Trash heaps. Ocean trips. Rocks for jocks. Nurture, nature—and even football—informed Joel Cesare’s pursuit of planetary sustainability.

His father, who managed a solid-waste company, nurtured him with tough love by making him spend a summer on a garbage truck so he would appreciate his college education. “I saw the magnitude of waste,” Cesare says.

On family trips to the ocean from Allentown, Pa., he fell in love with nature and vowed to surf. And as a college football player, he took a required, but fascinating, geology course dubbed rocks for jocks and learned of climate change.

At age 23, after his graduation in 2004, Cesare moved to the West Coast, in part to learn to surf. In 2014, armed with experience in green buildings and infrastructure—and a master’s in environmental science and management—Cesare got hired to work in the office of sustainability for the Santa Monica, Calif., government. It became his dream job.

Soon he was leading the permitting phase of the world’s first municipal building to take on the rigorous Living Building Challenge (LBC) of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Currently, as the city’s sustainable projects manager, he is leading construction of the 50,200-sq-ft project, called the City Services Building. The CSB is on course for an April 2020 opening.

For Cesare and the CSB team, getting approval—which took two to three times longer than is usual—was the toughest part of the project. State, county and local officials put the team though the wringer before permitting the exotic and non-code-compliant rainwater-to-potable-water and composting-toilet systems. Cesare was surprised that the city’s ambition to do a groundbreaking sustainable municipal building was met with so much official reluctance and push-back. But he stayed the course and jumped for joy in 2017 when the CSB received its final permit.

“I have seen first hand Joel’s passion, dedication, strategic thinking, hard work and charismatic ability to meet people where they are, truly hear and address their concerns and work collaboratively to create a win-win for all,” says Kathleen Smith, ILFI’s LBC vice president.

Cesare’s permitting pluck aligns with his personality. Once, to prove a point, he traveled three miles to his office, and again back home, on his stand-up paddle board. Though he recently moved nine miles inland, he still gets to surf with about nine colleagues every Friday before work. “We call it our board meetings,” he says.

Cesare also gets into the water through a nonprofit he started in 2014 with a friend. StokeShare, which introduces at-risk youth to nature through action sports, has engaged 300 youth.

Cesare and the CSB team’s bigger contribution for the next generation is the creation of a Living Building permitting model. Toward this end, he spreads the word to counterparts in other cities, in the hope that “public projects that come after us won’t have to deal with such scrutiny.”

Cesare, who also leads other green city projects, says he sees a future full of better buildings. “I have goals to continue doing this wherever I can, but it has to be near the ocean, ideally.”

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