Is sustainable design simply a collection of best practices that reduce environmental burden, or is it fundamental to the process of design?

Sustainable design is catching hold in the United States. Recent statistics show that approximately 3 percent of all new construction in the U.S. is pursuing LEED certification; many more buildings are influenced by the LEED green building rating system.

Owners are feeling empowered by the presence of a system that enables them to express and enforce design objectives that address form, image, functionality, and a larger idea of how their building will function over time. The good news is that the sustainability “niche” is increasingly being seen as the sustainability “umbrella.” This means that what was once seen as a whole host of special considerations is now being seen as a comprehensive value system for guiding decision-making.

At the same time, there is a backlash forming in response to LEED and green buildings in general, that is dismissive of what some see as naïve and incomplete good intentions. There is something to be learned from this critique of sustainable design as “eco-banality.” The issue is not good design versus good intentions. This criticism challenges sustainability to fulfill its potential as a holistic integrated approach to design, as opposed to a formulaic set of alternative design criteria. The criticism also challenges sustainable design to cast a wide net. As “green” design practitioners focus on the technologies and strategies that improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental impacts, observers are quick to point out that those issues can pale in importance compared to strategic decisions that impact basic planning and design decisions.

Is sustainable design simply a collection of best practices that reduce environmental burden, or is it fundamental to the process of design? Fortunately or unfortunately, many built projects exist that were “greened up” late in the process. These projects can demonstrate the potential to improve performance and reduce costs through use of sustainable design strategies; however, they also are inevitably less integrated, less holistic design solutions. Additionally, the primary focus on resource conservation and environmental loadings requires an implicit understanding that what is good for the environment is good for people. While good in theory, the connection between the two is not clear or compelling to many.

Architect William McDonough gains a great deal of pleasure from his remarks challenging sustainability. He says: “If someone asked me, ‘How is your relationship with your wife’ and I responded ‘sustainable’ what would you think?” He is underscoring an important issue that design practitioners must face: many people are not excited or motivated by the idea of sustainability – they are seeking something more palpable, more vital.

However, if the marriage between the built and natural environment is to be vital, mutually beneficial, and endure over time, we absolutely need to ensure that the flow of resources between the two is sustainable.

In this sense, sustainability is not the purpose or goal, it is merely the accounting method. The larger goal is mutualism, vitality and connectivity.

I would like to propose that we define a concept called “Humanistic Sustainability” to re-focus the sustainability discussion on people and what they care about. Humanistic Sustainability is based on the idea that people are a part of nature, rather than an independent force that is in competition with nature. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, (Restore) with its focus on natural resource flows, I would initiate a new hierarchy that is more holistic.

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There are a number of social trends that reinforce this shift toward Humanistic Sustainability. Recent social trends have challenged design norms and conventions and led to important shifts in the nature of the workplace, home, and public space.

Traditional modern architecture has grown out of our cultural fascination with mobility and technology. Now that mobility is just a mouse click away, and the pace of life and work has risen to such a feverish pitch, people are searching for a place to belong to. The rise of dual-income families with children has also led to a greater value being placed on proximity between home and the workplace. This yearning is for community and connection.

In the workplace, Gen-X employees are fiercely independent and intolerant of traditional hierarchies, but they still are in need of mentors. Flexibility remains a primary concern in the workplace, yet anchors within that flexible environment are of vital importance. These needs are met by a supportive work environment that fosters community and connection.

Finally, the public is increasingly focused on values-based decision-making. Convenience and low first-cost are not the only drivers. The rapid adoption of sustainable design by practitioners and clients has largely to do with their yearning to connect with their personal values. Over and over again, I have seen the tremendous amount of personal satisfaction that people gain from the fact that their efforts and their decisions are making a difference.

The reason the sustainable design movement we are experiencing now has been more successful than the energy efficiency movement of the 70s is because the underlying goals and purpose are larger. The constituencies that are attracted to the cause are broader and more diverse. Under a single umbrella of sustainability are the individual causes of energy efficiency, recycling, indoor air quality and building health, waste management, healthy buildings, native plants, backyard habitat, dark sky initiatives, etc. Each of these has passionate advocates, and many people are motivated to action because they see the synergies. By endorsing sustainable design, one can accomplish ALL of this.

At this point, I believe that we are ready for the next fundamental shift in the discourse on sustainability. By shifting to a vision of humanistic sustainability, the synergies become more expansive and more powerful. The tools and technologies that support environmental sustainability are the same as those that support humanistic sustainability. The motivations, however, are more explicit within the framework of humanistic sustainability.
Humanistic sustainability focuses on people as an integral part of the natural environment. When people are of primary concern: community matters, health and wellness matters, safety and security matters, and connecting with personal values matters. What has been traditionally referred to as sustainable design with its focus on health, resource conservation, and ecosystem protection, follows as a logical consequence.

In our current projects, we are very deliberately overlaying traditional sustainable design strategies with design strategies that foster community and connectivity. Community and connectivity issues have significant potential impact on projects at a strategic level and on a number of scales — from the scale of the workplace to the scale of the city – technology, space planning and design, building configuration, master planning and transportation are all affected. These solutions influence behavior, and behavior impacts sustainability.

The development of vibrant mixed-use communities is one example of humanistic sustainable design based on community and connectivity. Successful mixed-use communities provide tangible social benefits in terms of increased quality of life and reduced crime. By their very nature, these same successful mixed-use communities reduce sprawl with its impervious surface for roadways, and energy consumption and emissions related to automobile use. With an integrated planning approach that makes use of green infrastructure and wildlife corridors, these same mixed-use communities can filter stormwater, recharge aquifers and support biological diversity. With integrated energy planning these same communities can develop buildings that constitute a distributed power network using renewable energy and cogeneration to yield dramatic reductions in energy consumption and associated emissions. The benefits to people and the benefits to the natural environment are entirely compatible.
On the scale of an individual building, the National Wildlife Federation Headquarters building* provides another glimpse into the benefits of humanistic sustainable design. It is a green building design that is successful and memorable because of its focus on creating a workplace community, providing connections to nature, and reinforcing values. Client testimonials of successful projects are telling because they underscore how people perceive their buildings. The reality of experiencing a building is transitory and experiential.

On a recent visit to the National Wildlife Federation,* I was impressed to hear the building users’ excitement for their vegetated screen wall–not because of how efficiently it managed solar loads and contributed to energy efficiency, but for the birds that were nesting in it, and the experience of watching in anticipation as the vines slowly climbed the surface. They described the experience of entering the building across the entry bridge, which spans a small aquatic habitat as an awe-inspiring experience. Daylit office space, a toplit communal library space, and balconies wired for the laptops support community within the workplace. A small fleet of bicycles is available for employees to use over their lunch hour. This is a project that resonates with the values of the owners and the occupants, that supports the development of a workplace community; and the facility is a cost-effective green building that uses approximately 40 percent less energy per year, naturally filters stormwater, reduces waste and pollution, etc. etc.

Humanistic Sustainability is important because it represents a win-win approach for people and the natural environment. What a concept!

*The headquarters, an HOK project, was one of this year’s AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects.