What can we do, as designers and architects, to steer the ship of sustainability more consistently in the direction of NET POSITIVE energy, waste, and water? According to the pros at Greenbuild 2017 and repeated in different ways throughout every presentation, conversation, and tour, we can adopt a holistic design approach focused on health and wellness—beginning with conversation and engagement—and share successes and lessons.
Sustainability at the building and planning scale cannot happen in vacuums. It can only exist as a result of thoughtful collaboration and edification of all stakeholders and team members. We know the truth in this concept, but it seems that all too often we overbearingly focus on the things we know without embracing and collaborating over the things we don’t—especially as it pertains to sustainability. Key questions are often asked too late in the life of projects to act upon the answer.
Talk About It Together
The holistic design approach to sustainable design doesn’t begin at the metaphorical “drafting table.” Many challenges of sustainable design begin before an architectural project presents itself as an opportunity. Policy makers and creators govern a relatively large realm of possibility in the built environment. While many choices are made behind closed doors, influencers often listen to engaged community members and professionals alike to make informed decisions about creating policy that provides the framework from which we all work within. This is our first opportunity to make a positive impact on the built environment. We should engage in conversation about sustainability publicly, as citizens that live in the built environment. Whether you participate in neighborhood development summits, attend community engagement sessions, or simply write to local policymakers, look for opportunities to engage in the things you’re interested in and care about. Often, if we wait until a project lands on our desk to speak up, it’s too late to effect macro-level change to established policies. Show up, listen, and talk about what a sustainable future looks like and how we can get there together.
Our Work is a Call to Action
The conversation doesn’t stop at the macro level. Buildings talk. Our built work as designers and architects communicates the narrative of sustainability on many levels and to many audiences. Whether your work is intentionally sustainable or not, all buildings are precedent for future sustainable work. My dad used to tell me that “Whether you’re trying to or not, you are leaving an example for others to follow. It’s your choice to make that example good or not. What kind of an example are you choosing to set for others to follow?” What message of a sustainable future are you communicating through your built work?
Often, we look at built sustainable work through the lens of checked boxes on score sheets, but, as demonstrated in the work below, the greatest sustainable work communicates a message of aspiration, possibility, and encouragement. It tells the story of design challenges to overcome and how others can do the same.
Share lessons and successes. We’re all in this together.
Our buildings talk, and so do we. As designers and architects working toward a more sustainable future, we must take what we’ve learned from the process of design and share it with others working toward the same goal. This is exactly what the teams of the three projects below did. Here are few major takeaways from my tour of Living Building projects in Massachusetts. Both projects below have many great lessons. I’ve included a link for you to learn more from each project beyond the statements of my experiences. Enjoy!
Begin the Conversation
R.W. Kern Center Amherst, Massachusetts—The design team of the R.W. Kern Center faced the challenge of using harvested and filtered rainwater on site as drinking water due to local building codes. The solution for the design team wasn’t to create a less sustainable system to comply with the letter of the law, as someone like myself might think. Instead, they engaged local code officials and worked together to update what was once common practice safe drinking water guidelines to be more inclusive of innovative filtration practices, thus achieving the same safe drinking water goal.
The lesson? Engage code officials early and often when questions arise. Often, arriving at a solution takes more time than you think. The challenge that the designers of this project faced left me asking myself the following probing questions which I now leave with you as a primer to engage with local code officials and policymakers: “If you were to design a Living Building Challenge project in your community, would you meet all petals of certification under the current codes/legislation in place? If not, what would it take to get there?”
Embracing the Imperfect Process
Smith College Bechtel Environmental Classroom, Whately, Massachusetts—As the fifth certified Living Building (LBC) project in the world, the Smith College Bechtel Environmental Classroom team faced the challenge of being a trailblazer to the industry of sustainable architecture. Visiting the well-crafted project in its serene natural environment was no indication of the depth of this challenge. My tour of the facility was led by the architect of the project, Thomas RC Hartman, who shed light on what it was like to pave the way for many in the industry.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the design team was excluding any of the “Red List” materials—as mandated by the LBC—from use.
Acquiring the required documentation from manufacturers of materials indicating signed compliance with this requirement led to schedule delays. At the time, material suppliers and industry partners were not familiar with LBC nor the organization’s strong stance against harmful materials. Furnishing this documentation to the project team took more time than was allotted in the project schedule. Fortunately for all parties, the project benefitted significantly because the client understood this was a risk worth taking. From the beginning of the project, the client acknowledged that the process required to achieving their goals would not be perfect, as is usually the case when trailblazing.
The exemplary sustainable works above highlight the importance of adopting a holistic design approach focused on health and wellness, beginning with conversation and engagement, and sharing successes and lessons. Visiting these projects and meeting the teams involved in designing them has inspired me to think more critically of the work that I do at Overland and of the example that every one of my projects leaves for others. I hope that sharing my experiences leads you to do the same.