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Alum Profile: Lisa Delaney

By Ben Holland

The beginning of the 21st century marked a pivotal time for Rocky Mountain Institute.

The publication of "Natural Capitalism" introduced a whole new audience to our work and in many ways launched the organization into a new age, one that brought tremendous growth to the organization.

A great deal of groundwork led up to that new direction. By the mid-nineties, RMI was already moving toward a more hands-on approach, applying its principles to entire industries. More than ever before, this required the Institute to speak and think like bottom-line business leaders and to explore new territory.

Published in 1997, “Green Development” is a great example of this new direction. Having recently established a new green development services team, RMI wanted to document case studies of effective green-building practices in commercial real estate. Former RMI staffer Lisa Delaney played a crucial role in making the book a reality.

“I thought, oh great, I love editing. It sounds like this book is nearly finished, but I’ll at least get to help,” Delaney said of her initial reaction to the project. “Then I get to RMI, and the book is five pages of notes on potential case studies.”

The fact was, very few case studies existed. Even the use of “green” with “development” was practically unknown. Not just a new direction for RMI, it was a redefining of modern environmentalism.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I see it really was the beginning of a whole new direction,” Delaney said. “But at the time it was entirely new.”

A common theme runs throughout Delaney’s career: finding herself at the cusp of large movements in the sustainability world. Shortly after her two years at RMI, in 1998 Delaney found herself working for Aspen Ski Company as a planner for community affairs.

Her second job in Aspen (in 1994 she served as the city’s transportation coordinator), this time Delaney was the public face for all of the resort's development projects. In the role, Delaney faced harsh criticism from local environmentalists who claimed she was turning her back on the credentials she earned at RMI.

“This was well before Aspen earned its pro-environmental reputation,” says Delaney. “The response from the community was vitriolic.”

With the help of Chris Lane, the newly hired head of environmental affairs at Aspen Ski Company, she began to push the ski resort toward taking a stronger stance on sustainability. With Lane, she developed and implemented a new internal corporate policy on sustainable building practices.

Ten years later, Aspen is recognized as a leader in resort environmental responsibility and Delaney’s role put her at the crux of Aspen’s most recognizable sustainability effort, the Sundeck Restaurant on Buttermilk Mountain.

At the time of the project, however, Delaney and her team encountered doubts and opposition. The team wanted to shoot for LEED, then a little known certification.

“We were told, ‘There’s no way you should do this. You’ll never achieve LEED status.’” Delaney said, “So naturally we decided to go for it.”

Delaney left before the building was completed, but the Sundeck Restaurant went on to become one of only 12 LEED-certified buildings in America at the time.

Today, Delaney has her hands full raising two young boys in southern California. Being a mother has had a tremendous impact on her worldview. Her passion for the natural world is even stronger, as she sees it through the eyes of her children.

Worried that children are increasingly detached from the natural world, Delaney hopes to eventually channel her passion into new avenues, educating young children about the environment and about food.

“The outside world and environment is so carefully managed for children today,” Delaney said. “They don’t have that immediate connection to the natural world that we had growing up.”

Ben Holland is RMI’s outreach coordinator.

--Published June 2010