The Eleven percent: Meet the Architects Of Precipitate

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Written By Jim J Neal

Sustainable architects Elizabeth Turner and Abby Meuser-Herr talk about carbon, the pace of change and finding the right firm.

This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the United States, spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.

Abby Meuser-Herr (AIA, CPHC) and Elizabeth Turner (AIA, CPHC) have big goals. They don’t just want their architectural firm to be successful. They want to create sustainable, equitable communities for all.

They’re part of a worldwide push to turn their industry carbon-neutral by 2030. That’s a critical goal, since buildings and the materials used to make them account for 39 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

The two met in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. They later worked at the same firm for a few years, until they became frustrated with the industry’s slow pace of implementing climate-forward practices.

“More established, larger firms have processes and inertia in place that make it hard for them to change,” says Turner. “We realized there was a disconnect with the goals we had. We just weren’t moving fast enough.”

So in 2017 they formed Precipitate, a nimble architecture and consulting firm dedicated to sustainable, holistic and regenerative design.

“Part of the difference between us and larger firms is that we are flexible,” says Meuser-Herr. “We work remotely, which helps us balance our work life with our growing families.

“We are also able to take more risks. Our approach helps us change the process of how teams work together, which removes obstacles to achieving carbon-neutral buildings.”

Precipitate started out designing single-family homes and consulting for larger architecture teams. Now the five-person firm has branched out into energy-efficient multifamily housing projects. They’re also involved in policy-maker education and resilience planning for urban areas, including the city of Minneapolis.

We caught up with Turner and Meuser-Herr for their thoughts on the state of architecture and building.

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Q: How has COVID affected your work?

A. Turner: We were already working remotely, so that wasn’t a learning curve to go through. We also didn’t see a slowdown in business. Climate change is still happening, so that work, and investment in it, is still moving forward.

Q: Which projects stand out to you?

A. Meuser-Herr: One big accomplishment is the permitting and construction of the first straw-bale building in Minneapolis in 30 years. It’s a regenerative building, meaning its walls store more carbon than what is emitted through the process of creating it, and the rooftop solar array produces more energy than it uses in a year.

There’s an extra level of building science and craft that goes into making durable bio-based buildings like this. So it’s been exciting, because it’s been on us to prove the concept and make the case for why it’s an acceptable method of construction today.

We’re also working on a multifamily project right now, where the developer is really committed to finding the right formula for a cost-effective, low-carbon, low-energy apartment building. The goal is to demonstrate how this can be done, while exchanging ideas with contractors, consultants and partners on how to best do it.

Q: What changes have you seen over the past 10 years?

A: Turner: Ten years ago, sustainability was defined differently. It was more about recycled countertops and waste water. We weren’t taking about embodied carbon at all in 2012. But I think people understand climate change and its impacts a lot more now, and so it’s getting more weight in discussions.

Meuser-Herr: Also, now we have better tools to calculate energy and embodied carbon equations and integrate them into a traditional workflow.

Q: Any pros or cons to being women in architecture?

A: Meuser-Herr: The industry is definitely dominated by men. I love collaborating with both men and women, it doesn’t matter. But at Precipitate, we have crafted a space that is supportive and intentionally inclusive of women and women of color, to help elevate us all so we have a voice when it needs to be at the table.

For example, I was in a meeting the other day where the contractor, developer and structural engineers were all men. They’re great to work with and hired us because they value our expertise. But there are some suggestions I was hesitant to make because I thought I might be perceived as ignorant, whereas if the men said it, it would be innovative.

That really stuck with me. I actually told them that. Maybe that was a little overt, but women perceive those unconscious biases, those outside-looking-in moments where I’m evaluating my place at the table and how I am being received. I just don’t think men have that.

Turner: Another struggle is that in many firms, women tend to get put into project management roles instead of design and leadership roles. As a project manager, you run the LEED checklist, but you typically don’t make decisions that comprehensively address sustainability. That’s one of the main challenges that Precipitate solves, getting (women) more engaged with the business development and design side of things.

Q: Any advice for young women looking to be architects?

A: Meuser-Herr: When you’re interviewing at a firm, look at the firm’s structure. Are there women in design lead positions? You can think you’re going to change the firm’s culture, but at an entry-level position you don’t have that power or influence. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to overtly be discriminated against. It just means that no one’s broken through that structure yet.

Turner: Really evaluate what you want to do with your career. Just because you go to a firm and it’s great as an intern, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great when you want to take more of a leadership role or really start to grow.

Meuser-Herr: Or when you feel like you are sitting on meaningful contributions. We both came from firms where it was a fine workplace overall, but we realized we had hit that glass ceiling. We had to break away and do our own thing so we felt like we were being authentic to our calling.

Turner: Yes, you need to believe that you can work in a way that is healthy, where you are valued as a person, and get to do really cool projects that impact the world. You can do those things. Just keep working until you find a place that lets you do those things.

Meuser-Herr: Or create a place that does, like we did.

Q: Where do you hope to see the industry in 10 years?

A: Turner: I hope in 10 years we’re not only widely designing carbon-neutral buildings and thinking seriously about embodied carbon in building materials, but that we also have demographics within firms that reflect the communities where we work, especially in terms of women and people of color. I hope people are empowered to make beautiful designs for their communities.

Meuser-Herr: I would love to be at a place where there are no roles for us as sustainability consultants, because all of the firms have the knowledge to self-execute it. That sustainability will just be best practice.

Turner: It would also be huge to have women contractors who we can partner with. It’s hard to find great contractor partners because people are just too busy. We need more contractors who bring knowledge and enthusiasm for sustainable construction.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

A. Meuser-Herr: Our most well-worn tools come in the form of two pro software bundles. For early phase design, energy and daylight modeling, we use SketchUp and Sefaira. Then for full design, energy and carbon modeling, we use Revit, WUFI Passive and Tally/EC3.

Precipitate Bio

Precipitate was founded to accelerate architecture’s response to the climate crisis. The firm specializes in passive house and other sustainable design and consulting services for single and multifamily dwellings, as well as energy-efficient housing projects, policymaker education, and community resilience planning.

The company won the Business Adaptation Award in 2022 from the Minnesota Climate Adaption Awards, and founder Elizabeth Turner was an honoree in 2020 for Energy News Network’s 40 Under 40.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She has spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. She has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.

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