Our firm is based in Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. This is significant because much like the west coast of the U.S., the west coast of Canada has a history and a culture of a socially progressive movement that goes back generations. It provides a place of practice that is fertile ground for thinking a little bit differently.
We have committed to transitioning our firm and redesigning our processes around a social impact model. The evidence and impact of dramatic climate change is all around us, and we have seen so much devastation. Yet we still think too often that we are in the business of climate change avoidance. This mindset may be causing us to put energy in certain places when it might be better purposed elsewhere.
A few years ago, I came across a book by Andrew Ross called Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. This book had some important things to say:
1. The task of averting drastic climate change is a social experiment in decision-making and democratic action.
2. A shift in social relationships, cultural beliefs and political customs will be vital to allow the types of changes that are necessary.
3. The climate is as much social as it is biophysical. We look at the biophysical symptoms, but we do not often treat the social symptoms.
4. Inherently, to have a truly sustainable planet and world, we have to think beyond our borders. We have to think about what this means from a global perspective.
When we say we are seeking a more sustainable world, we have to ask ourselves, What are we sustaining? Is it global inequity? Is it social injustice? Is it overconsumption? Very often, when we are talking about contemporary sustainability thinking, we are looking for ways to continue living the way we do. What we are not doing is challenging ourselves to live a little differently. Maybe we have to live a lot differently. Maybe recycling and taking out the garbage in separate boxes just isn’t enough.
Maybe the simple truth is this: the communities we have built are, at their core, unsustainable. We have carpet bombed the globe with the suburban development model that is energy intensive and depends upon the automobile. Until we get serious about transforming the suburb into something more walkable, more complete, we have no hope of meeting our targets. There is no level of eco-bling we can attach to our communities that is going to change that fundamental fact. We have to challenge ourselves at a deeper level.
In 1970, the average home in Canada was around 1000 square feet and housed 3.5 people. Around 2010, the average was just under 2000 square feet and housed 2.5 people. This equates to 300 sf per person in 1970 to 780 sf per person in 2010. That’s almost a three-fold increase in area, per person, in just one generation. We have not gotten that much bigger, but our expectations have almost tripled.
At the same time, the number of energy-consuming devices has skyrocketed. In our example above, almost half of the current housing area is mechanically cooled. On average, there are 21 appliances per home … and that number is increasing. These are dramatic changes. We have to start think differently because we do not have a path forward that is meeting the objective of truly averting dramatic climate change, regardless of our hope and optimism.
Here are some simple ideas that can combine to have dramatic impact. First, we need to build less. Building smaller and building less will have more impact than any amount of technology. We cannot rely on a technological fix to these issues. There is no magic solution around the corner that is going to allow us to continue to overconsume. Hyper loops and autonomous vehicles will not solve our problem. The best car is a car that does not exist, and until we design communities that are not dependent on vehicles, we are not going to see significant and dramatic change in our energy use. If we are truly serious about making a difference, we need to be advocates for large scale systematic change.
As a firm, we are redesigning our practice to maximize our social impact, looking from top to bottom at all of our systems and processes to try to live up to this challenge. As a profession, we know a lot about the ecological ceiling, but we know much less about the social foundation that is equally important in supporting the quality of life and the just world that we are looking for. Our focus must be on both.
When you embark on this journey, you have to ask yourself some pretty challenging questions. Can you even measure social impact, and if so, how would you do it? Can you measure happiness? Can you measure laughter? Can you measure community connectedness and community capacity? Of course you can, but it is difficult and requires a level of expertise and skill that architects don’t tend to possess. This is where our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities are so vital to the conversation. It is good that we are starting to invite some of those voices to the table.
There is some very good research, however, coming out of the UK that is applicable to the building industry. We came across an assessment methodology by a professor in the UK that looks at a socially sustainable assessment framework, focusing on a series of principles and then themes. Between those principles and themes is an incredible complexity of criterion indicators. But it provides a starting point to have a conversation.
We did not find that diagram particularly relevant for us in terms of our day to day practice, so we invented one. We created our social impact framework that we use for our projects, but also for our firm. It is founded on the principles we borrowed from Professor Dixon’s analysis. Now we start our projects with our clients by workshopping around certain principles: setting goals around equity, inclusion, security and adaptability. It starts the conversation differently. And before we get into the physical, we are talking about the social. This focus really puts all the stakeholders in a different frame of mind.
We have also looked closely at all the processes that we utilize as a firm. We are recognizing that the way we manage our processes can leave a legacy, create capacity, and have greater impact. And then, of course, are the products of design, the actual design strategies. We are looking for the physical things that we can implant into our designs to have greater impact on the future we want to create.
If we want to see this vision come to fruition, what is needed? We need collective effort, much like the early days of the green building movement where we came together and started to create a common definition, a common set of metrics, an accountability framework. This commonality is very much missing from the whole area of social sustainability and social impact. At this stage, we struggle to simply have the conversation. Right now, we do not even have a definition or a way of evaluating success. We need to develop that together. And then we need to hold each other accountable.
Social sustainability is an area where we believe that, as a profession, we can and must have a much greater impact than we currently have today. It is time for collective effort.
Darryl Condon is managing principal of HCMA Architecture+Design. His intent is to push, think and break away from the preconceptions of conventional architectural practice and to maximize the social impact of his firm.