THE YEAR IN THE LIFE VISITS FIRST GREEN BANK WITH MENTOR STUART COWAN
Our first visit to First Green Bank, with Year in the Life Mentor Stuart Cowan, exceeded our expectations in every way imaginable. At the conclusion of our visit, CEO Ken LaRoe had committed to building Florida’s first commercial, beyond LEED Platinum, Living Building and, hopefully, to building it without a premium over conventional construction. What's more, we all came away with the seeds of an idea for how the Living Building Challenge could be a catalyst for the regeneration of the local Central Florida economy.
Above: (Left): Community members explore the possibilities of the regenerative economy with Year in the Life mentor Stuart Cowan (center) at an evening get together held at First Green Bank headquarters in Mt. Dora, Florida. (Right): First Green Bank CEO Ken LaRoe addresses the gathering.
On June 16 and 17th The Year in the Life project paid a visit to First Green Bank with mentor Stuart Cowan. Stuart is founder of the regenerative design consulting firm Autopoiesis and a financial advisor to Seattle's Bullitt Center, the first commercial building in the world to achieve certified Living Building (beyond LEED) status. We had introduced Ken and Stuart via a phone conversation in late 2014. (You can hear the podcast of that dialog here.) Ken was intrigued with the idea of the Living Building Challenge, and wanted to learn more about it and Stuart’s approach to regenerative design.
Upon our arrival at First Green Bank’s LEED Platinum Mt. Dora headquarter’s branch we were immediately immersed in a regenerative environment—the solar-paneled building features electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot, a soaring entryway flanked by carp ponds and a living wall. We were escorted into a meeting room where we sat at a conference table constructed of repurposed wood from a tree felled in the construction of the branch. We looked out over an expanse of native plantings where gekkos warmed themselves in the sunlight. Everything about this building signaled that First Green was serious about radically redefining what it means to be a bank.
We sat down for a morning discussion with CEO Ken LaRoe, branch managers, and other members of the First Green Bank staff. Stuart talked about the projects he has worked on as a regenerative design consultant, with special emphasis on the Bullitt Center. Said Stuart: “We have been steadily moving from the low-efficiency, high-toxicity conventional buildings of the 1960s to 1980s to the green buildings of the 1990s and the LEED transformation. The 21st century will be an era of shifting beyond ‘break-even’ to restoration and regeneration, from fragmented technical models to holistic living systems models... blurring the lines of buildings and nature while opening the possibility of giving back more than these buildings consume.”
Stuart Cowan reflects on his Year in the Life visit:
At lunchtime Ken took us for a tour of neighboring Eustis, where he was born and raised and where his family is deeply rooted. We drove past the LaRoe Family Homestead and his father's machine shop, both now on the National Register of Historic places.
Above: LaRoe Family Homestead
In the afternoon Brian Walsh and Mark Newman of Collage Construction stopped by to discuss the possibilities of First Green Bank’s building a new branch office to Living Building standards. Brian immediately seized on the idea and even suggested that by sticking to basics it might be possible to bring this Living Building in at a cost that would eliminate the premium over conventional construction that was associated with the construction of Living Buildings in the past.
On Monday evening we gathered with over 70 community members to explore with Ken and Stuart the exciting directions regenerative development might take in Lake County, and the role that businesses and residents seemed eager to play in that journey. Stuart was peppered with questions and suggestions from an enthusiastic audience, and a lively interactive discussion ensued.
The following morning we met with Ken for a final reflection on our visit and to begin to think about next steps in this exciting collaboration.
Ken LaRoe talks about taking on the Living Building Challenge
Ken and Stuart discussed the broader implications of the Living Building Challenge. For example, the construction of a Living Building in Lake County would require local contractors to begin to rethink how they manufacture and source their products. As they partnered with the bank in the Living Building project these suppliers and contractors would begin to emerge as a cluster of living building product manufacturers in the region, catalyzing the regeneration of the entire regional economy. Ken and Stuart envisioned together a future when a Class A office building could be defined, not in terms of marble and prestige material, but in terms of what it gave back to the community and place in which it was situated.
Ken LaRoe and Stuart Cowan discuss the Living Building Challenge
They then began to dive deeper into the possibilities for the bank's regenerative journey. Ken talked about how a bank holding company could be a regenerative business delivery tool in ways that have never before been imagined. And, the discussion then turned to whether or not a values-based bank should consider lending to an “extractive” industry company. The answer was an unexpectedly nuanced yes, if through that relationship the bank could help lead that company onto a more regenerative path.
A deeper dive into the bank's regenerative journey
Ken shared his frank assessment of the challenges First Green Bank faces as it attempts to satisfy a variety of investors with different time horizons and commitments to values-based banking. The dialog ended with a question. Could there be new, regenerative models for bringing investors together in supportive ways to have conversations about their own personal journeys and exit requirements, and to help them connect more deeply with the rewards of holistic investing?
Regenerative models for nurturing a holistic-value investor community
The Year in the Life looks forward to exploring these new frontiers of regenerative finance and investing.