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Exploring the world of green building with Stacey McMahan

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Local architect discusses her career journey designing sustainable buildings in Sioux Falls

This post is part of SoDak 350’s monthly “Climate Champions” blog series, where we will be chatting with leaders in our community that are doing great work to build a sustainable future for eastern South Dakota.

This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Stacey McMahan, Principal Architect and Director of Design Operations at Koch Hazard Architects. Stacey has directed multiple LEED-certified green building projects and has been an active advocate for sustainability leadership in Sioux Falls.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about your journey towards a career in sustainability. How did you first get interested in the intersection of environmental issues with your architecture career?

Architecture in the 1970s, with everything that was going on with energy and oil supplies at the time, kicked off higher exploration into passive solar and photovoltaics and ways to make homes and other buildings more energy-efficient or even off-grid. It was the hippie movement of sustainability, and it kind of died out after a while, but then in the 1990s it started resurfacing in the building industry in more of a scientific way. And at the time, I started reading about the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). What had been developed through it was a framework that addressed not just energy, but also the site, water, indoor environmental quality, and all the materials that go into a building. And so it was a much more holistic approach.

And a lightbulb came on for me - because I’m practicing architecture, and I’ve always had a strong connection to the environment, just from being an outside person and having my own garden for decades and appreciating a connection to nature. We studied passive solar techniques in architecture, but to actually have a way to work sustainability so it’s measurable - that’s what LEED did as a first mover in the industry. I give them a lot of credit for bringing that to the forefront and in an implementable way. Because when a LEED project is documented, measured, and third-party checked, then we know that it really is what it claims to be.

Can you tell us about some LEED projects that you’ve worked on?

Yeah! One of the first ones was the Museum of Visual Materials, and that project was unusual because it’s a renovation of a historic building with a sustainability focus. The energy system is unique in that it uses the groundwater that’s running along the quartzite veins. The temperature of that water is in the mid-50s year-round. The building borrows that water temperature to heat and cool the building instead of outside air, which can be extremely cold or hot and takes a lot of energy to temper. It’s very efficient! We calculated how much of the original building envelope we were going to keep, instead of tearing out walls and putting in new materials. It was a high percentage. We also worked with the contractor to make sure that the construction waste was diverted from the landfill and went to recycling as much as possible. For materials that went into the building, we eliminated off-gassing components that have been found to be unhealthy - types of paints or plywood glues, adhesives for flooring, types of flooring, the kinds of finishes that you smell - that’s all off-gassing, and it does make some people sick. It was great to be able to hone in on that and help make this building healthier for its occupants.

Museum of Visual Materials

Other buildings in town that have a LEED certification are Courthouse Square downtown, Cherapa Place, and Raven Industries. Some of those buildings are new and some are renovations. The first LEED-certified city building was the Sioux Falls Environmental Education Center on Cliff Avenue.

For more than ten years, South Dakota actually had a requirement for state-owned buildings, like on campuses or in Pierre, to be LEED certified if there was a major renovation or a new building. The state was primarily interested in improving utility costs.

Are there current trends and developments in the field of green building and green design that you're particularly excited about?

I think the technology of sustainability is getting better all the time. The awareness around climate change is also becoming more prevalent. People are beginning to understand that to address emissions, you have to do things like design more efficient buildings, constructing them with better insulation levels and mechanical and electrical systems that are going to use less energy and be more efficient. It is improving.

The International Code Council is also recognizing the importance of having better energy efficiency, and is reflecting it in the codes. Now it becomes the responsibility of each municipality to adopt the updated codes to address the challenge.

Do you have any advice for South Dakotans who want to incorporate sustainable design into their homes or businesses?

Something that everyone deals with is trash. And so becoming more educated about recycling and waste diversion could be like a gateway drug to more sustainable behaviors.

I’ve also always thought that gardening is a great activity to better understand life cycles and to foster a better connection with our place and who we are within that place.

There are tax credits available for qualified energy efficiency improvements like insulation and replacing windows and doors; installing photovoltaics (solar panels), wind turbines, or geothermal; or improving energy efficiency by switching to high efficiency systems for heating and cooling.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about climate change or sustainability in general?

A better general realization that every one person can do the things around them that will improve our environment. Sometimes it feels like such a big problem and people kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “How can I make a difference?” But I think that even in the small things, like recycling, anyone can start somewhere. Even if it’s a small difference, lots of small differences start adding up.

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