Written by Paul Peters, originally published by the Independent on September 20, 2007
Dr. Kath Williams will tell you right off the bat, “I’m not a tree-hugger. I never cared about the environment, I’m not an architect or an engineer.”
She just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help birth the most respected green building organization in the world: the U.S. Green Building Council.
To her, at the beginning, it seemed more like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 1994, when the students at Montana State University in Bozeman wanted to build a first-of-its-kind green building on their campus, no one else in university administration wanted to oversee the project. So Williams, assistant to the university’s vice president, got stuck with it.
Williams grew up on a farm in Ohio where, she says, she washed her hair with rainwater and learned to can food from her grandmother. She came to Bozeman after teaching at Stanford, where she found that urban California was no place for her country roots to sink in.
Her life’s ambition, upon arriving in Montana, was to become the president of a university, and overseeing the building project seemed like a detour.
“‘It’ll be good for you,’” she says MSU president Mike Malone told her.
The building was to be a visionary project, way ahead of its time, and an example of how building should be done in the future. Students wanted to call it the Epicenter Project.
“I took that name to Mike Malone,” Williams says. “He said, ‘Kath, MSU is not the epicenter of anything.’”
But the students demanded it, and they had even voted to tax themselves $25 per semester to pay for the building, so Epicenter Project it was.
The project, Williams says, attracted some of the country’s best architects and developers, who wanted to be a part of the revolutionary building.
As they worked on the Epicenter Project, those architects and developers also founded the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The council’s first meetings were held at Big Sky resort.
The USGBC went on to prominence. It developed an internationally recognized points-based method for certifying green homes known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, and spawned the World Green Building Council (WGBC) in 1998.
The Epicenter Project, on the other hand, failed miserably.
Too much space in the building was promised out to too many departments, and the project ballooned and ballooned, from 10,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet, and then it popped. In 1999, MSU president Mike Malone died of a heart attack, and the subsequent administration pulled support for the project.
The architects and developers left Montana and moved on to The University of Texas, Houston, where UT’s School of Nursing ended up building the Epicenter Project.
Williams figured she’d go back into administration, but soon people hoping to develop green buildings of their own began calling on her. They’d all been watching the Epicenter Project, had seen it go down in flames, and wanted to hire her as a consultant, to make sure they avoided the traps that killed her project.
“It was like, ‘Why did you fail?’” she says now, laughing. “‘How can we avoid failing like you did?’”
Williams began serving on the USGBC board, representing education, in 1996. She eventually served as vice chair of USGBC for seven years, became the second U.S. representative on the WGBC in 2004, and was then voted president of that organization. She served in that post for three years until she termed out in February 2007. She continues to serve in various roles with both organizations. Read more