There is a new paradigm for today’s architects. Traditionally, the problems we solved for clients—in most cases—fit nicely and neatly into the parameters of our job descriptions. But can we do more to make a real, lasting social impact?

Today, we understand better the sheer complexity of the issues at play when we plan and design buildings, communities and even cities. This requires a new, more open approach: one that suggests that future architects engage with more fields—economics, the environment, and regional, state and national officials so that we may contribute value in ways that transcend our traditional roles.

This paradigm shift is emerging in our firm through an organizational plasticity that combines traditional top-down hierarchy and young leaders driven by a deep social and environmental calling. The emerging leadership may look and feel different across the industry, but the fuel of this subculture taps into the spirit of each employee’s personal mission while supporting the organization’s stakeholders—not just its shareholders. These leaders are independent but unified. Singular but populous. And, they represent a distributed leadership that is generationally distinctive.

So how did HMC Architects—a financially driven business model—justify utilization rates to drive social and environmental impact that may or may not have anything to do with architecture? We founded the HMC Designing Futures Foundation (DFF) in 2009 as a way to deepen the firm’s social and environmental impact. The DFF operates as a private grant-making foundation that has invested more than $750,000 in its communities locally and globally, and has sparked community partnerships, inspired employee volunteerism, and driven deep replicable impact all within responsible business practices. Each impact is unscripted and never limited. Outcomes are organic and boundary-less. And they all start with a creative imagination.

In 2012, five HMC employees partnered DFF with Santa Monica Malibu School District’s McKinley Elementary School and developed a series of children’s interactive workshops to provide a deeper understanding and concern for our planet’s natural resources along with fundamental concepts of cause and effect. Dubbed “Sustainable Environments Seen Through the Eyes of Elementary School Children,” these workshops focused on how our consumption of energy and water continually impacts our environment. The workshops adopted many common core curriculum science concepts, but we felt it was most important to inform students of the consequences of human behavior on our planet, emphasizing that they have the power to make a positive difference. In addition to the students from McKinley Elementary School, students from Maracaibo, Venezuela, joined the workshop via Skype, raising the audience to 300 elementary school students transcending geographic, cultural and social boundaries. The goal was to empower youth to change the direction in which our global environment is heading.

The workshops resulted in a freely distributed creative children’s story called Will the Waste Monster, which addressed concepts of our natural environment and how to make a difference. Since launching this project in collaboration with the elementary school, the HMC Architects team has shared the project with a half-dozen school districts throughout California and was honored with the first U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Malcolm Lewis Impact Award.

In 2015, a different band of HMC employees successfully secured $1.9 million dollars in two Drought Response Outreach Program for Schools (DROPS) grants from the California State Water Board for two of the firm’s budget strapped Pre-K–12 clients. The grant’s objective was to design and implement storm water pollution reduction strategies, water conservation, and to restore, renew, and revitalize local water sheds. Each project examined the integration of multiple low impact development (LID) strategies including bioretention, bioswales, porous surfaces and above-grade cisterns supplying sub-surface water to landscape areas, playfields and raised garden beds. The combined impact resulted in a 31,000 cubic-foot bioretention area; 22,000 square feet of bioswales; two 1,500-gallon cisterns coupled with farm-to-table raised garden beds and an assortment of green screens; and 1,740 square feet of rain gardens that collectively turned the campus into a citizen science outpost.

While the water grants were timely to a state going through water use restrictions, it was vital to leverage a portion of the grant to bolster environmental literacy. HMC and the districts forged new alliances with local non-profit community groups to provide teachers and students with access to high quality environmental education resources and experiences. The California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) Network in collaboration with the Inland Empire WaterKeeper provided future teachers of Clearwater Elementary School access to high quality environmental education resources, including instructions on how to integrate the various campus storm water harvesting strategies into their lesson plans, and water quality testing kits to complement the new outdoor teaching areas. While these impacts have immediate and long-term environmental impacts, other movements are less quantifiable and simply resonate with the need for deep social change.

The Free School of Architecture (FSA) caught DFF’s attention because of its unique approach to the delivery of conventional architectural pedagogy. Organized as a 100 percent tuition-free, non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer learning and participant-directed program, the six-week experiment is committed to the free exploration and exchange of ideas in and around architecture. FSA’s pulse responds to the unrelenting rise in tuition costs that continues to fracture socioeconomic bridges and limit access to quality architectural education. FSA offers opportunity for honest discussion, experimentation and open-ended dialogue around architecture through workshops, lectures, projects, exhibitions and publication. HMC’s DFF partnered with FSA to empower this creative delivery of free thought for these emerging practitioners from all over the world. This year FSA is nestled in Woodbury University’s center for experimental exhibitions and multidisciplinary collaborations in Hollywood, California.

When FSA debuted in 2017, it was recognized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s symposium called In Our Time: A Year of Architecture in a Day, which was devoted to the most exciting and critical spatial projects of 2017. This year FSA reviewed several applications and accepted multiple international candidates. What will come of this experiment? Will it evolve past huddling in various corners of Los Angeles and seek a permanent organizational structure, or would that be contrary to its ephemeral origins?

Sharply different than the social undercurrents of FSA and igniting environmental literacy in elementary schools, our distributed leadership teams partnered with Los Angeles-based ZERO SOUTH to embark on a 1,200-mile expedition in one of the world’s most unhospitable environments. (ZERO SOUTH means ZERO fossil fuels to the South Pole.) The volunteer-based organization of talented high-tech gear heads and engineers are bound by a common objective to innovate, fabricate and deliver the ultimate “citizen science on steroids” carbon-neutral expedition. Leadership played on the irony in repurposing two gas guzzler Hummers into fossil-fuel free hybrid-electric Polar Travers Vehicles (PTV) which kept the crew busy for six years laboring over the build of the two PTVs. In 2016, ZERO SOUTH started trail drives made possible through a grant from The Roddenberry Foundation and DFF across the North Slope of Alaska from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow along with an Airstream habitat sled nicknamed the SnowStream.

As the HMC DFF proponent, I was particularly intrigued by the complexities of thermal comfort at -49°C and envelope performance. The Snowstream was reinforced with aerogel thermally enhanced walls and a context-appropriate heating system that used bio-fuel to achieve a sustainable low carbon footprint. While maintaining thermal comfort may appear simple, a deep dive into observing, documenting and recording environmental variables during trail drives was a necessity to prepare for the far greater environmental stresses and thermal shocks of Antarctica.

The trail drive turned into a research experiment deploying dataloggers outside and inside the SnowStream, cataloging temperature, humidity, wind speed, energy use and surveys documenting clothing layers and activity type. The results will be used to develop a thermal comfort energy management approach that optimizes heating fuel consumption relative to environmental conditions and human performance. Several more trail drives are anticipated, and each will examine envelope, material performance, thermal bridging and air infiltration to address human survival concerns in the extreme subzero temperatures of Antarctica. While the building scientist questions envelope performance, the partnership reveals unforeseen synergies that extend beyond the initial objective. In 2017 ZERO SOUTH led the 2017 Los Angeles March for Science, and like previous expeditions, are strategizing citizen science opportunities connecting the expedition team to school children 8,000 miles away.

When HMC Architects formed its DFF, it created opportunities for all employees to engage in their own personal mission framed around deep social innovation and environmental impact. As DFF evolved over the years, its social innovation aimed to partner with resilient organizations that catalyze positive change to transform communities while serving the public good, and leverage impact through employee volunteerism or pro bono design services. A distributed leadership framework emerged to employees willing to take on the accountability to be a proponent and leader unshackled from company budgets, profitability and utilization rates that limit such creative movements. Since 2010, individual employees or teams of employees have coupled with 50 different organizations exploring opportunities to make a difference in the communities HMC serves.

By casting off the traditional architect’s role, looking for non-traditional partnerships and caring less about limitations, we can help clients solve financial challenges. We can educate kids. And we can combat the forces that commoditize architects. In a culture of open sharing, these are lessons from which we can all benefit.

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Eric Carbonnier is associate principal and VP of sustainability at HMC Architects.
Eera Babtiwale is associate principal and VP of sustainability at HMC Architects.
Bruce Boul is communications director of HMC Architects.