Green Movement Gail Vittori is co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas. In November, the center celebrates 40 years of breaking new ground in green building and sustainable systems.
Ben Sklar Green Movement Gail Vittori is co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas. In November, the center celebrates 40 years of breaking new ground in green building and sustainable systems.

Vittori co-directs one of green building's oldest and most respected think tanks, co-wrote a much-needed bible for greening health care systems, served as chairwoman of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and currently is the chair of Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). She brought sustainable building to the Pentagon and worked with the city of Austin, Texas, to develop the first-ever municipal green building program—inspiring similar programs across the country and around the world. An acknowledged force in maturing the green building industry's understanding of the human health element in structures and systems, Vittori has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments and contributions—especially for someone who never quite knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

As a high school student in the late '60s, Vittori discovered one of her life's main purposes—fighting for social justice—when she marched in anti-war rallies and picketed for the United Farm Workers grape strike and boycott. She's woven that activist streak into a career as a respected expert on greening health care and advancing fundamental human health considerations in green building. "A simple thought underscores why I do what I do," she says. "Democratizing opportunities and benefits for all is my measure of success."

The 2015 Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainability winner has quietly been doing exactly that for most of her life. A selfless mentor and organizer whose work has forged new ways of thinking within the green building and health care industries, Vittori makes change from the grassroots to the global level—because it's the right thing to do.

Paying It Forward

"Do you know how many non-billable hours Gail spends on the phone with people?" jokes Pliny Fisk, Vittori's husband and collaborator at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a think tank and sustainable living center in Austin. He adds, in all seriousness, "But Gail is unbelievably warm and personable. Her time and advice can leverage so much. So of course she has to go for it."

Vittori and Fisk work in a demonstration building designed by Fisk, a physical manifestation of the couple's vision that remains cutting-edge to this day. On any given day, they could be working with major Austin-based developers and corporate entities like Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas (the first LEED Platinum hospital) or with grassroots organizations or students. For decades, Vittori and Fisk have cultivated the next generation of green innovators and leaders through an intern program that's one of the center's pillars.

"Gail is a humble person and extremely generous with her time in mentoring young professionals," says Michael J. Hanley, president of the Hanley Foundation. "She's been a dedicated and passionate advocate for sustainability, bringing best practices to health care facilities, design, construction and operations. I'm very excited that Gail is the first woman to win the Hanley Award."

Bill Walsh, founder and CEO of the Healthy Building Network, is one of hundreds who have benefitted from Vittori's mentorship. "In her quiet way, Gail has had much more influence in this movement than we can possibly trace—even beyond the high-profile roles she's taken on," Walsh says.

Vittori says she had tremendous mentors and is merely paying it forward. "The universe of knowledge that people can get online now is so immense, but it's not the same as having a personal relationship that gives you a sense of context," she says. "When you share information with others, the universe of knowledge magnifies."

Going For It and Loving the Results

Encouraged by her parents to follow her dreams, Vittori's life has been driven by her own sense of what's right. Her path, never conventional or predictable, is about taking the next step to have the most impact.

Ben Sklar

"When something seems right, I follow my intuition," she says. "My decisions may appear to be risky, but they're guided by a sense of what I need and want and have to do."

Intuition led Vittori to become an economics major at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and then prompted her to leave after three years of accelerated study, a few credits short of a degree. She was impatient to apply all that she'd learned in a community setting. Intrigued by the economic policies in Cuba, she volunteered to build apartments in Havana by day while attending presentations by community and government organizations by night. It was a perfect foreword to her next phase of life: work with a solid purpose in Austin.

Democratizing Global Resources

Vittori met Fisk during an open house at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in 1977. At his invitation, she attended a seminar he taught at the University of Texas School of Architecture and discovered alternative energy and building systems as a means of democratizing global resources. "That was the missing piece—understanding how the relationship between access to abundant, distributed resources to fulfill basic needs shifts the balance of power," she says.

Vittori helped found the Austin Women's Appropriate Technology Collective and spent the next summer learning how to pound nails and use a level while she and other members built a solar greenhouse and laboratory at a local high school. That project led to a gig teaching classes in solar design and construction at Austin Community College. The game was on.

After a job as the city of Austin's first energy research specialist in 1978, Vittori took a position at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. She liked the make-it-happen environment and was determined to learn as much about sustainable building and systems as possible. "Little did I know that things would evolve on a personal level that would shape my continued efforts," she says.

Vittori and Fisk married, and Vittori became the center's co-director in 1982. "Pliny and I have an almost ideal complementariness to what we do and what we love to do," Vittori says. "I think we're always fascinated by who we're not. Pliny fills in those spaces for me, and I do the same for him. There's balance—and huge respect and trust. The organization benefits from having those two facets."

A Radical Reset for Building and Health Care

In 1998-99, Vittori spent a year as a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which showed her the impact her work could have on human systems and policies. Afterward, she joined a team to green the Pentagon and soon after fell into a mission that would drive her for the next decade and beyond.

When Vittori was asked to write a paper on green health care facilities for the first environmentally focused conference for the health care sector in 2000, the obvious bridge between green building and health care had not been built. The next year, she recruited noted health care architect Robin Guenther and others to develop the Green Guide for Health Care. In 2006, Guenther returned the favor and asked Vittori to co-author Sustainable Healthcare Architecture, a book that continues to shape the future of green building and human health.

Guenther calls Vittori the "spirit keeper" for the movement, noting that "she articulated a vision around health that the green building industry accepted as a package in its totality."

USGBC and GBCI CEO Rick Fedrizzi says Vittori is "the single voice that helped me understand the connection between the work we all do in the building industry and the health impact on human beings." Vittori never let him forget that buildings are for human beings, he says. "She drastically changed my thinking about what our job is."