“Hello, my name is Todd.”
Our Evolving Relationship with Sustainability in Design
In my first design job out of college at a capital ‘A’ architecture firm, I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to attend a major national conference on green building. And by ‘attend,’ I mean that an architect named Todd let me borrow his nametag and attend all the sessions that he could not. I was an imposter at the conference, but I had the best of intentions to master the world of ‘green’ in those select lectures. I wondered what the sustainability hype was all about and what my role as an emerging designer was to embrace green-ness.
Initially, my pursuit led me to become a LEED AP and to get involved with the US Green Building Council. I would of course save the world with gorgeous, environmentally-respectful architecture! However, as my project portfolio increased, I experienced the perplexing realities of the sustainable design movement. My colleagues and I encountered “greenwashed” products and clever marketing for materials, and we quickly learned to sort authentic solutions from common misrepresentation. We began to accept how difficult / expensive the uphill battle can be to provide meaningful, environmentally responsible buildings to a wide range of clients in a world with varying levels of commitment to the sustainable design movement.
Often, even those who are passionate about sustainable design find that theory and practice can be difficult to reconcile. Moments of passion and intense can-do determination are often squelched by the reality of budgets. During design, innovative strategies and systems frequently give way to point-chasing for various certification systems, resulting in a higher level of certification but also the reduction of overall inspiration. Moments of grief occur when a sustainable design strategy falls victim to a cost estimate, budget reality check, or thumbs-down from a committee…bringing a once-exceptional design back to the level of every other project.
So as building design professionals, how do we make sustainable design a core principle in practice as well as in theory? How do we deliver sustainability to our clients as an integral, necessary aspect of the design? How do we continue to serve as stewards of our environment over time? When does sustainability become so indispensable and fundamental to the aesthetic that it is undeniable?
This process begins with acceptance: acceptance that every small gesture counts. Every step is one more level of expertise that the firm’s portfolio can showcase both as a success story and as a teaching tool. Each owner has individual goals and a unique background. We owe our clients respect, and we owe them the expertise that we bring to the table as design professionals to think differently. That is, after all, why they hired us.
Fundamental understanding of environmentally responsible design is a key ingredient in the success of our communities. As architects and designers, our calling is not necessarily to have every answer, but to employ our passion and curiosity to create balanced designs. It is our obligation to push for profound answers on behalf of the clients who trust us. It is our charge to value our environment, and to be better stewards of the future health and well-being of our clients’ communities.
My approach is, ” ‘Hello, my name is ____,’ and though I sometimes feel like I am still learning about sustainability along with you, I have your back. I promise to investigate for you, and I will ask you directive questions along the way to see how we can craft something long-lasting and resilient that we are both proud of making together. I am here to be open-minded with you and motivated for you, even when you as a client aren’t certain how to get to the end result.”
At minimum, we should be creating projects that are:
- built to last;
- built with the economy of space/materials for less waste;
- built to be flexible to accommodate continued use with the changing of trends;
- built to inspire, in large or small ways;
- built to teach, both the surrounding communities and also ourselves as designers, so that we continue to always do better work.
Performance matters, and sustainable design is our duty.