Dennis Creech is not your ordinary environmentalist. Over nearly four decades in the sustainability movement, he has evolved into a new brand of green champion: a savvy, science-driven professional known for bringing opponents into the fold instead of shutting them out.
He wears many hats, from organizer and energy advocate to educator, manager, and building scientist. His most important role—catalyst—calls on all of these talents in order to unite disparate and sometimes antagonistic groups for the purpose of advancing energy efficiency in the southeastern United States and beyond.
Creech’s calm demeanor and friendly, easygoing manner belie the fact that he is one of the industry’s top power brokers. Supporters call him the most influential advocate for green building in the Southeast, and he was selected as this year’s recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing for his tireless efforts to move sustainability into the marketplace. “Dennis’s biggest accomplishment is in the sheer amount of people in the industry he’s touched and improved their skills and knowledge and their way of thinking about green building,” says Sam Rashkin, the 2012 Hanley Award winner and a Hanley Award judge for this year.
Through Southface, the well-respected Atlanta-based organization he co-founded in 1978, Creech oversees a plethora of energy-related offerings including builder and subcontractor training, the EarthCraft green building certification program, and the Greenprints annual conference. In speaking to groups or individuals, he avoids divisive rhetoric and tailors his message while keeping it sincere. For example, when meeting with homeowners to talk about the importance of energy efficiency, he focuses his approach around saving money instead of saving the planet. With builders, he avoids terms like “building science” in favor of “best practices,” and with some groups in his conservative state, he avoids discussing global warming, even though it’s an issue that he feels is critically important.
“Why create an extra hurdle if I can talk instead about how we need to save energy because it is going to create jobs, save money, strengthen our local economy, and save water,” he says. “If I can get them on those points, and I lose them on climate change, why lead with climate change?”
Southface’s director of residential green services, Laura Capps, admires her boss’s ability to find common ground with so many stakeholders. “Dennis appreciates where people come from, no matter what their background is or what their preferences are,” she says. “He can understand why it is that they view the world from their lens. And then, he can help them see it from his lens as well.”
Friend and fellow Hanley Award winner Alex Wilson calls Creech a “coalition builder extraordinaire.” Each day, Creech interacts with home builder associations, architecture firms, utilities, environmental groups, policy makers, and the business community to achieve energy-related goals, and through these dynamic collaborations he has broken down walls that often exist between parties. He has also made many friends and admirers in the process.
Developer Steve Nygren lauds Creech’s ability to connect people. While planning the Serenbe mixed-use development in Palmetto, Ga., in 2002, Nygren attended a Greenprints presentation about biological-based approaches to wastewater treatment by scientist John Todd. Nygren was hoping to incorporate a chemical-free water treatment system at Serenbe, so Creech introduced him to Todd and engineer Michael Ogden, who ended up developing a first-of-its-kind system for Serenbe that reuses water for toilets and irrigation. “Southface is one of the forums that really brings people together to talk about the issues,” Nygren says.
In addition, Creech recently worked to build consensus for adding performance testing to Georgia’s residential codes. He saw it as a way to make sure that new and remodeled homes are as airtight as possible, but many local builders were worried that it would add delays and costs. Creech zeroed in on what would motivate builders to support the testing: It would take some of the guesswork and variability out of the prescriptive air sealing checklist portion of the code, an area of concern for many builders. After hearing Creech’s arguments, a number of statewide and local industry association groups dropped their objections and the initiative passed.
"Dennis Creech's legacy of education and collaboration showcases true leadership in sustainable housing. His dedication to high-performance housing makes it a great pleasure to name him as the 2013 recipient of The Hanley Award." —Michael J. Hanley, founder of The Hanley Award
Melding Science and the Environment
Raised by a single mother after his father died when he was an infant, Creech, 63, grew up in Charleston, S.C. He spent his days biking around town, shrimping and fishing off the Carolina coast, and exploring nearby woods and marshes. Early on, he developed a love for the lush coastal beauty and the area’s unique ecosystems.
He also worked hard and honed his entrepreneurial skills with a series of odd jobs which included mowing lawns, delivering eggs door to door, and cleaning boat trailers. His interest in science and the natural world (and a basketball scholarship) led him to the Citadel’s pre-med program, where a class based on Eugene Odum’s book, The Fundamentals of Ecology, helped him see the outdoors as part of an interconnected set of ecosystems. After completing the course, Creech changed his career path to systems ecology.
As a graduate student at Emory University, Creech was challenged to think about global problems that he realized were also regional issues—such as the greenhouse effect, acid rain, ozone depletion, and smog. In studying these challenges, he was drawn to their common connection regarding the production and use of energy. “Most of the environmental efforts in this country, and the world for that matter, were looking more at cleaning up water and the air,” he recalls. “No one was really thinking about energy, but it was directly linked to all these environmental problems.”
While doing doctoral research, Creech made the fateful decision to take a six-month sabbatical to work at a fledgling regional planning organization called Atlanta 2000, where, he jokes, he learned “how not to run a nonprofit.” But he found that he enjoyed outreach work and decided he would not return to finish his doctorate. “I really realized what I was interested in doing was bringing about the change as opposed to being a researcher studying the systems themselves.”
After leaving Atlanta 2000 a few years later, Creech and friend Jeff Tiller organized the Georgia Solar Coalition, which became the precursor to the Southface Energy Institute—simply called Southface today. From the start, Southface was dedicated to a science-based approach to environmental issues. At the time, that type of technical expertise was unusual in the nonprofit environmental sector, but Creech wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have short patience with so-called prophets who will tell me what I should be doing to save the environment but in the next breath can’t tell me how to do it,” he says.
A Well-Chosen Path
Under Creech’s leadership, Southface has grown to encompass a staff of 50 that provides research, advocacy, and technical assistance benefitting more than 40,000 homeowners and building professionals each year. Greenprints draws 300-plus attendees annually, and the Southface Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Training Center in Atlanta and other off-site training programs educate about 4,500 builders and subcontractors a year in dozens of categories including BPI and RESNET certification, energy auditing, and Energy Star. Southface also conducts online classes.
But perhaps the group’s most visible contribution to high-performance building is EarthCraft. Developed with the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, it is the go-to green building standard in the Southeast and boasts more than 27,000 certified projects. (See “EarthCraft at a Glance” above.)
Creech is quick to give credit to his staff for Southface’s success. He is a hands-off manager who enjoys sharing ideas with the young professionals with “mud on their boots” who perform the daily work of the organization, and he cheers them on when they leave for bigger projects. “He is known for training great people and sending them out into the larger green building world,” Rashkin says.
Despite the many positive changes he’s seen in green building, Creech says that there is still much to be done. One of his top concerns is energy code enforcement, which he feels is too lax in some states. He advocates a targeted approach to enforcement that focuses on cities, where the bulk of development is taking place.
Creech also is vexed by states that adopt an energy code such as the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, but then weaken its impact with delays or amendments. “You change the code so much that you don’t really get what you think you’re getting,” he says.
He also would like to see a greater focus on walkable, mixed-use developments such as Serenbe, which is an EarthCraft-certified community. To receive this designation, all residential buildings within the community must be EarthCraft certified. EarthCraft also provides incentive points for green-certified commercial buildings.
Creech also is optimistic about public policy opportunities, especially in the affordable housing realm where EarthCraft is particularly active. He also predicts that much of the country’s future residential and multifamily development will be centered around the Sun Belt and will need to address its particular climate needs.
In addition, Creech is collaborating with other industry thought leaders in ECOHOME's Vision 2020 research initiative, where he co-chairs the energy efficiency and building science focus area. As part of the program, he has called for more stringent training and certification requirements within the construction industry. “In most states, it takes more training to cut hair than it does to become an energy-efficiency expert,” he points out. “We have to change that. It’s too important.”
Now that he has built Southface into a premier green building organization, Creech is evolving again, stepping back from some of the day-to-day business to develop new sources of funding and to work on a capital campaign.
“We’ve got really top-notch technical people on board, my job now is to get them the resources so they can continue to do good work,” he says. His plans include exploring new ways to motivate more stakeholders to take up energy conservation measures. “A lot of what we are going to be doing in the year 2030 we are doing now,” he says. “Hopefully we will be doing it smarter and with a broader audience.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.