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Sustainability in Design – and Education

Retired SA+P professor takes the long view
By Michelle G. McRuiz

Stephen Dent, AIA, retired School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) professor and partner at Dent and Nordhaus Architects, LLC, taught and practiced energy conservation and sustainability long before “sustainability” became a buzzword. During his 30-plus-year teaching career, he prepared SA+P graduate students for careers in which they could design buildings for a changing planet with a growing need for energy efficiency. Since retirement, Dent has switched from teaching students to helping fund scholarships so students can realize their educational dreams.

Dent grew up in a working-class family in Huntington Park, California. He and his sister were the first in their family to go to college, and Stephen earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture with cum laude distinction from the University of Southern California in 1968 and a master’s degree in solar architecture from Arizona State University in 1979. His area of focus for three decades, sustainability and green design, proves that such concepts are not recent trends.

In architecture, sustainability involves focusing on the long-term effects of a building’s design on the health of its inhabitants; on the surrounding environment; on the costs of heating, cooling, and maintenance; and on the renewability of building materials. Operating costs in sustainable buildings typically are lower because they have been designed with energy efficiency in mind.

“You may do something that’s green now, but what does it cost over the long term?” asked Dent. “Some green projects are very expensive, but every project really can be sustainable if that’s what you focus on, and every project should be looked at that way.”

An early pioneer in energy efficiency

Sustainable design first became a concern during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. “It shook up people in architecture,” Dent said. And New Mexico, with its pockets of intense scientific research and development, high rate of poverty, and intensely sunny climate, got out in front of the sustainability movement early.

“New Mexico has had a lot of builders and architects designing energy-efficient homes,” said Dent. “In the 1970s and 80s, scientists in Los Alamos had a group of people doing research in designing smaller-scale passive solar buildings and how these buildings’ performance could be predicted, and they came up with design guidelines. So, there’s an interesting history of early passive solar heating pioneers working here. New Mexico was a leader in energy-efficient design.”

Focus … and funding

Dent came to New Mexico in 1980 as the chosen candidate of UNM’s nationwide search for an architecture professor. “I’d already been teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee,” he said. “I decided I needed to be either near the ocean or the mountains.”

At UNM, Dent relished the chance to establish a solid program in energy-efficient building design, working with former SA+P Dean George Anselevicius. “He and I, for eight to 10 years, had one of the most extensive programs in the country on energy and design,” Dent said. “Funding and interest in architecture went up and down with the oil prices. That was a lot of fun for a while. We were getting a lot done.”

Dent also received a large grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help the SA+P remodel the architecture annex, which is now Tamarind Institute’s home. And he worked with renowned architect Antoine Predock on the process of obtaining funding for the SA+P building, George Pearl Hall. The proposed site for the new building had long been a parking lot that was important to Popejoy Hall. Dent and then-Dean Roger Schluntz were prepared to fight for the new location with the UNM Board of Regents. The weekend before the Regents meeting, Dent sketched a new parking lot, for Schluntz to show the board members. That sketch led to an agreement to build the parking lot first, a complete redesign of the SA+P project that included a new architecture-fine arts library, and, ultimately, more funding. “It all fell into place,” said Dent, “and it all started with my proposal to put a parking structure there.”

During his teaching career, Dent and his friend Richard Nordhaus started an architecture firm, Dent and Nordhaus, that specializes in sustainable design for residential, small commercial, and institutional projects. That partnership continues today. Dent acknowledged that “it’s more of a hobby now. We never staffed up; it has always been just the two of us. So, it’s hard to take on big projects.”

One of those large projects, the redesign and renovation of the Congregation B’nai Israel in Albuquerque, emphasized resolving the problematic and outdated lighting. As a result, B’nai Israel received an International Illumination Design Award in 2001 from the International Association of Lighting Designers.

Service and achievement

In the early 2000s, Dent became involved with the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (NCARB). NCARB, a nonprofit organization made up of the architectural licensing boards of 55 U.S. states and territories, facilitates architectural licensure. Dent discovered that, compared to similar state boards he’d been involved with, NCARB “had not kept up with the times and really needed to upgrade their process” of licensure. NCARB was bogged down with paper, rather than digital, administration, and an overly long processing time for licensure applications. Dent and others helped streamline and modernize those processes.

From 2005 to 2006, Dent was chair of the NCARB Intern Development Program Committee. “I helped changed the process for interns,” he recalled. “It was a very positive experience to be one of the people to get that started, and I’m proud of my service with NCARB.”

Dent also served as Associate Dean of SA+P from 1989 to 1998 and was the graduate advisor for the two-year graduate program in architecture. Dent is modest about his accomplishments, but peers have noticed his considerable body of work in energy conservation and sustainable design. In 2020, he received the New Mexico Lifetime Achievement Medal from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The following year, he received the Lifetime Achievement Medal from the AIA’s Albuquerque chapter. “As you get older, people start to think, ‘We had better give him something before he goes,’” Dent joked.

Giving back

Now that Dent has retired, he wants to stay connected to the UNM community by helping fund students’ educations. He’s achieving that via an endowed scholarship and the Presidential Scholarship Program.

“The scholarships I received were very helpful in getting me through school,” Dent recalled. He wanted to pass that help on to students like him who otherwise may have difficulty completing their academic programs. So, during the pandemic, he established the AIA New Mexico & Professor Stephen Dent Sustainable Design Scholarship in Architecture with a contribution to push it toward the endowment level. He plans to continue contributing to it to cover the rising costs of tuition.

Dent’s two adult children, Madeleine and Matthew, both graduated from UNM and were Presidential Scholars. That inspired Dent to give to the Presidential Scholarship Program. Donors may make a gift of $2,600 each year to become a full Sponsor of a Presidential Scholar. That gift is leveraged by UNM to cover a Scholar’s tuition, fees, and books, and the award is renewable for four years. Scholars are matched with donors and can connect with them during their time at UNM.

Donors may also make a gift of any amount to share a Scholar with other donors, or invest $50,000 or more to establish an endowed Presidential Scholarship.

Empathy and compassion are two characteristics of a truly generous person. Stephen Dent has demonstrated those qualities throughout his career – through his technical, educational, and financial contributions. Despite well-deserved recognition for his achievements, Dent is far more interested in helping others achieve their goals.

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Stories of ImpactSustainability in Design – and Education