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Remembering Peter Wege, a sustainability pioneer: 1920-2014

Published on Posted in Community

Peter Melvin Wege, a philanthropist, an activist, and an executive, passed away at the age of 94 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His memorial was July 11, 2014. His impact as a pioneer in sustainability, an advocate for environmentalism and green building, and the Steelcase Inc. heir and founder of the Wege Foundation, will continue to bring joy, meaning and enlightenment for generations to come.

Wege was studying architecture at the University of Michigan when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Like many students his age, Wege left school immediately to join the military. He served in the Army Air Corps as a transport pilot. On a flight he made to Pittsburgh in 1943, he was unable to land the aircraft due to heavy industrial smog. That experience sparked one of the great passions of his life: environmentalism.

After the war, Wege returned to Grand Rapids to work at Steelcase and held a series of positions in sales, research and design. He eventually became the company’s largest shareholder and chairman of the board. His leadership not only shaped Steelcase’s national role in design but also enhanced its environmental awareness.

Bringing great art experiences into the city was another passion of Wege’s. He advanced his vision with a $20 million lead gift that moved the Grand Rapids Art Museum to a dramatic new home designed by Kulapat Yantrasast/wHY Architects, the first LEED Gold art museum in the world. At the center of downtown within the transit district, its recently-revised mission sets it on a path to become a cultural beacon and a civic anchor, with programming activities that underscore Wege’s environmental and sustainability vision. 

The building’s harvested rainwater (tanks with a capacity of 18,000 gallons) is circulated back to a tranquil reflecting pool next to the entrance lobby, leading to a waterfall at the lower plaza level. It is a well-integrated visual expression of a highly technical system enduring constant snowfall in the winter. Peerless at the time of design, the museum’s constant humidity and temperature control (72 F and 50% relative humidity) demands made it a challenge for achieving energy efficiency. The fly wheel energy recovery system is a sought after highlight of behind-the-scenes tours in Grand Rapids.

From early in its history, the Wege Foundation has required that any project seeking a capital gift must seek LEED certification.  "Peter Wege recognized from the beginning the potential of LEED certifications in a medium size city and almost single handedly fostered regional green building development. Today, many cities, large and small, pass legislation to encourage building green using similar models," says Joyce Lee, FAIA, LEED AP, a Trustee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and former Chief Architect at the NYC Office of Management and Budget.

The list of LEED buildings that the Wege Foundation has contributed to is long and these are only a few: Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids Ballet, East Grand Rapids Library, three buildings at St. Mary Hospital, several buildings on Aquinas College’s campus, Kendall College of Art and Design the Wege Center for Sustainable Design, the Cathedral Square Project with the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids, and the new Blandford School within Grand Rapids Public School District.

A business man, Wege coined the word economicology to define his advocacy for striking the right balance between a healthy ecology and a profitable economy. He wrote two books titled ECONOMICOLOGY, the first in 1998, and the sequel in 2010.

Fred Keller, Chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids and owner of his LEED Platinum EBOM re-certified building in 2013, echoes, “A robust economy is not possible without a robust ecology. And businesses can thrive by embracing new regulation that protects the environment from further degradation and by developing new products that address the new regulation and thus perform even better. Peter was a real pioneer in the race to understand how the economy and ecology could not only co-exist but thrive.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George K. Heartwell, a recipient of the 2012 Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says, “Perhaps of even greater importance than Mr. Wege’s substantial philanthropy was his ability to carve out the space in which others could work. He brought credibility and influence to the field of environmental protection at a time when activists were often derided and dismissed. He gave us courage, inspiration and the resources to do our environmental work.” 

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President, Catalyst Partners
Without a doubt, Mr. Wege’s commitment to LEED certification has been profound by establishing high-performance environmentally focused building design and construction precedents for local building projects. However, more importantly this early mandate for green building practices set in motion a movement in the design community and among foundations, universities, industries, municipalities and other building sectors that established our region as an early leader in Green Building practices that now have global acceptance.

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