“We didn’t call it that back then — just energy efficiency,” Dante says.
As a student, Dante worked on building one of MIT’s experimental solar houses. Fast forward a few years to when he joined the workforce, and the industry looked quite different.
“The crisis had passed and gasoline and petroleum products were readily available again,” he says. “I worked for other people building buildings, but there was no longer a focus on energy efficiency, and no one knew what sustainability was.”
In 1991, Dante started his own residential development company and was able to return to an emphasis on energy efficiency. His team built the first custom homes certified under Tucson Electric Power’s Good Cents program.
Generating more energy
Little did he know that 16 years later, he would be blazing the trail for Tucson’s private residents in uncharted ways: by building homes that generate more energy from the sun and put more water back into the ground than they consume. The proposed project, called Campus Farm Green, is Dante’s capstone for ASU Online’s Master of Sustainability Leadership program.
Dante discovered the degree program while abroad in Hong Kong, where he saw firsthand the importance of changing people’s attitudes and thinking toward demanding sustainability.
“It made me realize we need change leaders in the private sector who are educating the public,” he says. “I decided that I needed to go back and do some more studying. I wanted a program that was online, and it was serendipity that the online program I was able to find was the world leader in sustainability education.”
Since enrolling in spring 2016, Dante has been able to apply what he’s learned directly to his residential project in Tucson. Most recently, the program helped him overcome pushback from city staff over using curb cuts to harvest street water on private property.
“In Tucson, we have a lot of roads that can get several inches of water running along the curb that ultimately goes to a wash and gets whisked away,” Dante explains. “With a curb cut, you make an opening in the curb about 6 to 8 inches wide and excavate out behind it to allow the water to get to a soil area where it can soak into the ground. Tucson has been a leader in using curb cuts to irrigate street vegetation between the curb and sidewalk on public streets. What I wanted to do was use that water on private property.”
While installing curb cuts into the subdivision would help Campus Farm Green achieve the goal of taking in more rainwater than it uses in clean drinking water, Dante’s proposal was met with resistance from city staff, who were dubious about allowing the cuts on private property.
“There were no specific ordinances that addressed the question, so it was always staff judgment,” Dante says. Ultimately, it was Dante’s schoolwork at ASU that shaped the approach he took to overcoming the challenge from the city.
“The MSL program has four strands that weave together like a basket: communication, strategy, leadership and global context. With respect to my project, the first three lessons have made me more effective in bringing about change.” When it comes to communication, he says, the keyword has been empathy.
“You need to understand where people who seem like they’re on the other side of the table are coming from,” he explains. “As a developer, it can be easy to get angry at city staff, but through empathy you realize they’re just trying to do their job. It was important for me to have a dialogue, which focuses on learning and understanding the other person’s point of view, rather than a discussion, where we’re both trying to convince each other that we’re right.” Looking at strategy through the master’s program helped Dante learn that individuals often make decisions through the lens of past experience.
“We tend to better assimilate information that reinforces what we already think, so I came to realize there had been problems in the past that staff members had to deal with about things related to flooding that made them wary about doing anything where they may be bringing water onto a property,” he says. As he and city staff members worked through their differences of opinion, Dante also utilized his leadership teachings from ASU.
“It’s important to be authentic, so I needed to take the time to let people get to know me and realize that I wasn’t the sort of stereotypical developer who was just focused on the economic bottom line,” he says.
It needed to relate to saving money for people to be at all interested in it. I was following the market demand, but wasn’t pushing the envelope in terms of trying to educate the public and increase demand for energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.
Patience and persistence
His patience and persistence paid off when he received a newsletter from city councilmember Paul Cunningham about a city grant program for street water harvesting.
“I replied back and said it was a great grant program, but would be even better if we could use the water on private property,” he says. “That was the nudge needed to get things moving. I knew it was something the city already wanted to do — we just had to take it a bit further.”
During a meeting at the city councilman’s office, it was made clear that the council’s goal is for street water harvesting to be maximized, and city staff needed to do whatever they could to work with people who are able to achieve it. A second meeting was then held with the whole council, with nearly everyone reiterating the same message.
“They asked the city manager if there was anything in the regulations that precluded it, and he said no,” Dante says. “Now the next step is figuring out what does need to be written down so our ordinances aren’t just silent on this issue, but encourage it.” Dante credits the concepts he has learned through ASU Online with his success in dealing with the city — and has been pleasantly surprised by online learning in general.
“When I applied it was for very practical reasons, and I actually assumed the experience wouldn’t be as good as a classroom,” he says. “I’ve been very positively surprised by how much the environment is similar to an in-person class. It’s a shared learning experience with a cohort of people, so you have a support group. I’ve gotten to know my classmates faster and better than I think I might have in a classroom setting because we are constantly having an online dialogue. Plus, the structure of the program is very well thought out.”
He encourages people to not only enroll, but also to take the time to reach out and interact with peers and instructors individually and, when possible, face to face.
“I’ve reached out to people who live in the Phoenix and Tucson area,” he says. “Especially with respect to instructors — any instructor that I contacted was more than happy to return the communication. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t be afraid to reach out.”
Learn more about ASU Online’s Master of Sustainability Leadership program.