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BAC Alum at the Forefront of Sustainable Design

Kurt Fischer, MDS-SD '13, was at the forefront of the sustainability movement. After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1986, he began his career in environmental consulting long before the term "sustainability" was the commonly used term that it is today. As a licensed professional geologist (LPG) in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, Kurt was looking to increase his knowledge about sustainable design, so he enrolled at the BAC where he was part of the inaugural MDS in Sustainable Design class. The BAC spoke with Kurt about his design career, his accomplishments, and what else he hopes to achieve with his career.

When did you become interested in sustainable design?

I chose to work in the environmental consulting field as a way to identify, evaluate, and correct the damage done to human health and the environment by industrial age business practices. This included working on issues related to water resources, hazardous waste, and environmental remediation. Although I am a scientist and my academic training is in hydrogeology, I was involved in many building forensics projects solving environmental problems related to drinking water, lead-based paint, asbestos, radon gases, and other indoor air quality issues. I have even worked on unique situations such as hazardous gases and liquids migrating through the subsurface into basements of commercial and residential buildings. That sparked my interest in how and where buildings are sited and constructed, their function and performance, as well as the relationship between their surroundings and occupants.

How did you find the BAC and what made you choose to study here?

Around 2006 I was attending a green building conference in Chicago where the BAC was represented. I talked to them at length about the online programs they were building as part of their new Sustainable Design certificate program. It intrigued me and I enrolled the following year. I completed the Sustainable Design certificate program in 2009. At that time I started looking for an online master's program in a green building or environmental design related field, something that would allow me to continue working full time while pursuing additional studies. I was looking at Cardiff University's program which is was 100% online whereas the BAC's MDS program was low-residency and required onsite intensives. I viewed this as a much more desirable hands-on approach to teaching and learning, and elected to start at the BAC in fall 2011.

What was your BAC experience like?

Great. I enjoyed the certificate and MDS programs very much. I thought the instructors were top notch. I very much enjoyed working with instructors that had real-world, practical experience in their respective fields. I view this as a big advantage. The Intensives were a big part of the draw, where you immerse yourself in coursework and design problems for eight days. I also really enjoyed working with my fellow students face to face, rather than always online. It is a very collaborative experience and the advantages are many in working with and seeing points of view from other designers that come from a wide range of professional fields and years of experience. While working architects, or architecture students, seem to make up a slight majority of the students, there are many other disciplines represented, including engineers, scientists, journalists, marketing professionals, and tradesman, to name a few. This is a very positive feature of this program to be able to work with folks from such diverse backgrounds working to solve today's design challenges.

Tell me about your capstone project and what resulted from it?

In the early 2000s, my work in environmental consulting started to shift more to green building solutions and I started working on a sustainable roofing program to bring vegetated roofing solutions to our clients who owned portfolios of commercial buildings. We had tremendous success with this business over the next decade and my team and I were able to take part and help drive the green roofing movement in North America towards what it is today - an accepted sustainable building technology that can attain multiple environmental and ecological benefits, including building thermal regulation, storm water management, air quality improvements, and native species habitat creation.

As with any new technology in the buildings and construction market, in the beginning there are few design standards and even fewer code requirements. I viewed this as a bit problematic and wanted to spend time on my thesis developing designs and data to support green roof wind uplift standards to make sure the safest and most efficient products were being offered to the market. I had the opportunity to combine some of my own design ideas with some wind tunnel research we were conducting, and came up with a design for a modular green roof stabilization system that could effectively counter wind uplift pressures in the highest wind zone areas of the country. In theory the product worked well and further testing proved it viable. We were even successful in obtaining a design patent for the system. Although the product has not made it to market yet, the testing and research conducted as part of my thesis was disseminated to the green roof industry in a series of presentations and papers, and was used as background data in the development of a green roof wind uplift design guide that's in use today. I believe my BAC thesis succeeded in helping the industry recognize the importance of wind uplift with green roofs, and advanced the discussion to a point where safer green roof products and designs are being offered to the market today.

Where are you currently working?

I'm a Technical Director for a mid-size engineering consulting firm headquartered near Philadelphia, but live in Illinois, splitting my time between the Chicago area and the capital in Springfield. A lot of my more recent work has been in environmental design related to transportation projects for the Illinois Department of Transportation, a long-time client of mine. These infrastructure projects are incredibly energy intensive and I'm constantly looking for ways to reduce their impact through innovative soil and storm water management strategies that can be incorporated into their design. I also still get to do green roof consulting, which I always enjoy. For the last three years I have also been teaching a green roofs and green walls design class for the BAC as part of your sustainable design curriculums.

What project are you most proud of?

I'd have to say I'm probably most proud of the green roof program I alluded to above that I helped build and lead over the course of 12 years. This program really pushed the envelope of what modular green roofing systems can accomplish with respect to aesthetics and environmental performance. This was a relatively unknown technology prior to 1990.

What is your ultimate goal/dream that you would like to accomplish through your design work?

My consulting and design work has been very fulfilling and I have learned an awful lot over the years from the varied projects I've been a part of, and the great people I've worked and studied with. I see education as one of my primary goals to continue working on. I believe everyone with experience has an obligation to share knowledge and lessons learned with colleagues and young professionals to the extent they can. This is why I teach and hope to continue doing so. I would also like to continue consulting and developing products and services to solve the toughest problems for my clients related to the built environment.