By changing your use of minutes, you challenge your limiting beliefs — your convention — your thinking and doing.

Each day we further define who we are and what we are. In truth, we are what we buy, what we eat, what we say, and what we do. At the end of the day it is what we do that is the indicator of who we are. This is true in all aspects of life during each of our minutes. Including our professional leadership of green and sustainable design.

After all, building green is all the rage. But ponder this for a minute and ask with me, Is it really?

Only 13 percent of architecture and design firms are “very satisfied” with their own firm’s progress in achieving higher levels of green and sustainable design, according to the 2009 DesignIntelligence Sustainable Design Survey. Moreover, one-quarter of professionals believe their professional practice is trailing peers with regard to green and sustainable design. Only about a third of firms say that 75 percent of their organization’s work is environmentally responsible. What about the others?

My point in this: We still have a long way to go as a design profession in actualizing our beliefs and actions in green and sustainable design. Yes, we have begun to drive cars that are more responsible. We have begun to design a higher percentage of LEED gold buildings. We have begun to alter our hiring practices to favor expert competency in sustainable systems.

Still, looking ahead we should soberly understand that we have just begun.

Recent news briefings reveal a prediction from climate researchers that point to a nearly iceless Arctic summer in 2040. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ice extent in the ocean may shrink by more than three-quarters between now and 2040. The most significant cause? One theory that is gaining credibility is carbon emissions from the built environment — from buildings. Not automobiles, not milk cows, not forest fires. Architecture. Scientists generally agree that the Arctic sea ice loss is now on a fast track.

What are we to do?

Move away from our limiting beliefs and move forward and embrace an innovative environmental ethic.

Let’s take each dimension of the problem as we understand it. Our most recent Design Futures Council think tank held forth on a likely scenario that energy prices will march onward and upward. This will be driven by supply and demand economics, which will intensify in the years ahead.

Water is the second vanishing commodity. There is a shortage most everywhere compared to just a decade ago. This hydration situation will get more difficult. Just ask any urban planner or civil engineer actively engaged in the future of our cities. Water is a huge dilemma. Buildings are exceedingly energy inefficient. Waste is a legacy of our recent building sciences.

Where are the design thought leaders?

Well, where are you? You are a thought leader. Most likely, the people around you look to you for this. Sustainability is the subject, the pressing issue of our time. Right? Here is what we know based on the most recent statistics coming forth from Greenway Group and Design Futures Council research. Sixty-five percent of architecture and design firms believe their organization is ahead of their peers with regard to green and sustainable design. More than 35 percent of firms say their work is designed to meet or exceed LEED Silver or equivalent status. Another 31 percent say that between 25 percent and 49 percent will meet this standard. Still, 34 percent admit that less than 25 percent of their organization’s work would meet LEED Silver.

Many architects, engineers, and designers (about 31 percent) state that sustainable projects do not cost more and when it does, the cost difference is less than 10 percent. And the payback? Compelling — from every intelligent argument.

Seventy-two percent of design professional practices now have an in-house continuing education program to teach employees about sustainable design.

Now let’s get personal. Look at the day-to-day behavior of architects and designers. Are habits changing? Yes, they are beginning to. About 83 percent agree that their own personal habits are indeed modified: reduced driving, more walking and biking, living closer to the office, telecommuting to work, combining car trips, and carpooling are some the activities they indicated in this new research. In addition, they are recycling more both at home and at work. Professionals are living more environmentally aware. They are turning down the thermostat, using solar and biomass, weatherizing, turning off lights, unplugging appliances. Moreover, they are buying locally and organically, making fewer purchases, using sustainable and green products, and considering product life cycles before buying. They are making better lighting choices, using less water, composting, buying carbon offsets. Taken together, these architects, engineers, and designers are living more simply and designing more responsibly.
 
Furthermore, it is happening with a durable commitment. It starts with self-leading. It continues with leadership in context. It is measured on the dashboard of life. Some of this may not inspire your intellectual side. Changing behavior is surely more difficult than adopting a new policy. A new outlook on life is not easily managed.

The most dramatic shift in architect behavior I have ever witnessed is the current phenomenon of adjusting lifestyle and adapting new professional skills. It is dramatic in the face of accelerated change. This has been a sudden though still a not complete migration. We are witnessing an aspirational time of a completely different order. The new mantra: Design responsibility because the Earth matters.

Here at the Design Futures Council, our members and Senior Fellows inspire us. Can you imagine a world without them? For these leaders we are grateful.

Oh, and on a final thought. In this time of personal and professional change, pleasure has not been eliminated. Simplicity has its rewards. And most surely, life takes on its meaning by solving problems. Still, the age of self-indulgence should be over — behind us. What lies ahead for architects and designers is something more important: ethical tuning toward a new dimension of life that is enhanced by design and a new understanding of what matters as a professional.


James P. Cramer is founding editor of Design­Intelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.