Sheroes of Passive House: Michelle Apigian

[Editor’s Note: A highlight of PHIUS’ 14th North American Passive House Conference was the “PH Divas” panel session, featuring pecha kucha-style presentations by seven trailblazers in Passive House architecture. We’re excited to be publishing each presentation in article form on the PH Accelerator. Today’s comes from Michelle Apigian, Associate Principal, Practice + Sustainability Leader for Boston-based Icon Architecture. Hear her featured in this WBUR story about the Finch Cambridge Passive House project.]

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The last time I was in Washington, D.C., I was here for the Women’s March in 2016, and I’d never done anything like that before. Now I consider myself an activist. I never expected to be an activist, and that was the message that I loved hearing so much of yesterday in the keynotes: that we need to be hopeful as we move forward.

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The first ten years of my career at ICON Architecture—I’ve been there twenty years as of Valentine’s next year—I was blissfully designing affordable housing projects, doing master planning work for Hope VI projects throughout New England for the most part, and it was fabulous. But I was clueless.

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And then, in 2009, Devens, in Massachusetts, issued a design competition, a net zero design competition—I think it may have been the first in Massachusetts. And so we hired a firm called Petersen Engineering. James Petersen came to our first meeting and he said, “Well, the first thing you need to do is reduce the load of the building.” And I said, “How do you do that?”

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And so, we proceeded to do this competition, which we didn’t win, but I felt like I was a winner because I came out of the other side of this with a whole new mindset around what sustainability really meant.

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I used to think sustainability was all about the environment, and I spent a lot of time enjoying the environment, but, as I’ve gone along, I’ve been thinking about life differently these days.

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I think part of that is because I’m now a proud mother of two daughters, and as I’m nurturing my chicks out in the world and I’m watching them interact with it, I have become incredibly troubled by what I’m seeing and I’m much more inclined to be engaged and to use my voice.

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I’ve also always been a very big fan of Yoda, partly because he’s small and powerful and I like to think of myself in a similar way, but also because he couldn’t have said it better: “Do or do not, there is no try.” That’s kind of my mindset these days. We just gotta keep doing it, even though we’re going to get it wrong sometimes.

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I’m also really, really focused on durability now. I didn’t think about durability the way I do now. I didn’t understand the building science and the moisture migration and all of those other issues, and now I’m really thinking about that both in our new buildings and also in our existing buildings.

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I’ve had a lot of personal stuff in my family that has helped me really see what aging looks like in this country, and I’m really scared about that future. Our buildings are about people. At the end of the day, that’s what we do.

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I’m working with beautiful clients that are mostly nonprofits and they work in communities, and they have helped me understand just how important community is. I became very engaged in my own community. I sit on many boards and I’m actively trying to know the people in my neighborhood.

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I’m also from California, and I’ve been traveling around there a lot lately, and almost every time I land there’s a new fire. The last time I was out there, PG&E shut the power down for everyone around the Bay Area for four days, so the urgency is really becoming clear to me.

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Fundamentally, it’s all about teamwork. That’s really where my head is these days. These projects take dozens and dozens of people besides the design team, besides the engineers. They take lawyers and partners and financial people, and we all need to be rowing in the same direction.

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Building is fun and we’re so lucky to be in an industry that is fun, and I can’t tell you how many people I know that say that work is a four-letter word, and I just feel so sad for them because building is such a blast, and it’s also a craft, and I hope that we will start to embrace that.

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I am deeply inspired by young people and what’s going on all around the world as we heard a lot about yesterday. This [above] was the climate strike in Boston, where my daughters were in the summertime, and I really like this particular phrase. We will rise. We will rise.

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So, I don’t know what the next steps hold for any of us, but I do feel incredibly optimistic about the potential for climate change and addressing it to really fundamentally improve our planet because I see it not just as an environmental crisis, but as a social justice crisis.

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It’s going to take a lot of work and climbing, and I’m totally up for that. I find it fun. I enjoy the hard work, to get into the weeds, and everyone I’m working with seems to feel the same, so we must be doing something right, I think.

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We’re not always going to be on solid footing when you do that. We’re going to be testing things. It’s going to be uncomfortable at times, but that is also part of the fun and part of the challenge.

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Again, I am acutely aware of the fact that the sun rises every morning and spring comes, even in Boston (sometimes earlier than we expect it these days), so I do feel that we are at the dawn of something truly magnificent and beautiful.

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As we take what we’re doing here out into the world, I want to end with David Byrne. This is his American Utopia tour, which I had the pleasure of experiencing in Boston a couple of months ago, and, gosh, isn’t that amazing? Completely unencumbered, instruments on their bodies, barefoot, dancing together, and making something so magnificent that they could never make independently.