for 450,000 SF private student housing project (the largest in the U.S.) serving primarily Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania students, seeking LEED Gold certification and housing Philadelphia’s Sustainability Education and Collaboration center. Client: Campus Crest Communities and Brandywine Realty Trust.


2401 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 
PA - Green Office Building


image courtesy of Bedrock Group, LLC

We are the LEED consultant for this 8 story, 160,000SF multitenant office building in Center City Philadelphia, seeking LEED Core & Shell Platinum. The environmental performance upgrades to the 1890's B&O railroad building include a green roof, high performance windows, an energy management system, and a 17,500 gallon rainwater cistern that supplies all water for toilet flushing in the building. Additional upgrades will include Photovoltain solar panels, wind turbines, and site water capture. 


Ron Rambo Residence


Max is facilitating an Integrative Design for an innovative, high accessibility/independence home for an owner with Cerebral Palsy. The project will be intertwined as educational infrastructure with multiple higher education institutions, and is an official Sustainability Demonstration Project for the City of Lancaster. It will produce twice as much energy as it uses, will function as a hyrdologic healing engine (repairing the hyrdologic cycle as human and other living systems' water needs are met on site), will maximize air quality and material environmental performance, and the site will ultimately provide a significant percentage of Mr. Rambo's diet. The project is seeking LEED for Homes Platinum and will persue Living Building Challenge. The Fundraising and Permitting begining in early 2014. Client's own project website.


renderings by Kate Greim

Ecoxera - Multi-site Retail Sustainability Consulting

Via Praxis | Building Solutions, LLC we are running a retail Sustainability consulting company/division of a $100M/year Company, Davaco, Inc.


Tim Horton’s – Volume Certification Program






Begining with the certification of the Hamilton, ON location, we are supporting Tim Hortons goal of certifying 30 locations by 2016. We believe we will surpass this goal with the 9 restaurant locations pursuing LEED NC or CI Retail certification currently and by ramping up the company's LEED Volume Certification Program. 


PRSM - Professional Retail Store Managers' Association - Sustainability Resource Center

In collaboration with PRSM staff and a council of volunteers from across the retail industry, we are leading development of a broad and valuable set of sustainability planning and implementation tools, process guides, and best-practices. 


Sustainability Coworking Center 


Max is cofounder of a non-profit start-up called The Sustainability Nexus, dedicated to coalescing the abundant but fragmented energy of the regional sustainability movement, through entrepreneurship and innovation. Through a partnership we have just opened our coworking mothership and headquarters, CityCoHo | Philly NexusThis first major piece of infrastructure for the organization is a 13,000 SF coworking space (targeting LEED CI Platinum) for sustainability professionals, and professionals that give a rip about mankind and other living systems, but also want to have fun while trying to change the world.


University of Pennsylvania - AASHE STARS Assessment


We are supporting data gathering, and facilitating target assessment, goal setting, and implementation of improvements for a majority of operational divisions as part of a university-wide STARS program effort.


Weccacoe Flats


We are the lead coordinator of LEED for Homes documentation and certification support, for this multi-unit green residential development in Philadelphia, for Developer Bancroft Green. The project is on track for LEED Platinum. (Architect: Re:Vision)

images from Bancroft Green

Past Work

Competed Projects and Programs


ConEdison Company of New York, NY


We performed evaluation of the sustainability and potential for LEED certifications of standardized renovation approach of the company’s Manhattan headquarters


Stitzel Residence

Process Facilitator and Design Advisor for passive solar home in Lancaster, PA


Elwyn Wechsler


Integrative Redesign Facilitator for 30,000 SF assisted living facility in Media, PA

LEED-NC certified


Owens Residence

Design and documentation for SIPs based, green home in Alexandria, VA


“Max has a very thorough understanding of the LEED rating system and submittal process and he is particularly proficient at explaining and providing distinct interpretations to those who are not familiar with the principles of the rating system or with general sustainable design practices. Faced with a particularly challenging situation where he was introduced to a project with LEED certification as a goal late in the design stage, Max effectively stepped in and led our project team in the appropriate direction enabling us to define our sustainable project goals and target the appropriate green design strategies that best met our project objectives.  Max proved to be an invaluable asset to our project team as he guided us through the process of LEED-focused design, construction, and LEED-Online documentation.”                                                   Melissa E. Dzielak, ARA, LEED AP BD+C

Project Architect - RHJ Associates, P.C. / Architects . Planners . Designers

Praxis | Building Solutions, LLC  client



Collaborated to create the first LEED credit for Ergonomics, and advised on how additional Human Factors might be included in LEED.       




Provided educational support and an all day workshop to the core group spearheading the greening of the Pentagon.

“We’ve had several of these workshops over the years, and this one was the best.”    -Joel Stout, Pentagon Green Building Organizer


University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

Director of Sustainability, BSD


Comprehensive Sustainability Planning

Overseeing sustainability assessment, goal setting and implementation across residential buildings, dining and hospitality, transportation, purchasing, and administration, and supporting campus wide sustainable initiatives including Penn’s Climate Action Plan, comprehensive waste audit and management plan, STARS certification evaluation and pursuit, and numerous green building projects.


Comprehensive Quantified Materials Flow Map

Designing framework and coordinating data collection and input for a system map that will allow analysis and intervention in material input, throughput, and output across campus.


Blue Ball Dairy Barn

Supported project technically, raising the project from its predicted LEED Silver, to Gold Certification


Charlottesville Transit Center

Similarly to BBDB, involvement led directly to raising the project from its predicted LEED Silver, to Gold Certification


Floydd’s Fork Park

Evaluated the project using an eco-system services valuation process, quantifying environmental (and economic) benefit of several possible outcome


Trinity Lakes Park

Provided as-needed technical input and guidance directly to principal-in-charge (e.g. wind power technologies, concrete recycled content environmental valuation, etc.) on this 2,200 acre civic and green infrastructure super-project


The Bloomington Airport South District Plan and Sustainability Framework

Helped planning team to leverage Criterion Planners’ INDEX tool’s output, and implement decisions informed by this data                                                                                   


Green Operations Implementation

Planned and oversaw the implementation of a comprehensive sustainable operations framework across all offices and disciplines


USGBC headquarters, 1800 Massachusetts Avenue NW, DC

LEED and Sustainable Design Guidance        

Supported the project throughout as a technical resource                                                                          

LEED-CI Platinum Certified

Project Chicago - Vaporware Proof of Concept

This vaporware video-demo was the product of a collaboration with two developers at Autodesk; envisioned the future of sustainable design technology.




For other work at USGBC see also Curriculum Development & Teaching


Several kidney dialysis centers


Sovereign Bank

3 branches


High-end residential interior renovation

Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia


First Montessori Charter School in Philadelphia

Initial Design and Proof of Concept


University of Pennsylvania - The Rhodebaugh Diabetes Center

Gut Rehab at Penn Tower, Philadelphia


University of Pennsylvania - New Bolton Center

New Construction - an equine veterinary facility that included offices, medical rooms, and an indoor riding arena with stalls


Merck - West Point Campus, Pennsylvania

Project Designer

Switchgear and Mechanical Building


Princeton University - Green Hall

Project Designer and Documentation Producer

Major Renovation to Historic Green Hall

The Department of Psychology


Merion Golf Club (a PGA tour golf course)

Designer and Documentation Producer

Clubhouse Renovation and Expansion


Several other labs and educational facilities


PA Department of Environmental Protection

Cambria office building

CAD and materials research

First LEED Gold certified building in Pennsylvania

Built for 4% less than traditional construction


PA Department of Environmental Protection

South-central office building

Proposed sun-controls retro-fit design

First LEED certified building in Pennsylvania



" As a fellow member of the Theater of the Seventh Sister’s board of directors I have found Max to be incredibly insightful in all discussions and decision-making processes. I particularly appreciate his ability to perceive the deeper implications of any situation, never getting caught in the most obvious aspects that are not necessarily "driving" the deeper levels of the issue.  I have found that his ability to authentically frame the circumstances around a particular decision or issue helps to clarify for the group what is really at hand. This ability leads the group to a deeper level of decision-making that is not reactively, but rather proactively driven, and responds to the actual, and not the perceptual issues. 

Similarly, as a fellow member of the Stahr Center’s Emergence Facilitation Team, I have found Max's commitment to authentic process invaluable.  He is able to not only help identify the underlying foundational values of this emerging organization, but to then move that critical philosophical and value oriented work toward consonant goals and strategies that insure that as the more "concrete" aspects of the process come to the forefront, the essential organizational or project truths are embedded into the actual organization and/or building that emerges." Gary Smith

Founding member, Co-Artistic Director and Board of Directors member of Theater of the Seventh Sister & The Stahr Center


The Sustainability NEXUS

Founder, Board Chair


Stahr Center for the Arts and Sustainability – Emergence Facilitation Team

An emerging, intentional, regenerative community in downtown Lancaster, PA


Theater of the Seventh Sister

Board Member

Lancaster, PA


Green Village Philadelphia (GVP)

Board Member, and Co-Chair of the Board


Other Committees & Groups

AASHE-STARS Technical Advisory Working Group - Buildings [2011-present]

AASHE-STARS Technical Advisory Working Group – Water [2010-present] 

USGBC LEED Implementation Advisory Committee (IAC) [2010-present]

USGBC-LEED Steering Committee (interim member) [2011]

AASHE-STARS version 2.0 Baseline Working Group [2011] 

USGBC-LEED Integrative Process Working Group [2010-2011]

Architecture For Humanity – Project Reviewer [2008]

Green Wizard – Board of Advisors - vested member [2007-present] 

 Built-Environment Development Working Group [2007-2010]

Green Village Philadelphia (now Good Company) [2007-2011]

LEED for Schools Product Development Committee – Technical Guidance [2005-2007]

LEED for New Construction Core Committee (NCCC) – Technical Guidance [2004-sunset] 



“Once again yesterday was another fantastic seminar.  The topics and philosophies presented are so clear to me that I find myself in awe of your ability to present them so concisely.  I hope to one day be working with you in some capacity, whether with this firm or in some other way.  Both of your visits here have left me inspired and feeling ready to start a full-on revolution.   Anastasios Sioukas

Studio Agoos/Lovera

A workshop/seminar attendee


Curriculum Development & Teaching


USGBC Subject Matter Expert (SPE) & Instructional Design Advisor

On staff at USGBC: supported the development of several iterations and versions of the LEED workshops

As a consult (Praxis): served as a SPE on both the existing BD&C 100 and 301 level LEED workshops


Systems Thinking, Sustainability, Green Building, LEED, and Integrative Process

Have developed an interwoven, yet modular overall sustainability educational curriculum that can be deployed in pieces or in singular sessions, and can be contracted or expanded between 60 minutes and 45 hours



Collaborated with a co-teacher and a local point of contact to deploy the country’s first green building workshop, beginning the process of equipping the market to develop sustainably


Private LEED Exam Prep Course Webinar

6 hour, 6 part webinar LEED Exam prep course deployed internally for Humanscale sales staff, with a 100% pass rate


USGBC LEED Faculty                               

Approved Instructor for 8 USGBC workshops


Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology                          

Built-Environment Technology (BET) Series

Developed and facilitated (taught) a 45 hour commercial green building course

Adjunct Faculty


“Max served as my thesis advisor and mentor while I was pursuing a master’s degree in interior architecture and design at Drexel University in 2010. My research and project focused on an integrative and holistic approach to urban sustainability. Max not only demonstrated an exemplary basis of sustainable knowledge, he also advised me in learning new technologies, processes, and performance documentation methods.

As I explored issues of sustainable construction, aesthetics, and performance, Max advocated for my ideas and motivated me to push them further. He kept me focused on an integrative approach and kept me focused on my goals. Over the course of many months of meetings, Max became more than an advisor for a thesis project; he became a mentor for my career and future.”

Noelle Via

2009-2010 Drexel University Interior Architecture Thesis Competition Winner


Drexel University                                      

Graduate Interior Design

Adjunct Faculty / Thesis Advisor

For select students with innovative, sustainability related proposals

(2010 and 2012 advisees won the thesis competition)


Design Studios

Frequent guest juror/critic and guest lecturer


Drexel Smart House

A student driven, high-tech, green building rehab to an existing historic building on campus



General Lecture Series – Ethics

Mandatory course for all architecture students

Guest Lecturer - The Ethics of Sustainability


Discovering Architecture

High school level program for students considering architecture as an undergraduate major

Perennial Guest-Lecturer – Introduction to Sustainability


B-Corp Consulting Course

Currently planning a course in which undergraduate and graduate students will support companies pursing B-Corp certification (a rating system for triple-bottom line businesses). Students will support data collection to establish baselines and benchmarks, target assessment, goal setting, and implementation of company changes. Course to be implemented in Fall of 2013 term.


STARS* Compliance Consulting Course

Currently planning a course in which undergraduate and graduate students will collaborate on data collection to establish baselines and benchmarks in pursuit of STARS* status for Drexel University itself. Course to be implemented in Fall of 2013 term.

* STARS is a comprehensive higher education sustainability rating system.


Moore College of Art & Design            

Graduate Interior Design

Developed and facilitate (teach) a 22.5 hour general sustainability and green building elective course, once every 2 years

Adjunct Faculty


University of the Arts                              

Industrial Design Program

Guest Juror/Critic



MBA Program

Perennial Sustainability Guest Lecturer


Green Education Services                     

LEED Exam Prep Workshop Instructor


Americorp/Camp HOPE for Kids         

Environmental Education Program for At-risk Youth Camp

Leading development of train-the-trainers and their ultimate education program for campers covering general sustainability, ecology, and Permaculture dedicated sessions and integration with outdoor activities, meals, and other camp educational programs like the conflict resolution program. Will be involved in roll-out even after train-the-trainers. Via Americorp, this program will likely be disseminated across the country.


Conference and Seminar Presentations                             


USGBC’s Federal Summit

Greening the Heartland

REALgreen Sustainability Conference

Construction Managers Association of America Conference (CMAA)

BIFMA’s Conference

IFMA’s Conference

Adhesives and Sealants Council Conference

Numerous other private meetings and trade-association conferences

New York, National Capital and numerous other USGBC Chapters’ events

Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship - Sustainable Start-ups Lecture


Media Experience                                   

Officially quoted as an expert on sustainability, green building, LEED, BIM technology and/or Integrative process in:

The New York Times

San Francisco Chronicle

Chicago Tribune


Building Design + Construction Magazine

Contract Magazine

Numerous other building industry trade magazines

PRSM Gameboard test hyperlink

\This link in the gameboard will later point to content wthin the SRE. 

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.