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EvolveEA architecture firm distinguished by grasp of environmentally friendly practices

| Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, 10:03 p.m.
Principle architects for the architecture and environmental firm EvolveEA, Marc Mondor and Christine Mondor talk in the back of the room during one of the East Liberty firms' regular, 'lunch and learn” sessions for staffers, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Principle architects for the architecture and environmental firm EvolveEA, Marc Mondor and Christine Mondor talk in the back of the room during one of the East Liberty firms' regular, 'lunch and learn” sessions for staffers, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Pittsburgh filmmaker, Mark Dixon, of Highland Park presents a film he produced from the COP21 environmental conference in Paris, France for the architecture and environmental firm EvolveEA during one of the East Liberty firms' regular, 'lunch and learn” sessions for staffers, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh filmmaker, Mark Dixon, of Highland Park presents a film he produced from the COP21 environmental conference in Paris, France for the architecture and environmental firm EvolveEA during one of the East Liberty firms' regular, 'lunch and learn” sessions for staffers, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.

Christine and Marc Mondor started their architecture and design firm at a time when environmentally friendly building and planning were still young concepts in Pittsburgh.

When they left their architecture firms in 2004 to form EvolveEA, many developers didn't know about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification (a widely used rating system for green buildings) or how green practices could help a company's bottom line.

“We really saw a vacuum,” said Marc Mondor, 48, who met his wife, Christine, while they were studying in Denmark.

The Highland Park couple built EvolveEA to both ride the green building wave they saw coming in Western Pennsylvania, and to make some waves themselves. The mission of the 10-employee firm based in Friendship is as much about community engagement and education as it is about consulting on environmentally conscious projects for companies, nonprofits and towns.

“When we put the firm together, we said ... we don't want to be at the end of the pipe waiting for the (request for proposals) to be put together. We want the RFP to be written the right way,” said Christine Mondor, 45, who chairs the Pittsburgh Planning Commission and the board of directors at the Green Building Alliance.

The firm's list of design and consulting work includes high-profile and award-winning projects ranging from the new Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill to a LEED-certified HSBC Bank service center in Egypt. The list of clients it has helped guide through sustainable and environmental certification processes includes the Pittsburgh Opera, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Alcoa and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

“They're really good at knowing what kinds of things will be accepted and what won't work for certification,” said Richard Piacentini, executive director at Phipps, which certified several of the buildings on its Oakland campus with help from EvolveEA. “They have a really deep team that's really knowledgeable.”

The Mondors have added more planning, education and organizational consulting to the services the firm provides. Its architects, designers and engineers can help a new or existing building get a plaque on the wall certifying that it uses less energy. They can also teach the building's management to maintain sustainable practices or to incorporate a more environmentally friendly mission into its work to make the certification more beneficial.

“A lot of firms do energy performance, which is great. We do address energy as well,” Marc Mondor said. “But we tend to look more broadly. We look at behavior, we look at teaching, post-occupancy evaluations, and look at the actual mission statements of organizations or communities.”

The firm helps developers integrate environmentally friendly practices into new building projects such as the East Side retail complex in East Liberty and the 3 Crossings development in the Strip District. Given Pittsburgh's stock of older buildings available for renovation, though, it also specializes in making existing places eligible for green certification.

“You've got cultural and physical fabric you need to work with,” Christine Mondor said of working in existing buildings. “When it's done well, it's so much richer than starting from scratch.”

Persuading clients to hire EvolveEA sometimes requires showing them how investing in sustainability will pay off.

“Buildings are tangible. So people can connect to that,” Christine Mondor said, noting that calculating the savings of lower energy bills is easier than showing how environmental projects can benefit larger communities.

For several years, the firm has been guiding the small borough of Millvale through a sustainability project under the EcoDistrict concept for urban revitalization and resource management. The project has led to the installation of solar panels at the library and community center, a fresh food program connected to community gardens, and rain gardens for the borough, which underwent several devastating floods in the past 12 years.

“The program has had a lot of support here because, before Millvale proceeded with the EcoDistrict plan, Evolve spent a year in the community holding education sessions to grow the base of supporters, teaching people what EcoDistricts are,” said Zaheen Hussain, who was hired last year through the community library as a sustainability coordinator for the borough.

The Mondors said they spend some of their time speaking in the community and working on education initiatives knowing that it won't necessarily build business for the firm, or at least not immediately. They focus on what's known in sustainability circles as the “triple bottom line” by looking at social, environmental and financial measures.

The firm has been profitable in all years except those around the recession, the Mondors said. They declined to provide figures. Revenue has grown for the past three years, they said.

They sometimes think like a nonprofit, Marc Mondor said.

They hope to increase business and staff over the next few years, but “don't want to grow for the sake of growing,” Christine Mondor said.

“They're very interested in helping Pittsburgh in becoming a better place to live,” said Piacentini.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review..

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