Changing the Narrative for Sustainable Design
A key element in architecture and design is the project narrative. We create the design story, or narrative, in a way that helps others see our vision. If clients believe in the narrative, then they will fight for the project, with a shared passion and belief in the design’s purpose, from conception to occupancy. Today, the building industry is fighting expired narratives told about sustainable design, told decades ago. These narratives tell the story of sustainable design being expensive, only for some people, and requires a certification. These narratives created a disillusioned audience, resulting in an industry filled with people that are skeptical of the word “sustainability” despite its attainable reality.
As thought leaders in this space, we are responsible for changing the narrative, and our firm is proactively finding ways to tell the true story of sustainability. As a champion for sustainability, I attended the Living Future unConference in Seattle this year. This conference was held by the International Living Future Institute, which runs the Living Building Challenge, with compelling universal themes of equity, collaboration, hope and action. The attendees of the conference included people from all aspects of the building industry, and beyond, demonstrating the unity necessary to make a change in the space of sustainability. It was enlightening to listen to these people express their missions to pursue sustainable design in their communities and practices. A personal analysis of the conference and my findings results in three main points:
1. There is a financial case for sustainable buildings
2. Climate change is personal
3. Health and well-being are the key
I know that with these three key points woven into a new narrative, the story of sustainability will become one people want to be a part of. These all need woven into a new narrative.
Wyandot Lodge achieved Net-zero Building Certification
THE FINANCIAL CASE
Arguably the most common resistance to sustainable design involves cost. A sustainably designed structure does not have to cost more, and in fact, often times offer long term savings for occupants. Contrary to belief, buildings that do not integrate sustainable principles from the beginning can be comparatively more expensive. When sustainable elements are added later as an afterthought, costs are significantly more in redesign and re-engineering. Sustainable buildings often require higher performing systems that cost more upfront because they are more efficient, healthy, and durable than their counterparts, demonstrating a short term loss but long term gain. The solution to the financial argument involves using a more integrated design process, with all members of the design team at the table early, reaching solutions more efficiently, saving time and money. If the goals of the project are laid out early, steps can be taken to ensure that it happens without exceeding the budget, just like with any project.
Wyandot Lodge display showcases the building impact.
Furthermore, there is evidence that sustainable buildings not only attract the best talent, but they allow companies to retain them. Research proves Millennials and Gen Z-ers want to work in buildings that have positive impacts on the environment, their communities, and their health. If clients decide to go for a certification, it allows them to charge higher rents, and those spaces are sought out. Also, elements such as biophilia, the use of natural elements in the built environment, have been proven to promote employees to be more productive and healthy, which positively impact a company’s bottom line.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS PERSONAL
Another narrative that needs to be adjusted is how people relate to climate change. The realities of climate change are likely beyond the common comprehension because the impacts are vast. Our buildings have to prepare for a different world, one with high intensity and more frequent natural disasters, air pollution, water pollution, limited resources, and water scarcity. As architects and designers, we need to change the narrative to be about how climate change is going to affect their health, the world around them, and their quality of life. Some people say that by 2030 we will begin to feel the full effects of climate change. We are a creative industry. We can find new ways to connect with clients, and the public, to make them understand how their buildings are going to impact the world around them by making sustainability a priority.
HEALTH AND WELL-BEING IS THE KEY
As I hinted at briefly, health and well-being are key components to opening the door to sustainability. This is a concept emphasized by M+A’s Sustainability Manager, Johnna Keller, a nationally recognized thought leader in the space, and a point that was echoed throughout the conference. There is evidence that sustainable, high performing buildings that utilize concepts such as biophilia actually cost employers less when you consider the positive effects these buildings have on their employees. Not only do these buildings inspire more productivity and higher employee retention, but they also decrease health insurance costs paid by the employer. Using health and well-being in the sustainability narrative ties directly to the previous points. It makes it a personal matter for people, and everyone can better understand how a building impacts them.
The Lake Nona Office Building that is pursuing WELL Core and Shell certification.
Within the last week, the American Institute of Architects approved a Resolution on Urgent and Sustained Climate Action. This calls the building industry to action. We are at a point where every firm needs to change the narratives they are telling. Now is the time, when everyone needs to push past the “sustainability” fatigue and the old narratives, and push forward. We have to change the narrative to be about health and well-being, inclusion, resilience, and regeneration. There is so much room in sustainable design to be creative, innovative, collaborative, and cutting edge. Here at M+A, we are working to transform the narratives we tell, and are engaging with the communities around us in all of our offices. The Cincinnati office has recently joined Green Umbrella, a regional sustainability alliance, and are new members of the Cincinnati 2030 District. Johnna Keller and the sustainability team are actively working to bring similar initiatives to the Columbus area. We are creating a team of experts within our firm to lead projects and change the narratives. At M+A, we are the change.
- "The Economics of Biophilia." Terrapin Bright Green. May 01, 2014. Accessed June 06, 2019. https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/the-economics-of-biophilia/.
- "HUMAN SPACES: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace." Human Spaces. 2015. Accessed June 5, 2019. https://greenplantsforgreenbuildings.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Human-Spaces-Report-Biophilic-Global_Impact_Biophilic_Design.pdf.
Project Captain, Sustainability Coordinator
Jessica is a 2018 graduate of the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Cincinnati where she was awarded the AIA's Henry Adams Medal. Although young, she already has considerable experience with design around the world having studied in Italy and worked at various architectural firms in Beijing, San Francisco, Charlottesville, VA, Houston and Cincinnati. A Living Building Challenge Ambassador, Jessica has a passion for sustainable design. She loves her two rescue dogs, Kailo and Lupin, who bring such joy and craziness to her home.