Not many people think of architects as guardians of public health. This surprises Jason Kliwinski.

“It says on our license that we’re to protect health, safety, and welfare,” he says. “Most people don’t know that.”

Worse, Kliwinski adds, a lot of architects and builders seem to have forgotten it. So they continue to build and design structures that contribute to making occupants sick via toxic products, poor orientation, and wastes of energy. In short, there’s a reason why the phrase “sick building syndrome” is a thing, and there’s a reason why green builders like Kliwinski put so much effort into making it not a thing anymore.

Kliwinski, an early adopter of green design, is the owner of Design for Life, an architecture firm with locations in Lambertville and Manhattan, and, soon, outside Philadelphia. He’s also a managing member, along with Lia Nielsen, of the Green Building Center in Lambertville.

Kliwinski is also the main organizer of “Protecting the Health, Safety & Welfare of the Public,” a daylong conference of green architects and designers, sponsored by AIA-NJ, focused on how green building principles can preserve that little-known and possibly somewhat forgotten directive on architects’ licenses. The conference takes place on Thursday, June 22, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association’s Center for Environmental Advocacy and Education in Pennington.

Joining Kliwinski and Nielsen will be architects and designers, Tom Dallessio, May Jane Augustine, Michael Farewell, Bill Amann, Kirk Tucker, Gary Magiera, David Gibson, and Tiffany Rolfing. Talks will include discussions on healthy materials, LEED building principles, money-saving tips for clients, and resilient design. Cost: $175. Visit aia-nj.org.

Kliwinski was born and raised in Pennington and attended the Hopewell Valley schools. He counts himself one of the fortunate ones who knew in high school what he wanted to be, so he set off to NJIT, where he earned his architecture bachelor’s in 1994.

Kliwinski says he got his love of buildings from his father, who took young Jason to construction sites where he worked. Later his father left construction for the funeral business. Kliwinski is still unable to see the connection. He just accepts that his father had “an interesting career.”

His mother, on the other hand, was an artist who worked for Cybis, hand-painting porcelain dolls. She now drives a school bus for Hopewell Valley. Kliwinski says he got his love of buildings from his father and his artistic side from his mother.

He started his career with DF Gibson, later working at the Prisco Group and Spiezle Architecture Group. He got his architecture license (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) in 2001 and launched Design for Life in 2003. He was director of sustainable design at Spiezel from 2007 to 2013 and then at Parette Somjen until 2015. He founded the Green Building Center in 2010 and now works fully for himself. He also is an adjunct professor at Rowan College in Burlington.

So how did buildings get so sick? Kliwinski points to the end of the 1960s, when the move to fix mounting environmental toxicity problems began in earnest. At first, he says, the focus was on ridding major sources of pollution, followed swiftly by the need to cut energy consumption amid the energy crisis of the 1970s.

The trouble is, those “energy saving” designs took away things like operable windows because people felt that letting in outside air was going to make heating and cooling buildings far less energy-efficient. Technically, that’s true, Kliwinski says, but only if you design buildings to be climate-controlled by artificial heat, light, and cooling systems.

What happened was the construction of a lot of “hermetically sealed boxes” Kliwinski says —spaces designed identically on all four sides, meaning that hot sun would pour in through large windows in the summer, forcing people to crank up the air conditioner and shut the blinds to keep the light out, then put on the lights to compensate.

By the end of the 1980s architects and builders started looking seriously at better building designs that used the elements of nature to the buildings’ advantage. Kliwinski offers up his own home as an example: a 1901 farmhouse in Pennington that was built, it turns out, but some sharp designers. The structure is oriented and the landscaping designed so that the sun comes in more during winter than summer; windows vary in size, depending on the direction they are facing. It’s all a lot more energy-efficient than designing all sides to look the same and, thereby, causing rampant use of the HVAC system.

About those sealed boxes. Energy, of course, is not the only issue with those hermetically sealed boxes Kliwinski mentioned. Inside these boxes is bad air — in some cases poorly circulated and reconditioned air that carries whatever illnesses your coworkers have. But also a problem: toxic products like cleaning chemicals and flooring or furniture made from toxic plastics.

Designing buildings with green in mind is obviously an ideal step, Kliwinski says. But that doesn’t solve the biggest problem.

What do we do with the non-green buildings we already have? “You just asked the toughest and most important question there is,” Kliwinski says. “Seventy-five percent of the buildings that will be here in 50 years are here today.”

And they’re not all green. Existing buildings are a major problem in terms of green principles, and they will stay that way as long as fixing the issues remains expensive. It turns out one of the biggest obstacles to being green is having green. Retrofits can be expensive. Moreover, they can be intimidating. Building owners see the list of LEED principles and think there’s no way they can meet those criteria.

Well, they can’t Not all at once, anyway. But Kliwinski says the best way to get green is to do it in small, affordable, and scheduled doses. A key component of this, he says, is to have an actual direction and to work any green updates into the building’s operations budget. In other words, plan for green upgrades and go green when you need to make an upgrade. Need new carpets? Replace them with no-VOC carpets. Need a new HVAC system? Replace it with a high-efficiency model.

Small steps add up to a lot, and they can start as small as you need, Kliwinski says. One of the easiest things to do is to switch to green cleaning products, which pretty much all major cleaning companies offer at no extra cost these days, he says.

The thing to keep in mind, of course, is patience. Greening takes a long time. And Kliwinski is painfully aware of the difficulties builders face in getting the world’s buildings green.

“We’re not just going to level Manhattan and rebuild it,” he says. “It takes years. And it’s far more challenging to green an existing building than to build a new one.”

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