Molly Miller is the author of the book Integral: Revolutionary Engineering. A former staff writer at the Rocky Mountain Institute and senior editor of Mother Earth News magazine, Miller currently holds the unique post of “official storyteller” at Integral, a “deep-green” engineering firm with offices in the US, Canada, and London.
Managing editor Timothy Schuler spoke to Miller about the importance of storytelling and the surprising lessons on creativity and diversity contained within her book.
Which office are you located in?
I’m in the Oakland office at the moment. The first year I spent with the company I worked out of my house in Denver when I was writing the book. I traveled to the offices and interviewed a lot of the engineers but I would go back home and write kind of quietly and in private so I could have some concentration. I just moved out here in November. After I finished the book, I wanted to be closer to the work so I could hear more stories. As a journalist, you know that when people are talking in the hallway or in the kitchen, that’s when you find out what’s really going on.
When did you officially join Integral and did you start on the book right away?
I came to Integral almost exactly a year ago. They knew they wanted to write a book, and they knew they needed a writer for other things around here, other stories that they wanted to tell, but the book became my primary focus right away.
Was the structure of the book a collaborative process or was it up to you?
The original structure—“Imagine,” “Perform,” “Accelerate,” “Sustain”—came from Kevin Hydes. He’s our CEO. Those four areas are kind of the natural cycle of what he thinks about when he does business. They’re also the four cycles green design needs to go through. So we kind of decided to organize content around those four buckets, and that was an incredibly helpful vision for me to start with because then I knew when I heard an engineer talking about a project, I could tell almost immediately, ‘Okay, is this a project that is primarily about accelerating green design because it was something that people could replicate? Or is it something that’s more about sustaining larger districts and thinking about regenerative design?’
Did you get to see all the buildings [you wrote about] or had you seen them already?
I didn’t really have enough time to see all the buildings, but I did walk through some of them with the engineers who designed the systems, which was fascinating. Like the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, I walked through that, and I walked through the Olympic Village up there with Goran [Ostojic], who did the systems for those. It was really cool to hear him talk about stuff as we were looking at it. I got a much richer story than if I would’ve just called him and interviewed him.
As you were writing the book, did you have anyone in mind as the reader? Who did you imagine you were writing for?
We wanted from the beginning to make this really accessible to building owners and to people who were interested in sustainable design who may not be technically savvy. So we tried to reach a broader audience, but we definitely wanted it to still be interesting to engineers. I think the drawings help with that a lot. The person who did the drawings used to be Kevin Hydes’s draftsman for, like, 20 years. His name is Jim Burns, and he’s our art director / marketing director here. He’s a really talented artist.
Was it a struggle to pare the language down and translate these ideas to a more general audience?
I was surprised at how well that went. I’ve worked with really technical people in the past at the Rocky Mountain Institute and I also worked for six years at the National Renewable Energy Lab, and a lot of times when you’re talking to scientists about their work, they get down in the weeds. They can get so excited by the numbers and the technical aspects of their work that it’s hard to get them to articulate the “why” and the bigger picture. But there’s something unique about the engineers at this company. They’re all able to speak about their work at this high level, which always has the “why” behind it. They really speak eloquently. I almost feel like I cheated because they were the storytellers.
I think that’s why they have so much success with their clients—they’re able to talk to them in a way that’s not just about energy savings but about the broader picture.
One thing that stuck out to me about the book is that I would find myself getting through a portion of the book and realizing, wait, we’re not talking about engineering. You have asides on diversity and women in the workplace and creativity, and what emerged for me was a portrait of a culture. It felt like a profile of a hive mind, this collective that comes at engineering in a wildly different way.
I’m glad that came through because sometimes you’re talking about individual projects but you’re trying to teach a series of principles that are the Integral way. And it’s not just the Integral way, but the way of a lot of thinkers in sustainability who are trying to make change. I think a lot of these same ideas came from Rocky Mountain Institute. Peter Rumsey, for instance, was very influenced by Amory Lovins and his thinking, so it is a whole movement of people who try to think differently.
I added [the part about diversity] at the suggestion of one of the architects here, Lisa Matthiessen. She does a lot of work around diversity. I was more focused on design and leadership and the kinds of questions you have to ask and questioning rules of thumb, and it didn’t really occur to me that diversity was a helpful part of that. But as I talked to her, she suggested that I [write about] that, and it was supported by EcoTone and Kevin.
Can we expect a follow up to the book? Or is there another project in the works?
Well, before this [book] was even out two or three days, Kevin started talking about the next version (laughs). So yeah, I’d say he has one in mind. We haven’t scoped it out or started working on it, but continually, I’m trying to collect stories here and write them in a shorter fashion. We’re starting to do some thought-leadership papers that go over various concepts that we’re interested in working on and teaching. Like, EcoDistricts is an area where we’re starting to expand our work. If we do a series of those, that may evolve into a structure for a later book.
There’s so much excitement around the idea of EcoDistricts right now. We’re planning our Cities Issue right now, and we might be partnering with EcoDistricts in some regard. [Editor’s Note: Shortly after this conversation, Rob Bennett, CEO of EcoDistricts, signed on as the guest editor of the Sept/Oct issue.]
I don’t know if you know, but Kevin Hydes was one of the founders of EcoDistricts. He helped get that off the ground, and he works a lot with Rob Bennett to promote it.
Your role at Integral as “official storyteller” seems like a dream job for someone like yourself. Now that you’re out in Oakland, what does a typical day look like?
We’re trying to launch a blog at the moment, so I’m going to be working with a lot of the engineers to get their stories out. I’ll still be writing stories but I’m hoping that I can play more of an editor role and help them get their own voices out there and develop their own reputations and their own presence on social media because they’re truly the experts. I’m really just helping overall with the narrative and the storytelling that goes on here.
It’s a hugely important role. I think storytelling can be so influential.
I think it’s really cool that the leaders in this firm realize how important storytelling is to their success and getting their ideas across. That’s why everyone here is articulate—they hire people who are able to tell stories. So there’s an emphasis on that already here. I think that’s why they’re smart enough to have an official storyteller.