Zealous by Design

A passionate architect keeps his focus on a better planet

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

In both personal and business life, Bill Maclay of William Maclay Architects & Planners in Waitsfield follows the principles of sustainability and environmental consciousness that have served him since college.

Five minutes into a conversation with Bill Maclay is all that’s needed to figure out he’s a man on a mission. Since the 1960s, the principal of William Maclay Architects & Planners, P.C., in Waitsfield has never stopped seeking ways to make the world better.

The Boston native was at Williams College in the ’60s and, as did so many of his cohorts, participated in the protest movement. After graduating with a bachelor of liberal arts in 1970, he decided to study architecture, he says with a grin, after “figuring out that protesting was not a very good career. I came to architecture out of concern about how do we make a better world.”

Like his decision, Maclay’s path to becoming an architect was not a traditional one. In his first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, he encountered Waitsfield architect David Sellers, who was making a name for himself building experimental buildings in the mountains of Vermont. “I was 21 at the time and had a ton of energy,” says Maclay, grinning again. “I had a year of training and said, ”Well, I know enough.’”

He left school and moved to Vermont to work with Jim Sanford and Dick Travers designing a model community. “We called some of the leading experts in energy in the world at that time, when gas was still 30 cents a gallon. We thought, "Someday the world is going to change, and if that is the case, people will have to live in different ways.’”

For three years, Maclay worked with Sellers in Waitsfield, then returned to Philadelphia to complete his schooling, spending weekends and summers in Vermont until he graduated in 1977. Once graduated, he became a partner in Sanford, Sellers and Maclay, and stayed there until 1981, when he opened his own office.

Never veering from his goal, Maclay has maintained an environmental focus from day one. “We started out with solar buildings,” he says, “then, as there was less interest in that, we moved into energy- conserving buildings, which is still a major of part of our work.”

Indoor air quality issues presented another front to be tackled. “Then we looked at the environmental aspects of building materials, sustainability and durability,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of research and spent a lot of time learning, and also talking, lecturing and doing workshops.”

The firm has received considerable recognition in journals around the world for its architecture, ecological planning and community-oriented design. “We have been leaders and innovators in that going back to ’71,” Maclay says.

Those early projects were largely single-family residences, and occasional community planning projects, until 1987, when the firm was chosen to design the Inn of the Six Mountains at Killington. Working on the 103-room, 75,000-square-foot condominium hotel grew Maclay’s staff from three to seven people. Around the same time, the firm began designing multi-family affordable housing, which became its second major market.

All of the firm’s 11 employees have taken LEED training workshops. Rebecca Leet, AIA, licensed architect/project manager (left), and Jerry Bridges, associate AIA, designer/project manager, are LEED-accredited professionals. Steve Frey, AIA, is a licensed architect/project manager.

“In those projects,” says Maclay, “we figured out ways to have a high level of environmental quality and energy conservation even though they were affordable-housing projects, and broadened our experience in that arena.”

More institutional and commercial work came in, for everything from offices and manufacturing facilities to work on college campuses and family camps. Maclay says the majority of clients in all areas are seeking a high level of environmental design, adding, “In all of our work, we’re also recognized for high-quality design work.”

Community planning continues to be a major focus and includes work for the Vermont Forum on Sprawl in three towns: Waterbury, South Burlington and Bennington. A current project with Canopy Development involves ecological resort planning in Anguilla in the British West Indies, he says. “Instead of taking land and developing it, we’re creating a pedestrian friendly community, using wind generators and photovoltaics. We’re really creating places like Nantucket that become vibrant communities, with people living there, and they are great places to be.”

Closer to home are high-visibility projects. The firm was chosen for the redesign and expansion of the George D. Aiken Center at the Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. It involves a greenhouse space, bringing more light into the building and a “green roof,” where plants will mirror ecosystems such as watersheds, and water will be used for irrigation and recirculated into flushing toilets and other uses. It is also working on the Burlington headquarters for Seventh Generation, and recently completed headquarters for NRG Systems in Hinesburg, a LEED Gold-rated building for which the firm won one of its many awards.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an environmental rating system that has become a standard for design professionals. NRG's is the only Gold-rated building in Vermont; the goal is for the Seventh Generation's to become the second.

“LEED is both a good and bad thing,” says Maclay. “I think it creates a level playing field, because everybody says, ”I’m doing great stuff,’ and there’s no way to check that. It also helps to improve the quality of work that is done, but you lose a LEED point if you don’t do certain things.” For example, he says, using local wood as opposed to wood that is certified as harvested sustainably but difficult to buy in Vermont. “I think it’s environmentally equal, but going through LEED, you will lose a point for local wood.”

Standing are Kim Livellara, architectural designer (left), and C. Taze Fulford, associate AIA and LEED accredited professional; seated are Marc Young, designer/project manager (left), and Tamara Marteney, AIA, licensed architect/project architect.

All of Maclay's staffers have taken a LEED training workshop, and three - Jerry Bridges, associate AIA, a designer/project manager; C. Taze Fulford, associate AIA, an architectural designer; and Rebecca Leet, licensed architect/project manager - are LEED accredited professionals.

Maclay’s home and office are examples of his beliefs in action. “People talk about cohousing, and I say, ”Well, we all lived in neighborhoods up until World War II, and with the development of suburbs after the war, that whole piece has broken down.”

He, his wife, Alex, and their two sons, Schuyler, 18, and Thayer, 16, live in a subdivision Maclay built in what he calls “the Vermont Healthy Home. We built the house and said we’d develop house plans so people could get ideas for their homes. We experimented with a lot of innovative products, because we don’t like to experiment on our clients.

“At the office and at my house, we have solar collectors for generating electricity. They track and follow the sun using the same trackers we used at NRG.”

In the office, which sits in a former barn in the village, the company used less-toxic paints and innovative materials on surfaces, such as tiles made from recycled automobile windshield glass in the bathroom, “stone” crafted from ground up soybeans and newspapers, and cupboard doors made of the waste from a wheat field. Cherry wood on cabinets came from the property.

This dedication was a major reason David and Jan Blittersdorf chose Maclay to design their NRG Systems building. “We picked Bill and his firm because he was the greenest architect out there,” says David. “There were others bidding for this job, but we were really pushing the envelope on efficiency and green, and we didn’t want to end up training other firms.”

NRG’s energy cost savings are impressive. The annual bill for all the 46,500-square-foot building’s energy, including electric, heating and air conditioning, is a little over $11,000, says David. “The estimate was that if this was a typical Act 250 design building, it would cost us $60,000."

Energy savings are minuscule, though, says Maclay, compared to the savings in increased productivity from people working in well-designed buildings. “The Rocky Mountain Institute did research on the NMB Bank in Europe, which built a new facility. They ended up using more natural light, had water trickling down through spaces, broke up work spaces into neighborhoods. What they found was the absentee rate went down. It changed the image of the whole bank and they actually were more profitable after that.”

He offers another example. “Wal-Mart built a store and the architect recommended skylights. Wal-Mart said no, that they were over budget. The architect said, 'Why don’t we put them in one half of the building?’ Wal-Mart documents their sales storewide, and could also compare product sales with other stores. Both ways, they had a double-digit increase in sales in the skylighted departments.”

Even on his personal time, Maclay is true to his mission. While he has cut back on his community service to spend more time with his family, he still serves on the board of the Yestermorrow Design-Build School in Waitsfield and teaches classes there. He reads - usually books related to sustainability - takes walks with his wife, and travels with his family to places that might connect to his work.

“When I was younger,” he says, “I thought I knew all the answers, and maybe in two weeks, the answer will be found; but in terms of meaning in your life, you have to follow what you think is the right thing to do. In personal terms, you have to do what’s the best you can do with your life.“

Originally published in October 2005 Business People-Vermont