Paradigm Worker

Interview: Reflections on Sustainable Design

Generations and Re-generations

December 29, 2019

By: Jonee Kulman Brigham

With Brayden Kirk

In mid-December I received an email from Brayden Kirk, a high school student about to enter the architecture field next year. He is interested in sustainable design and asked me some very good questions. By the time I was done answering his email, I realized that he’d given me an opportunity for a career-spanning reflection on sustainable design and how I have evolved alongside the evolving views in the design profession. I was glad to share hopeful news of increasing commitments from architecture organizations with someone just entering architecture, whose enthusiasm also gives me hope.

My reply to Brayden’s questions has been edited lightly from the original for grammar and brevity.

December 20, 2019

Hi Brayden,

Great Questions! Here are my answers.

For your background, I am answering these from the perspective of the field of architecture. I am an architect who has specialized in sustainable design throughout my career. Also, please note that when I talk about "buildings" I also mean the landscapes that surround them. Most building projects involve the design of the building, and the surrounding landscape in an integrated way, with a team consisting of architects, landscape architects, interior designers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, construction managers, and more. The teams have different structures, but there are many professions involved in the process. Also, there are different definitions and words used, but I generally consider sustainable design and green design to be interchangeable ways to describe the effort to lessen negative impacts of the building industry. There are other terms that come up too, like regenerative or restorative design, which are more focused on making buildings that are actually positive influences on environment and people, and maybe even restore damaged landscapes.

All the best to you in your project and studies.


Below are Brayden’s questions and my replies.

Q: From your experience, what do you believe sustainable design is? What does it aim to accomplish?

A: There is no single, official definition of sustainable design. But for the most part, it is a response to the significant environmental impact of buildings and an effort to improve that impact. It also addresses the impact of buildings on human health and well-being. Architects already have to comply with environmental regulations and protection of human health. But sustainable design is an approach to go beyond the requirements and regulations to improve the situation as much as possible. I co-authored a monograph called "Sustainable Design" in 2001 for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). In this monograph, we defined sustainable design as follows: "As a process: Sustainable design is informed action that aims to improve a project's contribution to natural, social, and economic prosperity throughout its life cycle. As a result: The characteristics and ongoing operation of a sustainable design contribute to natural, social, and economic prosperity throughout its life cycle." (From: Kulman, Jonee, and Joel Schurke. Sustainable Design. National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 2001. No longer in print.)

Q: In my research so far, I have been unable to find many drawbacks to sustainable design. From your point of view, what drawbacks are there to this trend, if any at all?

A: It is hard to find fault with an approach that aims at better environmental, social, health, and economic impact. The most common argument against it is that it can cost more. However, this is not always true and it depends on how you look at it. Some strategies to achieve sustainable design may cost more to construct, but it is not always the case, and sometimes if it costs more, the money is earned back in energy savings or productivity savings in a short while. For example, positioning windows in a way to give more building occupants views and access to daylight is a sustainable strategy that meets occupant comfort and health and well-being goals. If no new windows are added to do this, - in other words if the windows are just placed more strategically to accomplish this, then there is not an added cost. Also, this approach may be combined with controlling electric light fixtures to turn off or dim electric lights in areas and times when there is enough daylight, in which case there could be energy savings. If the controls to automatically turn off electric lights when there is daylight cost more, but they allow the owner to save money on energy bills, then eventually over time, the savings will equal the amount of the added cost. The number of years for savings to add up to the added cost, is called the payback period. It is calculated by dividing the added cost for the improvement, by the annual savings. If the annual savings are 1/5 the initial cost, then they would have a five-year payback period. In order to predict the savings and costs, architects and their engineering teams often use an energy simulation model to figure out the impact of the improvement based on the building design and local weather patterns (including temperature, lighting, wind, and more.)

Another argument some people have against sustainable design is that it can make it sound like a special type of design and they feel that ALL design should be done sustainably. My response is that although architects, engineers, and owners have learned more about sustainable design and adopted many sustainable design strategies into regular design practices, there is always room to improve, and sustainable design is a way to describe important goals so that the design industry keeps trying to improve.

Q: What role do you believe LEED and other green building standards will serve in the future? Do you believe that the standards that exist today will be able to adapt as technology changes to fit the needs of the future?

A: I think LEED and other green building standards have an important role to play. There are so many ways to achieve sustainable or green design and it can be confusing. Standards like LEED and others help organize and prioritize the ways to achieve sustainable design to help designers and building owners make decisions and be more effective. Many, like LEED, also increase the desire and demand for green buildings by providing recognition, plaques, and awards for accomplishing green design goals. I do think these standards can adapt, and they have already. LEED of today is not the same as when it started. It has evolved to address increasing priorities on addressing climate change, and also the emphasis on making sure the designs that get awards, also perform well once they are built. New standards will emerge. For example, after LEED had been out a while, another standard that emerged was the Living Building Challenge, which had higher standards for getting recognition. Fewer buildings can meet this standard, but it points the way to the future. I think it is important to have multiple standards and programs to address the range of building owners and designers. Some help beginners become more advanced, while others push the possibilities by raising the bar to challenge industry leaders to do even better. One caveat to the benefit of these programs, is that they need to generalize best practices and approaches. In reality, each project, location, client, community, and team has its own opportunities, limitations, and values, and it is important for teams to use standards as a tool, but not let them override their good judgment of what is most important or appropriate for a particular project.

Q: Since you specialize in sustainable design, how does this change the way you work day to day? What are some examples you have worked on in the past?

A: My commitment and focus in sustainable design changes how I work in two main ways. First it affects what work and work places I choose. I don't choose to work on projects or at workplaces where I cannot bring and apply my value of sustainable design. I think that at least some sustainable design can be applied just about anywhere, even in the hardest to change places, but I choose to work in places and on projects where there is an openness and desire to improve the sustainability of the work. My value on sustainable design has been a compass in my career journey. The second way it affects my work is that it means I need to be more intentional about my goals. Architects serve the needs of their clients, but are also committed when they get their architecture license to protect the "Health, Safety, and Welfare" (HSW) of the public. There are also building codes that define certain aspects of protecting HSW, but they are minimum standards that must be met. Since sustainable design pushes beyond the minimum requirements to higher goals, that means that sustainable designers like me need to consider more than client goals and HSW codes, and also consider added goals to improve sustainability as much as possible. When designers can find or educate owners who share sustainable goals, this helps the process.

Examples of sustainable design impacting projects: As I mentioned, I choose projects where I can make an impact. This has led me to spend much of my career on creating sustainable standards and programs for building, so that I can affect many projects, not just one at a time. For example, I was co-editor of the B3 State of Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines from 2002-2012. And I am currently leading the MN GreenStep Schools Program (which will launch this spring!). These are opportunities for me to contribute my sustainable design values and skills to create useful standards and recognition programs that help many teams achieve sustainability. Another example is when my husband and I had our home remodeled, we chose sustainable materials and appliances. For example, we chose wood floors where the old vinyl had been. These blended with the adjacent existing wood floors so we could make use of those, and wood is a renewable resource which is also reusable at end of life, and won't have toxic end of life landfill impacts. For wood finish, we used a natural finish to protect our indoor air quality. We used high efficiency windows, LED lights (which are becoming more common now) to save electricity, high efficiency (water and energy) appliances, and a very high efficiency boiler.

Q: Founded in 1993, the U.S Green Building Council was developing as an organization as you were getting out of college and starting your career. How has the evolution of sustainable design impacted you and the design industry as a whole?

A: When I was considering architecture as a career in high school, there was already much work being done on energy efficient and passive solar design. This is one of the reasons I entered architecture. During college, I interned at a consulting firm, then called The Weidt Group, starting in 1987 that specialized in energy efficiency. The owner, John Weidt had always been interested in energy, but also other aspects of sustainable design, although it wasn't called sustainable design then. The architecture profession was starting to expand the discussion of sustainability from a focus on energy to include more about the impact of materials and also the impact on human health. While I focused mostly on energy while working at The Weidt Group for 10 years, I was able to expand my work upon moving to the Cuningham Group, when a colleague and I co-authored a monograph, mentioned above, called "Sustainable Design." This was an opportunity to interview leaders, research the breadth of work being done in sustainable design, and identify patterns which clarified and expanded the breadth of my work. As the industry increased in its inclusiveness of topics, so did the projects and interests of firms and clients I worked with.

Q: As a high school student, what wouldn’t I know enough about to research that is influential to the trend of green building and sustainable design?

A: Well, based on your thorough and thoughtful questions, I think you already know quite a bit. Here are a few things to know about if you don't already.

One is the impact of Architecture 2030 whose mission is, " rapidly transform the global built environment from the major contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate crisis." This organization and its research and outreach has had a big impact. It was a pioneer in making it clear just how large the energy and climate impact of the building sector is, relative to other sectors of the economy. In addition to communicating this important fact, they also laid out a plan for reducing that impact, by proposing that architecture firms improve the emissions from their designs gradually over time, toward net zero emissions by 2030. This is one of the early groups to shift the conversation from incremental improvement of performance, to truly sustainable buildings (at least in energy). It used to be in the 90's that we talked about reducing the energy usage of a building 30% compared to building code, a minimum standard. This was good, but now Architecture 2030 and groups like the Living Building Challenge, shift focus to the ideal standard rather than improving from the minimum. They aim at zero carbon impacts from energy. (All buildings need energy, but by increasing efficiency and shifting to clean energy sources, it is possible to effectively eliminate climate impacts of building energy usage.) Architecture 2030 has had wider impacts too. In response to their research and vision, they influenced the American Institute of Architects to adopt the principles and encourage firms to track progress toward zero emissions in their designs. The State of Minnesota developed the SB 2030 standard based on this idea, and it is required for all new state bond-funded buildings.

All these innovative ideas, though, have long histories and deep roots. For example, the concept of a neutral or positive impact versus just a reduced negative impact goes back to Malcolm Wells and his Wilderness Scale. He put forth a vision, back in the late 60’s, even though we didn't know how to achieve it, for what is now called regenerative design - the next iteration and innovation of sustainable design. A regenerative mindset for design seeks to maximize the value that can be generated to a wide variety of stakeholders over the short and long term based on ecological function. This is contrasted with a compliance mindset or “do less harm” mindset. Malcolm Wells and his, Wilderness Scale set a high bar for development based on the positive ecological functions of a forest. It has influenced many who are still building off of this work.

But let's go further back. Indigenous peoples have lived in harmony with natural systems for most of their history. Some would say that we can't go back. That no one wants to give up modern life conveniences that also help improve health and longevity. But I (and others) would argue that it is not the pre-modern technology levels that made Indigenous ways of life sustainable, though pre-modern life surely had fewer impacts. The most important sustainable aspect of Indigenous life, which is still present today, is the value placed on nature and understanding how it works, and how we can live in relation to it, as part of it. Please know that I am not Indigenous, nor can I speak for Indigenous perspectives, but in many environmental fields, there is increasing recognition of the value of Indigenous peoples' knowledge, practices, and values and their effectiveness for protecting earth systems.

So, what I believe is the most important idea for sustainable design today is the power of paradigms - of ways of seeing and understanding the world. I am very influenced by the work of systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows. Her article "Places to Intervene in a System," is a classic, and points to the power of changing how we see things to affect whole systems change. This is one of the works that inform my current career trajectory which involves art and art-led environmental education about the built and natural environment. In addition to my work on sustainable/green guidelines, I work in education using a model called Earth Systems Journey that aims to address the underlying architecture of our ways of seeing and thinking as a foundation for changing our built environment by revealing our interdependence with natural systems. I use this curriculum model both independently as an artist, and as part of research, outreach, and teaching in my role at the University of Minnesota.

The shifts in paradigms that Meadows talks about, points to another example you should definitely know about. In 2019, the American Institute of Architects voted for the “AIA Resolution for Urgent and Sustained Climate Action,” which calls for its members to "exponentially accelerate the decarbonization of buildings, the building sector, and the built environment.” The importance of this is partly the specific recommendations for actions to take. But it is also important in how it conveys a paradigm to guide those actions, -which is that the situation is urgent and that architects have an important role to play.

Notes: Sources are in hyperlinks. Image is a detail from the cover of the NCARB "Sustainable Design" Monograph.

©Jonee Kulman Brigham