Making the world a greener place is both a passion and a profession for Karen Feeney. Now marketing and green resources manager for Allen Associates, a nationally recognized green building pioneer, Feeney has been a key thread in the fabric of Santa Barbara’s environmental landscape since the 1970s, when she was one of the early swarms of UCSB environmental studies graduates making such a profound impact on the South Coast.
“I loved UCSB and Santa Barbara was just a perfect fit for me,” said Feeney, who grew up in the Bay Area suburb of Lafayette.
Early stints working with the Outdoor School at Rancho Alegre and the California Coastal Commission led to a position as a land-use planner for the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department. Then came her first introduction to Dennis Allen, who is perhaps the most prominent green builder in the area as well as Feeney’s current employer.
“My life is all about circles,” said Feeney, smiling as she recalled that fortuitous meeting. “Dennis and his wife, Jenny, were building a solar house up in Mission Canyon ... and I was the case planner. ... They are fabulous, fabulous people and they were very involved in all of these environmental causes and we just clicked — I just fell in love with them.”
They stayed in touch throughout the 20-plus years after Feeney left the county and went to work for the Community Environmental Council, running a wide range of programs in integrated pest management, pollution prevention, recycling and hazardous waste.
“The thing that was so fun about working at CEC was that if you came up with an idea and you could get it funded, then you could make it happen,” she said. “So it was almost like a renaissance kind of thing because you had to take it from the idea to the completion and it was so fun.
“I did a lot of things during those years.”
Through her work with CEC her path continued to cross with Allen’s. In 1984, Dennis Allen Associates built the CEC’s then-headquarters on the Mesa — a building that had one of the first grid-tied photovoltaic systems installed in California, as well as many other innovative green features. Then in 2001, the CEC opened the Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach. One of Feeney’s key projects, it was designed to educate the public about the creeks and ocean and to ensure that the South Coast’s waters are safe for people and wildlife.
“The project was built by none other than Dennis Allen Associates,” laughed Feeney, who describes herself as passionate, fun, joyful and committed.
As a longtime board member and former president of The Sustainability Project, a local nonprofit organization with a mission “to inspire change in the built environment of the region in order to improve the quality of life, in harmony with nature, for this and future generations,” Feeney has brought many prominent environmental speakers to town and co-chaired the Parade of Green Buildings for several years. This annual event once prominently featured the Watershed Resource Center, a building that coincidentally now belongs to Art From Scrap, a nonprofit environmental education organization that Feeney has served as a board member for the past four years.
“I was with CEC for 20 years. I’m only 35 but I’ve done an awful lot,” joked Feeney, who stays fit by skiing, doing triathlons and kayaking. ” I have a great group of women friends that I kayak with regularly. Once a year, we head out to the Channel Islands and camp and kayak. Our favorite thing is kayaking with dolphins and seeing whales.”
Naturally, when she was ready to leave the CEC about five and a half years ago, Feeney turned to Allen for advice.
“Our lives kept going in this circle,” she said. “Then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come work for me?’ I thought wow, this is too easy. I explored a couple of other options because I thought this is too easy; I’m changing my life after 20 years ... but I ended up coming to work for Dennis and it’s been fabulous. Fabulous.”
As Allen Associates’ marketing and green resources manager, Feeney works on a variety of projects. The beginning of her tenure was mostly about educating the community about green building, doing training programs and providing resources. In more recent years, she has focused more on marketing, as well as moving the headquarters into a newly purchased and — environmentally friendly — renovated building on Milpas Street and helping Allen Associates make the transition into an employee-owned company.
“My work is really fun and I work with some great people so I really enjoy it,” Feeney said. “If a need comes up I’m often the person to do it, so it’s kind of fun to constantly be doing new things. When I first came to Allen Associates I had done a lot of project management and seeing things to completion, but I had never designed ads. So it’s kind of fun to get challenged by new things. I love that.”
Feeney also loves to travel, take long walks and is an avid reader.
“I used to be on a soccer team but since we’ve gotten older we’ve changed it to a book club,” she said, citing favorite books as Life on Two Levels, an autobiography by progressive reformer Josephine Whitney Duveneck, and Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, a novel portraying a future ecologically sustainable society.
Feeney’s very favorite thing is spending time with what she describes as “the two best products of my life” — her son, Ryan, 22, who just graduated from UC San Diego and daughter Erin, 25, who studied architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I just love having these kids that I know are going out to do good things in this world,” she said. “I really believe that you can create the world that you want it to be, and I’ve tried to pass that along.”