5. Eden Brukman on green building and exchange in San Francisco

Senior Green Building Coordinator

December 8, 2021

Welcome to The Multi-usiverse. Alongside your guide, Garr Punnett, explore worlds of opportunity within the use of physical resources across companies and organizations. Consider this a field guide in scaling reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recirculation. We’ll learn from guests who have ventured down this path and carved their way. Our aim is to discuss the successes, opportunities, and challenges of scaling a connected, circular economy. On this episode we’re joined by Eden Brukman, Senior Green Building Coordinator for the San Francisco Department of Environment.

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Audio Transcript:

Garr Punnett (00:17)

Hello, everybody. Welcome back to Rheaply’s Multiusiverse Podcast. My name is Garr Punnett, Chief of Staff here at Rheaply and Circular Economist who enjoys nothing more than talking about how we can use more and reuse more of the materials around us to build a more sustainable economy. I just had the absolute pleasure of talking to Eden Brukman, who is the senior green building coordinator at San Francisco Department of the Environment. She’s a flurry and wealth of information around everything from architecture into how this is now architecture of the future. When using sustainable building materials. We started off by talking about how nothing is quite sustainable. There’s always tradeoffs in building materials. We talked more about innovative system design and what it will then take to get more cities to adopt more policies, more organizations to adopt more reuse practices. Take a listen.

Garr Punnett (01:15)

Thank you for joining us. Again we sort of prompted this question earlier. I like to start out with who you are and why you love spending the energy and time on all the solutions that you work on, so you can kind of start us in here on who you are Eden, where you’re coming from, which organization you’re working with. And then we get to talk about all the neat things that you’ve done in your career, too.

Eden Brukman (01:41)

All right. Sounds good. Well, Greetings. It’s really good to see you and really good to be with you today. I’m Eden Brukman. I am the senior green building coordinator at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, but I’m also a licensed architect and have spent several decades in the field just working on restorative principles for the building industry. So that’s what brings me to the Department and some of the work that I’m doing.

Garr Punnett (02:09)

Now, please tell me how hard is your job? Because

Eden Brukman (02:14)

I love my job.

Garr Punnett (02:15)

We all love our jobs. Don’t get me wrong there. We love the good work that we’re doing on gathering stakeholders and really getting people to be all part of the right conversation and moving towards a more sustainable future. But what does that meant in the building industry? What does that meant over time of trying to not only then educate the rest of the populace on how important this is. But I feel like just now you’re starting to see the fruits of that labor really start to take hold.

Eden Brukman (02:41)

Absolutely. Well, I think, too, starting as a practitioner in the industry and then slowly transitioning out of practice and into education and advocacy work through kind of serial nonprofits and then to move to the public sector. It definitely gives me a range of perspectives on why we have the roadblocks we do and also where we have the solution set. So for me, it is complicated, but asking the questions and asking for help from other people is so often just kind of the best part of the job, too, even though it does kind of slow things down right.

Garr Punnett (03:22)

Yes. It is the best part of the job. I think the collaborative atmosphere we find ourselves in is why I will always, I think, stay in this industry. You mentioned one of my favorite words, though. Here roadblocks. What do you think? Are some of the longstanding roadblocks we have to maybe more sustainable material management or reuse? What have you seen? Maybe over the arc of your career? What have you seen even lately? I’d love to start with maybe an evolution of those roadblocks because some of them are disappearing.

Eden Brukman (03:57)

Yeah. And that’s a good thing. A lot of it comes with awareness and persistence and kind of just every time we learn something new, we learn more about the things we know we don’t know. Right. So it just starts to get deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. But as far as roadblocks go, I’d say as a practitioner, a lot of roadblocks are fear of litigation, it’s fear of the unknown, the lack of time to do adequate research, how short phases are for design before we get into construction, the different delivery methods for construction, and how they kind of encroach in on design phases so that you might be pouring foundations before you’re actually done drawing the design itself. So things like that are definitely roadblocks for designers and practitioners. For manufacturers. I think there’s a lot of issues around materials, just kind of trying to always provide people the things that they want and the amount of upfront time that that takes. The manufacturing facilities are not uncomplicated. And so every time we think, okay, this could be this color or have this chemical or not have this chemical. It’s not just a matter of pushing a button. It’s usually an entire reformulation, potentially a whole new plant that needs to be constructed. There’s a lot there. And then just from a use perspective or reuse perspective, some of the roadblocks are just the awareness of what’s possible and the awareness of all the hidden trade offs. Because with materials, it’s not like, oh, I can pick a box, and I have a quote, unquote sustainable material. There’s no such thing. Everything has a trade off, and you have to decide which thing that matters most to me. Now, in this instance, given all the other pieces that are coming into the context for that particular project or that particular installation, there’s a lot of roadblocks, but at the same time, we have a lot of successes, because for each of those things, people are finding a way.

Garr Punnett (06:00)

I love the finding the way line there because it talks more, too, about how not only are we each coming from a profession that we’re passionate about, it might be tech, it might be buildings and architecture, but throughout all of that, the finding the way is creativity and really understanding, right. This is what we have to work with and some of my favorite solutions, especially in buildings and especially in architecture is when people are given a material or they’re given some piece of infrastructure, and like, I can work with this and let the creativity flow. Have you ever seen something in that way? What types of stories do you have that you’ve seen where the creative process took hold because of materials that were given?

Eden Brukman (06:46)

Well, first, I’ll say that there’s nothing worse than anything really than a blank sheet of paper. So things that give us constraints actually lend to creativity. It can be very paralyzing to have this kind of blue sky, anything’s possible. And it’s only once you start having constraints that you can be creative and actually come up with a solution. Otherwise, it’s almost where do you begin?

Garr Punnett (07:10)


Eden Brukman (07:11)

So it does give a starting point, right?

Garr Punnett (07:14)

Oh, no. I want to hear about that starting point. But for me, it seems like, yeah, you’re right. There’s nothing worse. I often write, so it’s like I can work with a paragraph, but I cannot work with that first sentence. So I see that parallel. Yes.

Eden Brukman (07:27)

Absolutely. That’s why for me, I’ll go back and nitpick on the adjectives in that first sentence and then just get something out and then you can go back and nitpick. But it definitely comes down. I guess that also comes down to style. But as far as an opportunity, that kind of just really transformed a project that we worked on back when I was in the Penn as an architect, I was working for an architecture firm. This is several decades ago, and almost now gosh and we were working on our own office. We were moving to a new location, and we were going to take building from the early 20th century and take two floors of that space. I didn’t originally have two floors open to each other. So we’re going to need to build a stair. But this is an older building. So we had designed this pretty sexy stair, and everyone was really excited about it. It’s architecture can be pretty sexy and sweet. And then we found out that an existing, beautiful stair was coming out of another building for a company that was downsizing. And it had this integrated tread and riser solid wood with metal inlay. I mean, it was just gorgeous and a lot of resources and thought and craftsmanship had gone into it, and we coordinated with the owners who donated it to the Rebuilding Center in Portland. It’s a reuse center. We had a coupon from the Shouldn’t book and bought those treads and risers and redesigned our entire stair around it. And what was also nice about it, too, was in the end, we needed to have reinforced reinforced structural system for that point load. And we were able to get a pretty unique size beam solid wood beam to go with the existing from a barn that had been deconstructed originally built in the 18 and 80s using a land ramp from Andrew Jackson. And so we were literally supported by history, which tells the better story. Which thing do you think was the thing that every single architect in the company wanted to show folks when they came, they wanted to show them this beautiful stair made them entirely out of salvaged materials because it had such a rich and complex kind of history in and of itself. And then also how we were going to accommodate it into our space and make it our own. And so I think that’s something that reuse gives us that new materials just they don’t have that history pristine. They kind of have in their own way that blank sheet of paper. Right.

Garr Punnett (10:20)

Right. No. I love that. How does that translate to what you all are working at the Department of Environment, where San Francisco is leading the way around deconstruction and reconstruction using reused materials. How does your background in that help educate those that might have questions? What is that like now on the scene in San Francisco, where you’re seeing this now take hold.

Eden Brukman (10:52)

Yeah. So first I want to say that there’s a lot of cities that are demonstrating leadership in this space, and it’s really exciting to be able to learn with them. Portland had the force deconstruction policy in 2016, and the Bay Area has been convening a deconstruction work group. It’s open to everyone since about 2017 as a way to try to bring those lessons to the Bay Area and translate them for our own needs and for us. And I actually just lost the question. What were you asking?

Garr Punnett (11:25)

No, it was really about how is your experience and then these other leading cities, really, how is this pushing forward reuse around deconstruction, around sort of reconstruction, around materials? And really how is that experience now being woven into the current narrative of reuse, which is not easy to do in the conference thing?

Eden Brukman (11:52)

I think it’s always easier to communicate with somebody about asking them to change behavior when you yourself have experience that work directly. So it’s much easier for me to talk to architects because I’m a licensed architect, so I understand where they’re coming from. It’s easier for me to talk to building contractors because I spent most of my career on job sites, and I’ve worked in construction administration, and so being in that position means that I have hopefully a little bit of empathy for the process and understand where the limitations are and what they might be dealing with. So instead of kind of coming at this blindly, and the Department of Environment is really good about bringing together folks that are going to be impacted by policy before creating the policy. That’s one thing I really respect for the Department as a convener that we do that with other departments. But we also do that with members of the public or industry professionals that are going to be on the kind of user side of policy. And so we continue to do that. And with the building material stuff, we’ve been working very closely with the Bay Area sustainable construction leaders, a number of leading architects and consultants who very kindly and generously give of their time or their expertise and knowledge. They answer the phone if we call with questions. And so I think that that’s been a real help as we work to develop the construction policy. And as we really get to this next chapter for what does it mean when we are thinking about procuring materials for building a project?

Garr Punnett (13:35)

I think that your intention around gathering opinion and access and thoughts and experience in that always comes through when we have conversations, what have you seen that gives you the best, really, the view into what reuse means for communities, then you all do some great work. I know that you announced some grants recently in this last quarter around supporting different organizations. One of them was, I think, the Reuse or the Building Resource Center. What does reuse mean to communities? Whether it’s on the construction efforts, small businesses, local, just citizens looking to reuse something. How have you seen that benefit play out in maybe the research and conversations that you all have?

Eden Brukman (14:24)

Gosh, it played out in so many different ways. For one individual, we learned that reuse meant an entire new business for a sole practitioner, entrepreneurial type of person that just basically saw all this office furniture that was going, who knows where and deconstructed it down and used those pieces to create children’s furniture and sell them. So it could be a business. Reuse could be a business. It could also be a way to have access to quality materials for lower, no cost. We’re seeing a lot of turnaround on products oftentimes before the end of their useful life. And whether that’s because changing needs or because of senses around trends or company branding, there’s a whole bunch of different reasons why we’d love to get into that more, too. But for whatever reason, when those products become available, it means that someone else can have access to them that could really use them. And so it might mean an opportunity to brighten up the space or make something feel a little bit more like home or a little more comfortable, a little more inviting, a little more aligned with their mission, being able to help others. But reuse can also mean a whole secondary market and the whole secondary economy system. It can really have cascading impacts. And so I think there’s a lot of different ways that we can think about reuse, from workforce development to small businesses, even some of these programs that are happening in San Francisco, like shared spaces, which brings some of the Mercantile and cultural elements outside to the street, especially during the pandemic, when people weren’t going inside. What happens when those are built with secondary items, like building reuse instead of new items? What does that mean? How can that reflect the culture of a place or the history of it. That’s a lot of opportunity.

Garr Punnett (16:27)

I was about to say the same thing. It brings that heritage, and it brings that, especially. I see that in so many neighborhoods here, personally, in Chicago, where they might save a building and get to use those elements around the neighborhood. And it really preserves that culture, that connection to history and that connection to place. I always love going and visiting, though. That’s where I’ll find myself most. I’ll just wander on my bike and just weave myself through the city looking for those little Nuggets. When I’m not, though, wandering through the city looking for those Nuggets, we kind of get up. And I mentioned this again earlier. We’re in industries where in sustainability environment, it’s both around reducing the risk or mitigating the risks of climate change. We’re doing a lot of work in that front, but there are other risks that play into this and often risks that businesses or corporations or enterprise look at and think, oh, we can’t quite step into reuse because it’s too risky. There isn’t enough there for us. What would you say to any stakeholder at an organization that’s thinking, oh, we could go this route or we could stay with the tried and true and use these new things. Do you have a line? What do you say to people that are sort of on the fence?

Eden Brukman (17:50)

Well, I don’t necessarily have a line for them, but I do like to find solutions that help meet their needs and being able to help expand just their mindset of what that could look like is a good first step. It doesn’t have to mean that the very first project they’re doing has reuse, but maybe the seed is planted, being able to demonstrate with tools or with programs that maybe there’s an opportunity for them. They didn’t understand. One of the questions that folks have is around warranties. And there are wonderful examples of that already here in the States. And one example is Doors on Hinge, Andrew Ellsworth company, which has come up with a way to repackage and salvage wood doors and salvage doors and make it so that the end user didn’t have to compromise anything they wanted in the process. It’s seamless for them. They get the hardware with it, they get the whole door package, and they don’t have to worry about kind of this scarcity mindset of what do I have to give up? And instead, what else am I getting? In addition, what am I doing? In addition, for a lot of people now who have climate action or sustainability written into their ESG, or just corporate sustainability or corporate social responsibility goals, the idea of reducing the embodied carbon of their practice of their presence is an appealing one, because now it’s something that people are being asked to report against. And so there are ways to start to demonstrate how reuse kind of tips the scale for them there. And if they all start getting the aesthetic that they want, then is it really even a compromise right now?

Garr Punnett (19:46)

I love that. And I even think sometimes, too. And I’m always trying to reframe sustainability, whether it’s not just again, the classic environmental, social and economic. But what does that social part actually mean? That means that to your point on your story of reuse when you’re an employee at an organization and you walk past the stair, and it brings us a sense of pride. It brings a sense of responsibility that, hey, my organization is thinking differently. We’re thinking towards the future that plays into retention that plays into ultimately the goal of making sure you’re building a community at an organization. You’re thinking about both the environmental and social benefits. And that all plays into again how I think a lot of our consuming habits are changing. The generations are changing. More people are being more conscious about what’s actually going to start allowing us to build a more sustainable future. You mentioned from the climate action standpoint that many are coming out with more and more goals, many further and further reaching goals. You all have an announcement on that. There’s something coming out in the future soon.

Eden Brukman (20:54)

Yeah. Actually, this week and tomorrow there will be a TEDx style event to celebrate the launch of our 2021 Climate Action Plan update for the city of San Francisco. I’m sure recorded and available for anyone who wants any time later, but it’s an incredibly full and rich document hundreds of pages on a number of different impact areas. But one that I think that this audience would be particularly interested in is the Responsible Production and Consumption chapter, which has different strategies and actions that relate to everything from building and infrastructure sectors to food, single use plastics and other consumables and disposables, whether it’s the upstream changes or how we deal with it once becomes municipal solid waste.

Garr Punnett (21:56)

I love that mostly because again, this speaks to and again, there may or may not be groundbreaking things here and there, but because other cities have tried things, you all have tried things, and there’s a lot of collaboration between you and other cities. What would you say, though? I think this is what I love because we started to work together some time ago, and even in other conversations where I’ve had with other cities, people look towards San Francisco. How is it important for you all to be leading Portland to be leading? There are cities on the coast that are leading efforts in major ways that are breaking ground for Chicago that are breaking ground for St. Louis or Cincinnati or whoever in the Midwest may be. What is that like, really? What does that mean for you all as a city? Is it risky? Is it risky to do this and to keep pushing the boundaries, or is it worth it?

Eden Brukman (22:55)

Well, I guess it all depends on where you’re standing right, whether or not it’s risky. San Francisco has long been a leader in zero ways. Long before I joined the Department, we have decades of commitment and decades of established policy and examples of success, of all the different players coming together to make something happen. And that’s a great example of that is with the construction and demolition policy that was first released almost two decades ago 2006, which basically said is no longer acceptable to directly disposed to landfill items have to be recovered first. They have to go to a facility that can recover items and moving up from there. We’ve continued to build on that over the years and have added third party verification requirements, adding, most recently, new hauler requirements, just adding accountability. So it doesn’t feel very risky when it’s kind of the next logical step. I think where things start to feel risky is if you kind of go, I come out of left field with something and it’s not thought through. It’s not baked, and there’s no accountability in the process. That’s a risk. But if we work with the various stakeholders and we work with the community and we understand that looking out the window and seeing what the reality is from a climate perspective and the climate emergency that is here, which is the bigger risk. I think that’s kind of more the mindset. And so we want to take action responsibly. We want to be in a place where we are continuing to push ourselves. San Francisco is certainly a progressive community, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be staff at the Department of the Environment, where our mission is to really advance climate protection and enhance quality of life for all San Franciscans. And I think that second part, it goes together with that climate protection. It’s not kind of at the peril of. And so I just think that that’s an important holistic perspective for us to keep in mind as we continue to push for hopefully some audacious maybe, but certainly also aggressive goals because there really isn’t an alternative. The city just in July accelerated our day to be a net zero carbon city. It was originally 2050. And now as of July, we’ve committed to a goal of 2040, and that certainly forgives the pun, but it lights a fire under us to get moving, to make it or to keep moving.

Garr Punnett (25:53)

Yeah. If you were to lay out maybe high level because it’s not easy to really lay this plan out, but someone who’s listening maybe in another city who happened across this podcast, what would be the first step with taking maybe action on some sort of reuse policy around building materials? This can be very simple. Sometimes people just need to know what the first step is in terms of gathering stakeholders or having this type of conversation. What would you say is those first couple of steps?

Eden Brukman (26:27)

Sure. So the first thing that I did when I joined the Department was I created a little matrix of what are the different building types and Occupancy types kind of use types. And then what would be an appropriate intervention and kind of filling in the matrix. Where would the construction fit? Really well, where do we have our old growth Redwood, for example, where do we have our quality materials that we know exist? We know that exists on residential. We know we also have really high quality materials in old industrial buildings. Maybe we start focusing around thinking about that. Mainly start thinking about the material of the materials that can come out of a building instead of the building type. Then. Okay. So by starting with what is like, the end game that we’re trying to get to, we can kind of come back to the question. We also were really interested in this churn situation of San Francisco. We have a lot of class A office space with short term leases. So where some studies really look at interior renovations every 15 years. For us, it’s not uncommon to see two years. So that really changes the equation. Right. We have a lot of classic office space that deal with that short term lease. We have a lot of restaurants and we have a lot of retail. So those are also dealing with refreshes. And I guess in that respect, we have hospitality, too. It’s just also similar. So instead of focusing on deconstruction for them for those building types, maybe we really need to look at the tenant improvements as a first step and really think about what does Churn mean? And then from there, what does it mean when building products become intellectual property and really become part of your branding? What’s going to then trigger the roadblocks that we’ve been talking about and what’s going to trigger access or ease of use? So that kind of for each step, it will be a process and who’s being impacted and who could benefit. We do a racial equity scan on every project that comes through the Department. So what are the hidden effects? What are the hidden impacts? Otherwise? Are there people who would be burdened by this decision? Is there a way to turn that around before we even start the project? Can we think more holistically? So I think that’s also another way and an important way to be thinking about reuse projects is to always do that scan of who’s impacted. Can they be turned into benefits instead of something that would otherwise just be a hidden trade off? 

Garr Punnett (29:10)

Okay. So everybody, please copy those 20 considerations, because that is the roadblock that’s the roadmap there to beginning a successful program.

Eden Brukman (29:19)

That’s it.

Garr Punnett (29:21)

I love that you said that because it’s what I love most about sometimes our role here at Rheaply, which is all right. We’ve got this sort of we call them ecosystems. We’re trying to figure out what intervention points there are where we can really figure out all right. How can we aggregate material, what can be done to those materials? How can we aggregate these types of resources? And I find it so much fun because it’s all about finding almost those economic, social, or environmental sort of pressure points in a way where it’s like, oh, if you hit this right here, it’s going to cause sort of a cascading effect, which could really impact this community. And so I love that you lay that out.

Eden Brukman (30:00)

Oh, gosh. I kind of get pokingly, like, lovingly mocked for always starting every project with either a system map or a flow chart or combination. But it lays it out for you. You get to see the interdependencies, you see where the influences are. The directional influences are who is doing what and why. And it really tells the story of, like, well, are these people supposed to be talking or are they just talking to somebody else’s broken? It just helps to show really where the point of intervention should be.

Garr Punnett (30:37)

And I love that again. And we’re just now riffing off of each other here where everyone thinks we’re a much more connected economy than we actually are. There are lots of times where, yes, people are talking, but it’s also like, wait, how are you two talking? And then these two others aren’t. How did that happen? And sometimes it’s a conference. Sometimes they bumped into each other where it’s like, oh, these stakeholders know each other, but as an overall system, we’re not very communicative. And that’s, I think, again, part of being a convener that you all do well is bringing people into the conversation. So have the conversation. If you want to be a part of these solutions, get a part of whatever. I’m sure whatever city you’re in, whoever is listening right now, there’s a conversation happening.

Eden Brukman (31:23)

People would welcome your insight. And I think also, there’s a need to provide the space for it, but also to kind of eliminate any sense of this is the direction something is going to go and just be open to the idea that maybe someone else is going to change your mind.

Garr Punnett (31:43)

I love all of this, Eden, you have been a flurry of information, just as I knew you would be. And it was just more graceful, probably than you predicted. It was so well done. So thank you. And it’s been a real pleasure.

Eden Brukman (31:58)

Oh, it’s always a treat. Thank you for having me.

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