Greener by the Byte: A Green Building Conference and Trade Show Goes Virtual

You’ve probably been to your share of conferences and trade shows. You have to put them in your probably-already-diminished budget, arrange for tickets and hotel reservations, get on a plane with a bunch of people you’d (ah-choo!) rather not fly with-¦ and, well, you know the rest of the story.

But with the increased hassle of flying -“ not to mention the hit on your budget -“ why not think about a virtual conference and trade show? They’re very much like the real thing, complete with vendor booths that are interactive. You can ask questions of the speakers. You can get answers, complete with follow-up and links if appropriate.

Even better, they’re green. A recent virtual conference and trade show for the green building community is estimated to have saved $1.7 million in travel costs and 1.8 million pounds of CO2 emissions from the planes not taken.

Corp! attended the recent online conference to experience first-hand what seems to be a growing trend. We then followed up with keynote speaker Sarah Susanka, the creator of the Not So Big House movement, and Scott Donnelly, the event coordinator, to see how things went from their perspective.

Sarah Susanka photo by Cheryl Muhr

Susanka reports that she really enjoyed it. “I had done a similar one about a year-and-a-half ago which was video-taped and conducted on Skype. I was less comfortable with that. With GreenExpo I feel as though I’m in front of an audience, even though I can’t see anybody. I think that knowing that people are there is all it takes. It’s a very cool thing.”

According to Donnelly, more than 300 architects, builders and others were “there” during Susanka’s keynote and there were more than 6,000 unique site visits during the two-day event.

Susanka says “the virtual trade show is a really nice feature. It’s an interesting phenomenon because it’s obviously different from being there in person, but you do feel like you’re there.”

GreenExpo’s Donnelly says that it works for his exhibitors who say that the “leads generated from GreenExpo365 far outnumber those of a traditional trade show.” One exhibitor in particular said that because the online audience is focused and engaged he was able to secure several job site meetings and four architectural meetings just from the March event.

GreenExpo365 started last year and the majority of exhibitors not only returned from last year, according to Donnelly, but “most upgraded their exposure on the site.” While the annual cost for appearing in four live conferences and an additional 20 bi-weekly events over a year can range from $25,000 to $75,000, Donnelly estimates that an exhibitor can save between $50,000-$100,000 compared with the costs for a traditional trade show -“ which includes designing the show booth, travel, construction and take-down, staffing, fees and other expenses.

Sarah Susanka at a book signing in September 2010. Photo by John Reinan

Donnelly says that he doesn’t think that virtual trade shows will completely replace physical ones “but it’s a great alternative for smaller budgets and an additional, innovative marketing platform for any manufacturer interested in making their dollars stretch.”

As with the physical variety, exhibitors at a virtual trade show have to staff their booth during the event, participate in live webinars, keep their content current and promote their involvement. They just don’t have to take less promising leads out for drinks afterwards.

From a speaker’s point of view, preparation for a virtual keynote address is similar to that required for a physical speech. Susanka says “I prepare the talk just like I do when I’m traveling -“ the only difference is that I don’t have to get on an airplane or stay in a hotel.”

Susanka, who has authored about a dozen books, says the main thing she misses about doing a virtual presentation “is the book signing afterwards. The way that I get feedback usually is that one-on-one when people come up and they’re telling me their stories.”

There is a difference, Susanka says, between professional audiences such as the GreenExpo365 and the more general audiences that she also addresses to talk about the Not So Big philosophy. “The professionals are looking to me to provide them with a vocabulary with which they can speak to their clients,” she says. “So actually I’m often covering similar material but just putting it in a slightly different orientation. For a professional audience I explain how I would normally put something to a homeowner audience.”

“My ‘shtick,’ at least with my House books, is to give a language to concepts that architects have used for centuries -“ but we don’t have terminology that normal human beings understand,” she laughs. “I’m trying to translate it so that people can understand what we architects do and have some notion of what they’re going to get when we’re through.”

“I equate it to when you’re a homeowner and you sit in front of a financial advisor and they start off talking about ‘financial products,'” Susanka explains. “When I did that I had no idea what he was talking about. He had lost me with the first sentence. The language a profession uses becomes invisible to the people in that profession and they don’t realize they’re not communicating with their clients while all the while they think they’re being magnificently eloquent.”

Susanka seems to be making headway, at least with her own profession. “I hear more and more that either people are bringing in copies of my books and saying ‘I want a house like this’ or else architects and builders are giving clients one of my books and saying ‘here, read this and then we’ll talk.’ I don’t know if they love me or hate me,” she laughs again.

“I think that architects have very largely believed that homeowners don’t want what they do,” she continues. “What I’ve helped to reveal is not that they don’t want what we do, they don’t know what we do. When they know we’re the guys that do it, then they want it.”

One of the things that Susanka does, and many other architects and builders are following suit, is getting clients to think “green.” Susanka’s early training as an architect included designing and building an “eco-village” back in the ’70s. By the early ’80s, she says, “I just decided I’m going to keep making the building that I design as energy-efficient as I can. Whether or not the clients are asking for it, that’s something I will focus on.”

Susanka says that she was in practice in Minneapolis for about 16 years before she wrote her first book “The Not So Big House.” “I realized that people were looking for a house that was different than what they could find in the suburbs, but they didn’t know how to ask for it. In working with literally hundreds and hundreds of couples I started developing a language to help them understand how to make that house. I was working with people all across the economic spectrum -“ from people who were thinking about building a 6,000 square-foot house to people who were thinking about building a 900 square foot house.”

“What was fascinating,” Susanka discovered, “was that my very wealthy clients were more than ready to let go of formal rooms they didn’t use, and they were able to do that because they weren’t worried about resale. People who were worried about resale thought they had to build rooms that they themselves never planned to use. All of their decision-making was being driven by the real estate market, by resale. It drove me totally crazy.”

After her first book, Susanka says that in a New Yorker review, “the writer said ‘what Susanka says is really obvious’. Which also make me look brilliant. But he’s totally right. There’s a parallel between ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and what I was saying.”

Susanka is asked if the Not So Big principles can be translated to the commercial office sphere. “Absolutely!” she exclaims. “Herman Miller [the Michigan-based office products manufacturer and leader in the green movement] has had me give presentations to their staff and their clients about office space with these same kinds of characteristics.”

In most instances of commercial building, Susanka explains, architects are required to be involved. “With house designs that’s not the case. When you go to a library or other commercial building you’ll see that they’re often well designed and thought through three-dimensionally because an architect was involved. Yet, there are great strides to be made in getting the word out to building developers that by spending a bit more on the design they improve worker productivity and satisfaction. It’s definitely true, but it has some subjective aspects to it that make it harder to quantify.”

Citing architect William McDonough in the book he co-authored, “Cradle to Cradle, Susanka says that he has done interesting research on “well day-lit buildings and productivity. That makes a huge difference. We need to get that kind of information into the bloodstream of our profession so that we can pass it along to our clients. You feel much different when you’re in a day-lit space than when you’re in a little Hobbit-hole somewhere.” Corp! readers may recall that when architect Gene Hopkins FAIA redid the headquarters building of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, adding as much natural light as possible played an important role in the process. [].

In Libertyville, Ill., Susanka is involved in a reinterpretation of a traditional urban neighborhood. Called the School Street Project, 24 energy-efficient Not So Big homes are nestled on narrow lots that require little maintenance. Their exteriors are related but not by any means identical and there are many front porches to encourage community communication. The project is located short blocks away from a commuter rail station in one direction and a neighborhood shopping center (complete with Starbucks) in the other.

School Street development in Libertyville, IL.

Inside Susanka’s showhouse, her Not So Big principles demonstrate how a century-old bungalow home style can be made more livable for today’s more open lifestyles. Ceiling heights vary, partial walls suggest spatial divisions without physically restricting them, the light from well-placed windows draws your eye -“ in short, they use space to its fullest. Or, as Susanka says, all of the space is used and none is wasted on outdated notions of what is good for “resale.”

She plans to expand on the School Street notion by taking the idea to different settings, including a variety of economic strata. “There is a lot of opportunity for making houses at different price points than those price points would allow currently. I want to introduce a lot of different house plans that are architecturally designed so that if someone finds a lot in their neighborhood and wants a house that will fit the scale of the surrounding houses, that there are options there for them.”

No McMansions? “No. Often what gets built is okay but not great. I want to improve the quality. When you use Not So Big principles it may cost a bit more per square foot, but you build fewer square feet, with higher quality. It lives just as large as a larger house would.”

“That’s the goal,” she says. “To make less space feel and function as though it were more square feet.”

On her website,, Susanka has provided, in addition to a host of other resources, a listing of professionals who believe as she does in the Not So Big approach to building, and remodeling. “People can find architects, builders, interior designers and remodelers in their area who can help them make that kind of a house. It’s hard to find the folks that are really good at what they do, so I set that up to help them be found.”