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Earth Promise “21 in 21″ Interview Series: Howard Waldman - Green Dean for the Ethical Culture Fieldston School

Howard Waldman - Green Dean for the Ethical Culture Fieldston School

Howard Waldman is the Green Dean for the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. He works on sustainability issues at the school, both pertaining to the physical plant and curriculum development. In addition, he oversees work on the Middle School building’s green roof.

Earth Promise: What changes, or Earth Promises as we call them, have you made in your lifestyle to be more green? Changes in home, travel, work, with your kids and community?

Howard Waldman: Well when my wife and I decided it was time to buy a house we decided to buy as close as we could to our places of work, so that we don’t have an energy-consuming, excessively carbon-producing commute. We also resisted the impulse to buy a second car, much as logistics with two kids have sometimes forced us to be creative. In the summer, when I go to school, I usually bike. There’s a great path we can take through two parks most of the way to school, and after my daughter can ride a mountain bike, we hope sometimes to bike to school.

EP: What was your first, ah ha! Green moment?

HW: I think I’ve had a lot of them. The first might have been, when as a little boy, I realized with some horror that the ant I had just fried with a magnifying glass was living being, and that I ought to respect all kinds of life. More recently, just last year, I was interviewed by a student about the “Greening” of our school. After I spoke in depth about the LEED-certified middle school building, she asked me about any other aspects of the school that spoke to sustainability. When I described a gardening program in the Lower School, she asked me what about the garden had to do with sustainability. I paused, almost shaking. I realized that this was a systemic problem in society, the inability of people to make connections between themselves and the living world around them. It is this difficulty that makes it hard for us to understand that where our food comes from, where are electricity comes from, how we get to work, has far-reaching effects.

EP: What are some of your eco pet peeves?

HW: I don’t like when people say “We have to save the earth.” The earth has no need of saving, but we do! In addition, I would hate to see some really wonderful species disappear because of human ignorance or apathy. But many species will survive and outlive us. We must understand that we are not the only show on Earth.

I also have trouble with people jumping on the green bandwagon but not walking the walk. I include myself in this category, but I am constantly reevaluating my lifestyle and slowly trying to make it more green.

EP: I have read about some of the great things being accomplished at the Fieldston School. Tell me a little about what has been done to date and what is planned for the future?

HW: Fieldston recently built a new gymnasium and a new Middle School building. For both of these buildings we took great pains to make them as environmentally sustainable as we could given the costs, the setting, and the requirements. We are very proud that the Middle School building is “Silver” LEED-certified, meaning that it has been independently assessed by the Green Building Council to have incorporated a number of sustainable design concepts. These include stones quarried on site, certified-sustainable wood, state-of-the-art computer controlled heating and cooling systems, big windows that can be opened and that allow the lights to be turned off often, motion-sensitive light switches that automatically turn off the lights when no one is in a classroom, waterless urinals in the boys’ rooms, and a green roof.

We are particularly excited about our green roof, which not only prevents thousands of gallons of water from pouring into New York City’s overburdened Combined-Sewage-Overflow (CSO) system, but remains cooler than ambient air in warm weather and warmer in cold weather. It is outfitted with sensing equipment that allows us to measure, air temperatures, humidity, albedo and make comparisons between our green roof and a nearby black roof. Check out the data at In addition, the teaching portion of this roof has allowed 6th grade science students to learn about mapping and plant identification. It’s allowed 9th grade biology students to study plant ecology and competition. We give tours of the roof to teachers and parents from other schools, architects, and horticulturalists.

EP: What was the inspiration of going down this green path?

HW: The best way to put it is that ECFS sees going green and as ethical imperative. LEED certification was part of the plan from the beginning—and we were guided at ECFS by our first Green Dean, Peter Mott, who tirelessly pushed for every sustainability feature we could incorporate. We are not perfect by any means but as we make modifications we hope to continue to improve our carbon foot print at all parts of the campus.

EP: How involved are the students? What do they do?

HW: We have very active environmental clubs at both the Middle School and High School. They recently worked coordinated our “Lights Out” event, in which every light switch and computer was turned off in all buildings for fifteen minutes so that we could make some baseline measurements of our energy usage, and to raise awareness about all the places that we literally can save energy, carbon and money by flipping a switch. Now they are working on an Earth Day Carnival and related Earth Week events.

EP: Have you seen an increase in the involvement over time?

HW: Sustainability and Global Warming are hot topics these days (pun intended), and so kids are more interested. We are seeing more kids wanting to help, but we have a long way to go. I want us to get to the point where a student would no more think of tossing a can into the regular garbage than s/he would of jumping off a bridge. Well perhaps that’s a bit extreme but you get the point.

EP: Although the greenifying of the school will be financial benefit for the years to come, was it a big monetary impact to start? Was there any pushback on this from administrators, teachers, parents or others?

HW: Though building sustainably definitely costs more short term, we have had unified support from all constituencies at ECFS. This has been gratifying, but every new initiative has to be carefully vetted, especially in these tough economic times.

EP: What advice would you give to other schools who are thinking about taking similar steps as Fieldston?

HW: Get the community to commit. Go for the low-hanging fruit (turning off lights, closing windows in winter). Find out the real costs of “green building”. They may not be as high as you think. Look into green roofs and solar panels. Look for support at other schools, for example the Green Schools Alliance (GSA) Partner with institutions of higher education—we have had enormous help from professors and graduate students at Columbia University for example.

EP: Thanks. Great information.

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