As designers we aim to create environmentally responsible buildings, but what we should really be considering is the primary reason these buildings are successful—their inhabitants.
In school, I focused my priorities toward two things: the people I presumed would inhabit my buildings, and on how I thought or researched best. But because these were, for the most part, theoretical projects, it wasn’t until I began working at Overland that I began to understand what designing for inhabitants through sustainable practices really means. Broadly, most people hear the word “sustainable” and believe that designing sustainably will fix environmental problems, and that this is the answer. In reality, buildings don’t achieve environmental change (or even function properly) without the effort and commitment of their owners and users.
As a recent addition to the Overland family, I’ve noticed unexpected day-to-day sustainable habits within the office. While most are subtle, in such a large setting these practices create an impact we can all support for the betterment of our environment. To name a few, I’ll start with the waste system. There are FIVE main trash bins in the office available to the entire staff. These five bins are labeled: Recycling (plastics, aluminum, etc.), Paper Goods (cardboard, paper, etc.), Plastic Bags, Compost (food waste, tea bags, etc.), and Trash for items not falling under the other categories. As simple as it is to label and separate waste, it is something I never fully embraced until working here. Further supporting conscientious waste management habits, every desk has its own trash and recycling bin readily accessible.
Buildings don’t achieve environmental change … without the effort and commitment of their owners and users.
Another subtle yet impactful habit within the office is the coffee operation. Coffee is provided for employees throughout the day—like most offices I’m assuming—but the key difference is the additives and how they are bought in bulk to reduce waste from individual packaging. All packaged sugars and individual creamers have been replaced with their larger counterparts. Considering the office employs about seventy-five people who drink coffee daily, this shift makes quite the difference.
The sustainability team has also maintained a garden which they share with the office when vegetables are ripe and herbs are in plentitude. These “intangible” habits allow us to feel like our collective efforts make a greater impact in our day-to-day lives. Imagine now the importance of these habits when coupled with the sustainable design of the building itself. Our office was renovated from an old warehouse and recognized with an AIA COTE (Committee on the Environment) Top 10 Award for sustainability in 2015. The COTE Top Ten Awards is the industry’s best-known award program for sustainable design excellence. Each year, ten innovative projects are recognized for their integration of design excellence with environmental performance. I believe that the sustainable design and reuse of the building inspires employees to adopt positive habits as inhabitants.
As a learning opportunity for myself and my fellow interns, the sustainability teams from Overland and Lake|Flato cohosted a dinner to educate us about sustainable living. We were invited into the home of Helena Zambrano and Corey Squire (Sustainability Coordinators for Overland and Lake|Flato respectively) in Dignowity Hill, where we were greeted by their six chickens. I don’t think I can fully depict how picturesque this humble home is. The chickens live in their spacious coop alongside the fence where there are vegetable beds and trellises overhead. Through the path in between, we were led to a dining table under a beautifully vine-wrapped trellis. The dinner included homemade pizza that we made ourselves with vegetables from the garden.
The focus of our many conversations throughout the night was not only about designing sustainably but living sustainably. This doesn’t mean to follow an extreme lifestyle; it is just to be mindful of the things we often overlook. Helena pointed out they have ten lightbulbs in their home. Ten. As soon as this was said I thought to myself, “How many lightbulbs are in my home?” I had no idea. While we want to design as sustainably as we can, at the end of the day it is still just a structure. We live within these structures, and it’s our choices that actually determine their success.
How can we, as designers and as people, continue to educate our clients, ourselves, and those around us on living in a more thoughtful and environmentally friendly way, rather than just relying on a building to do it for us? We are all trying to figure this out. I feel fortunate to have had this question brought to my attention at such an early stage of my career because it is the type of question we should be asking ourselves with each client and each project. It’s within this aspect of architecture where small gestures can be made and impact the way others live within their projects. Just as Overland continues to educate and create healthy habits within the office culture, and Helena and Corey practice them within a home, we can all integrate small daily habits that make a big impact on the environment. While this requires a bit more effort, we should strive in that direction nonetheless—and that starts with the small things.