Alumni Spotlight: Marty Brennan

We had the opportunity to sit down with ZGF Sustainability Lead and UW alumni Marty Brennan to discuss his pathway into architecture and the innovative work emerging from the Applied Research Consortium.

Headshot of ZGF Sustainability Lead, Marty Brennan

How did you get started in architecture and sustainability?

M: I was living in Seattle and working for a local nonprofit, salvaging building materials and trying to keep things out of the landfill. I did that for quite a while, but eventually decided it was time to go back to school. I went to UW to finish undergrad in architectural studies, and that experience was interesting and really impactful – to be more mature and to know what I wanted this time around.

While I was interning at Perkins and Will, I crossed paths with another student, Max Foley. He had been working with Chris Meek and Joel Loveland out of the Integrated Design Lab at UW. This is when I started falling in love with daylighting and energy modeling and simulation. I joined the lab and started learning Ecotect, a simulation tool for daylighting and looking at where we should put photovoltaics on a building.

We worked with all kinds of architects throughout the city; NBBJ would come to us and ask us to build a model of an atrium or of a lobby. It was fun and super collaborative; it felt like a really tight knit community. We had one foot in practice, working with all these different firms, and then one foot in academia. It was just an incredible experience.

How did you get involved with ZGF?

M: When I graduated, we were still coming out of the ‘08 recession. There was no work in Seattle, but I got a break to work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago – which, honestly, I wouldn’t have gotten if not for the skill set of doing daylighting. That truly opened up a lot of doors.

When the economy got better, the sustainability leader at ZGF, Chris Chatto, had an opportunity and I was able to come back to Seattle. At ZGF, I mainly do sustainability work, but we have a pretty robust project performance team across the firm, so I also get to plug and play with that group.

Tell us about the work you’re doing with the UW ARC program.

M: I originally got into circadian lighting research with a former colleague at ZGF, Ed Clark. There wasn’t much information on circadian lighting, but we traveled all over the country talking to different professionals, researchers, neuroscientists, and lighting experts. We built up this library of knowledge and ended up teaming with Dr. Mehlika Inanici, a professor in the College of Built Environments. Together, we created a software called LARK Spectral Lighting, which we open sourced and published. Mehlika and I traveled to Hyderabad, India to present this research in 2015 and that opened up a whole new chapter on an international stage.

To this day, we continue to get researchers contacting us and people doing dissertations using our tool. Very few people in the world know about this tool – but nonetheless it’s really fun and satisfying that there are groups out there using it. We’re now working on new versions of it with Zining Cheng through the UW Applied Research Consortium (ARC) program.

Parallel to that is the work we’re doing with Chuou Zhang, another ARC Fellow. We’re taking a deep dive into wood sourcing and asking questions like, what is the embodied carbon in wood? Are we making the carbon calculations around wood as transparent as possible? The answer is no. If you look at the industry and how we calculate these things, it’s very complicated and opaque. This project is trying to make information as accessible and open as possible. We are accounting for all the benefits of reusing and recycling and asking whether we, as architects and engineers, are designing to make reuse as efficient and easy as possible in 30, 40, 50 years. We do this work to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, but also because we love wood. We want to celebrate it and put good processes and data transparency in place to support its use as a building material.

What is the implementation process for a tool like that? What is the end goal?

M: We put it on GitHub. The number one thing is to get it out there. We then try to recruit beta users. It can be hard to know if your tool is accessible or easy to use, so you have to be very intentional in getting it into the hands of others.

We’ve tried to build a community around it – testing it, helping inform it, being a part of it. We reached out to the Carbon Leadership Forum and they’re incubating it. We also reached out to Building Transparency, which developed the Embodied Carbon in Construction Tool, EC3.

The bigger picture then becomes: how do these kinds of tools affect policy? A lot of them are a means to an end, that is often changing policy. If we get to the point where there’s enough transparency that it’s built into our supply chains or our lighting guidelines or how we live, the tool becomes irrelevant. It’s an important part of the road, but it’s not the destination.

For example, I think the policy change for spectral lighting would be that we all have healthy lighting that supports healthy outcomes. There’s a lot of ways to get there, including tools that help show how we’re not currently getting healthy light and that help designers and researchers in that process investigate ways to improve it. Same thing goes with the timber tool, which exposes the inconsistent pathways that exist in thinking about wood and carbon. A consensus would be great, but at the very least we need to be on the same page as to what these things mean so we can work through them.

In our work with the Carbon Leadership Forum, we are still very early on in building consensus. Step one in that process is building transparency around what these pathways are and then getting all these groups in the room – who are all coming from very different motivations – and trying to get them to intersect and develop working relationships that might have health, environmental, and social outcomes they might not have been looking at individually. If, in the end, the tool helps build transparency in the supply chain for timber, or even helps us be more proactive about designing for reuse and disassembly, it will have been a success.

We were on a great phone call, the other day, with the EPA and with waste specialists from Seattle and King County, talking about existing policies around reuse and opportunities for new policies that affect behavior and design. It’s exciting that ARC is seeding these broad and collaborative conversations and bringing together lots of people for good things.

What benefits are there with being part of the ARC program?

M: It’s the ability to have a foot in both worlds. I remember going through the lab with Chris Chatto, Heather Burpee and Rob Pena – people who were my mentors and who I respected – and talking about how, ideally, you practice, you teach, and you research. All these things inform each other. If you have practice and it’s divorced from the youth and vigor and ideas that bubble up in academia, there can be a real loss. Conversely, students are often so “in the clouds” that they don’t understand some of the more down to earth elements of practice, and that can also lead to a lack of innovation.

Todd Stine is one of the partners in the ZGF office and he looks at the ARC program and this collaboration as connecting dots. There’s a huge urgency to connect dots across the board, from social justice to ecological justice, and we can’t wait around. ARC has been a good catalyst for this; it supercharges these relationships, which is what it ultimately comes down to – building a web of connections and trust. If any students were to do this without such a web, I don’t think the research would be nearly as robust. When you get a faculty member, and you take some of the practicing architects working on the project, and then connect them with a student, it turbocharges what that research can do.

For the project with Chuou, we developed a life cycle analysis tool for wood called UpStream Forestry Carbon. Jake Dunn led the development from ZGF, Tomás Méndez Echenagucia was the faculty advisor, and we also pulled in Indroneil Ganguly, a professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. This was a first for the ARC program – bringing in another college – and it really propelled the research. I think it shows the expansiveness that’s possible when you let the research guide you to who you need to collaborate with.

Do you have any advice for current CBE students or students participating in the ARC program?

M: It’s important to be exposed to as much as possible. When I started my career, I came in with a specific faculty member in mind and with everything aligned the way I wanted it to be. Then, when I actually got to UW, I was exposed to different faculty and different ideas. That changed my career path. The circles I run in today I would never have imagined in my former life.

Just be open minded and expose yourself to as many parts of the school that you can. It would be great if the ARC program continues to expand and be accessible to a wide audience.