St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2021

Elizabeth Decker Turner ’06 is building intentional, resilient, and equitable communities.

Elizabeth Decker Turner, photographed at the Art Barn on the St. Olaf campus by Tom Roster

Elizabeth Decker Turner almost didn’t consider St. Olaf.

“I was in Northfield to visit Carleton, and my dad, who is a choral musician, said that I also had to check out St. Olaf,” she says.

During her tour of St. Olaf, Turner noticed posters around campus that spoke to her interest in interdisciplinary connections — student events that featured topics like the intersections between religion and the arts and the connections between social justice and political engagement. She dug a little deeper and discovered that St. Olaf had an openness to exploring questions that traverse the boundaries of specific fields, setting it apart from other colleges that readily compartmentalize disciplines.

Although Turner planned to become an architect, she was looking for more out of her undergraduate experience than pursuing a structured architectural degree. “I wanted the liberal arts perspective,” she says. “I was excited to explore faith and art through different lenses.”

Turner had double majors in religion and interdisciplinary fine arts (a course of study that explored connections across art, dance, music, and theater). She also participated in St. Olaf’s pre-architecture program and interned at SMSQ Architects in Northfield. She went on to earn both a master of architecture degree and a master of science in sustainable design degree from the University of Minnesota. She now brings a multidisciplinary perspective to her career as an architect, educator, and advocate for intentional communities. Turner also is a certified Passive House consultant, advising clients on building designs that minimize energy consumption.

“Architecture has always intrigued me because of its ability to shape our environments to be more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable,” Turner says. “It’s a way to shape community and concretize our values.”

Turner is the founder and owner of Precipitate, a Minneapolis-based, women-led and women-owned firm that provides holistic architecture solutions to fit its clients’ priorities and budgets.

“We are part of a radical shift in the industry, allowing women to bring their whole selves to work as complex human beings. We honor that at Precipitate, and we do better work because of it,” Turner says.

The firm’s projects reflect its commitment to creating living spaces that are resilient, energy efficient, and sustainable. “We take a transformative sustainable design approach from the beginning, with early phase energy informing a collaborative process toward carbon neutrality in buildings,” Turner says.

Designing a cost-effective, energy-efficient, and affordable home definitely requires the inquisitive nature you develop in the liberal arts, as opposed to maintaining business as usual.

Turner and her team recently partnered with Northfield’s Community Action Center (CAC) in designing Hillcrest Village, a complex of affordable townhomes. “We conducted a study looking at three options: good (standard code-based) construction, better (improved standard) construction, and Passive House construction,” she says. “We provided energy modeling and discussed cost implications and buildability for all three options.” When construction begins on Hillcrest Village, Turner says, it “looks likely the CAC will choose to go with a cost-optimized version of the Passive House option.”

Turner thinks it’s no accident that her partners in the study are Oles — CAC director Scott Wopata ’07 and Rolf Jacobson ’01, a research fellow at the Center for Sustainable Building Research. “Designing a cost-effective, energy-efficient, and affordable home definitely requires the inquisitive nature you develop in the liberal arts, as opposed to maintaining business as usual,” she says.

It’s important to Turner that many of the projects she works on remain affordable. “Making sustainability and energy efficiency accessible to more people excites me,” she says. “The energy burden — what we spend to heat and cool our homes — is higher for lower income populations. At Precipitate, we’re really moving the needle and showing it’s possible to reduce energy burden and still maintain affordability.”

Turner shares her knowledge readily with others. During spring semester, she co-taught an environmental studies course at St. Olaf focused on academic learning and practical experience connected to community needs, with students researching sustainable building policy for the City of Northfield.

“Often cities or nonprofits don’t have the time to delve into really big questions. Students have that resource of time, as well as the ability to listen deeply, and then do the needed research to support a community’s efforts,” Turner says.

Turner, who was recognized by Energy News Network as a 40 Under 40 clean energy leader and innovator, also recently testified before the Minnesota Legislature about updating the state’s commercial energy code every three years to allow for buildings to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2036. She has mentored other women in starting architectural firms, is a member of the City of Minneapolis’s Energy Vision Advisory Committee, and volunteers with the American Institute of Architects Minnesota to support workforce diversity.

“I’m interested in creating deep, transformative culture change in the architecture profession,” she says. “It’s hard and messy work, but it’s critical to developing a community of practice that is inclusive and sustainable.”