She colored her life green

Wake Forest woman was devoted to sustainable building

CorrespondentMarch 2, 2009 

— The world is a greener place for Gail Lindsey's having been in it.

An architect by profession, she stretched the boundaries of the field to carve out a role for herself as a pioneer in sustainable development. Her dedication to green practices formed the foundation for her home, her career and her life.

Lindsey died Feb. 2 at age 54 after battling liver cancer and breast cancer.

Through her Wake Forest-based consulting firm, Design Harmony, Lindsey led innovative projects including the National Park Service's adoption of sustainable design initiatives and the improvement of green building and energy practices on U.S. military bases.

She helped the U.S. Green Building Council develop its LEED rating system, which sets new standards for energy efficiency and sustainable building practices. She advised organizations around the world and won many awards, including a gold medal from the North Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Mike Cox, Lindsey's husband, says his wife possessed a spirit of joy and optimism that inspired those around her to believe in greater possibilities. She was guided by her understanding of a social contract between herself and the rest of humanity.

Cox says Lindsey believed that "no matter what we accomplish or what standards we set for ourselves, we are no better than anyone else, and our best measure is how we treat people that we have no need to treat well."

In a sense, Cox was Lindsey's silent partner. His steady income as an electronics engineer gave her the freedom to pursue innovative projects. Architecture can be a tough field, and sustainable design isn't always lucrative.

"It made it easier for her to do what she wanted to do," he says.

She took Manhattan

Cox and Lindsey met as undergraduates at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. They dated while they were in school and later separated for a while. During those years, Lindsey worked for world-renowned architect I.M. Pei and earned her master's degree in architecture from Columbia University.

"She was living in Manhattan and thought that was the greatest place in the world," Cox says. "I couldn't imagine living there."

Eventually, Lindsey tired of the pace in New York. She joined Cox in Wake Forest, where he owned a large old house that he had been restoring. Lindsey wanted to create a place of their own.

Finding the proper setting proved the greatest challenge. Because she wanted to use innovative energy systems, the site had to have the right combination of exposure to sunlight and tree cover.

For months, Cox scoured northern Wake County, looking for the perfect plot. He would take Lindsey to see his finds, only to have her demur, "It doesn't have a good feel."

Eventually, Cox found a site he loved, a sloping stand of trees with a spring. He took Lindsey to see it, and they marveled at one of its trees, a poplar so large it takes three people to get their arms around it.

Worried about her reaction, he was afraid to ask her.

Lindsey loved it.

Walls of windows

They built a home with walls of windows that let the sun warm the interior and make the wooded landscape part of the decor. Solar panels on the tin roof heat a system of antifreeze-filled pipes that circulate to the basement, warming the house from the bottom up. The floors are laid with salvaged wood.

Living there allowed Lindsey to realize her dedication to sustainability every time she walked through the door.

Cox recalls when the builders put in place the large beams that support the ceiling. Lindsey had not been sure how well her design would come together.

"I just remember her dancing around because she was so excited that they came out so well," he says.

Pushing boundaries

Before she died, Lindsey had taken her work in a new direction. She and a colleague had created a group called Delving Deeper, which aims to further the principles of the sustainable development movement by applying them to all aspects of living. Cox says it was typical of her need to keep pushing the boundaries, to serve as a catalyst for change.

"She definitely wasn't one to sit still and be happy with the way things were," he says.

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