Margaret Montgomery talks with DesignIntelligence about priorities for her practice, reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment, materials disclosure, the impact of nature on humans and more.

DesignIntelligence (DI): What are the priorities in your practice right now? What are you most focused on?

Margaret Montgomery (MM): We have a large international practice that is truly a networked set of studios with a lot of smart, highly motivated people. Generally, we want high-performance projects to be the norm in the practice, so we do everything we can to ensure that’s possible. But we do that more on the side of encouragement, peer pressure, great examples, tools and other initiatives rather than “thou shalt do this”—except for the reporting.

We use the COTE Top 10 Criteria as early as possible in a project as a way of encouraging teams to talk about big ideas related to sustainability. Our belief is that, given those 10 big questions, at least one of them will resonate with the purpose of that project in a way that helps build a stronger project story and can create or amplify a valuable design strategy on that project. Whether it is about well-being, climate resilience or some issue specific to that particular project, we believe the COTE Top 10 is valuable.

As long-time signators to the 2030 Commitment, we’re always focused on energy performance—making sure the teams know what to do, and giving them the tools and the ability to do that work. Over the past year, we’ve also been upping the percentage of projects that are using energy modeling as a design tool. We have standardized Autodesk Insight 360, which allows the teams to do quick, internal modeling very early in a project.

This past year, we took our modeling from 30 percent to 70 percent of projects because of the Insight tool. Our goal is that soon all projects with early concept schematic models developed through the tool will go on to use deeper energy modeling cycles as the impetus for better performance throughout the project. Even for those projects where full modeling scope is not possible, we can make a difference in the beginning. The factors that architects direct most closely—massing and orientation, glazing percentage, façade design and performance—thus set a foundation for better performance.

This year we’re honing in on aggregating our approach to material transparency and performance. We are looking at embodied carbon for materials in a way that’s new. We’re fortunate to be working on a project that’s an early tester for the EC3 carbon tool, so carbon has been more of a focus than a full environmental impact assessment.

We’re also talking with some clients about fuel-shifting to electricity where possible—with zero-carbon goals on the horizon, we can help shift the critical mass to build a cleaner electric grid and reduce dependence on natural gas in many cases.

DI: How do these priorities within the firm map to your opinion of what we, as an entire profession, or A/E/C as an industry should be focused on?

MM: We are absolutely aligned with the priorities I believe the industry should be following, although we need to do more.

We think that, in general, high-performance, sustainable projects are the only future that is viable for our profession and our clients. Zero carbon is viable for many projects, and we’re able to steer clients toward a high-performance achievement that’s possible for them. Transparency and material selection for reduced environmental and health impact are easier every month. Planning and site development for resilience and for a healthier urban ecosystem are equally critical.

DI: You mentioned materials transparency and standardizing as a priority for the firm. What are you doing about that?

MM: This is a challenge because it’s such a big topic. We’re putting tools in place and tweaking our specification standards in areas where we can knowledgeably improve our standard options. For example, if we have a spec section in which we want to include a product, and we have enough manufacturers that are willing to disclose what’s in their product (and even others that aren’t), we can require that disclosure.

We as a firm, as well as the industry, are in a transitional place where it seems that the key action is to get that disclosure and to learn what we can about the products we’re specifying. When enough product manufacturers are willing to share that information, the products will continue to get better. We’ll be able to ask why a particular chemical is in a product, does it need to be there, and more.

Transparency and disclosure is very important for the environmental footprint and the health footprint, and it’s analogous to energy disclosure: unless we know the EUI and nuances of energy performance, we can’t make things better. We can’t improve what we’re putting in our projects from a materials standpoint unless we know what’s in them. Our designers are becoming more aware of what they’re specifying with materials and finishes.

We’re getting a bit more sophisticated about reducing the carbon footprint of our projects, as well. Here in Seattle, which is a center point for the Carbon Leadership Forum, work is being done to address the issues around carbon. For example, what are all the concrete mixes? What’s the lowest-carbon concrete mix we can use for that particular structural purpose? How can we make sure that we are fine-tuning those mixes for the lowest carbon while maintaining performance.

Our firm, as well as the industry, is finding that the largest carbon and environmental footprint tends to be in the structure and envelope materials. The health footprint, the complicated chemistry, and the disclosures tend to congregate around the finish materials and that end of the spectrum.

DI: What are some issues or aspects of sustainable, resilient, regenerative design that we are not tackling that we should be as an industry?

MM: Carbon is such a critical issue, and if we don’t tackle it as a high priority, we won’t have time to tackle anything else—especially if we don’t get it right. But, on a good note, if we think about ecological systems and creating a smaller carbon footprint or using less energy, hopefully they’re symbiotic and one is not going to negate the other.

Resilience is a term and a need that resonates with a lot of people, partly because of climate change and carbon. At our firm, we are trying to raise awareness about resilience and carbon. In the beginning of a project, we use morphed climate files so that we can look at our projects with an eye toward current climate patterns, and what it might look like in 2050 or 2080. This will help to influence the decisions that we make now about a project. So keeping resilience at the forefront is important for all projects, but especially for those projects, like healthcare, that are mission-critical to their communities.

Grounding projects in their place is important so that we don’t lose that sense of connection and place. Connection with nature becomes more and more difficult because people aren’t engaging with nature as we’ve done in the past. Peter Kahn at the University of Washington talks about “environmental generational amnesia”—which basically proposes that the environmental condition we experience in our childhood is what we consider the “norm,” and that each successive generation considers a more degraded condition normal. As more and more people today grow up in cities, the less connection we have as a species with the nature that actually supports our existence. It’s hard to care about something you don’t know. That is a challenge.

We’ve been learning a lot as an industry about designing space and the importance of, for example, material choices and how they impact indoor air quality. The connections between wellness, well-being, health and sustainable buildings have an impact on people, especially a cognitive impact.

DI: What are we doing as an industry that might be called wasted activity? Are there areas of focus that may have been useful before, but aren’t useful any longer?

MM: There are opportunities where communication and shared resources would help us internally as a firm, as well as industry-wide. In this way, we’re helping the professions as a whole by not having to reinvent everything at a firm level. There is a level of sharing in the industry that has historically been better in the sustainability realm than it has been in any other part of our industry. Our competitive edge is more about what we do with that shared knowledge. Because we’re all creative people, the more we can share best practices about how we do certain things, the better off we’ll all be. If we start from a higher common platform, then we’ll all go further.

DI: What do you think we should let go of as an industry?

MM: A lot in our industry has been the same for a long time, so there are certainly some things we should ditch. For me, one of those things is the idea that there’s a certain way a building should look in order for it to be perceived as beautiful architecture. Personally, I would love to let go of that uniformity of what’s considered beauty. In other words, what’s beautiful in one culture or climate shouldn’t necessarily be beautiful in an entirely different culture and climate.

DI: Where do the ideas of being practical and being effective intersect best for sustainability?

MM: In a project, if we’re doing things in the right way, we shouldn’t need to add anything. We shouldn’t need to add money. We should be able to reallocate resources in a smarter way to do almost everything we want to do. So, for instance, if we create a better conceptual design with the right window/ wall ratio, better orientation and massing that works with its place for passive energy flows, and we put the effort into better architecture, we should be able to spend less money on mechanical heating and cooling. To me, that’s pragmatic and effective because we’re conserving first-cost resources and getting more from our client’s money. The goal is to do that while also creating a more comfortable, more livable place for everyone who experiences it.

DI: In the years that you’ve been practicing sustainable design, what changes have you observed in clients’ viewpoints?

MM: It’s a shifting baseline. For instance, the idea of paying attention to energy use—which 10 or 15 years ago wasn’t ordinary—is important to the majority of our clients today. Where once a client might say, “LEED Gold is our standard,” now when the next version of LEED Gold unfolds, there’s a period of discomfort and the baseline shifts. Then we absorb a new level of performance as the norm. Certification systems, disclosure ordinances, zoning requirements or incentives for certain certifications, and more—all tend to nudge the baseline up. The level of sophistication has grown, and I credit the influence of transparency to allow more data-based decision making.

Many of our clients recognize the value of creating space that helps them and their people be more comfortable and perform better. This was an idea that probably didn’t resonate well a few years ago because there weren’t enough studies to show the connection between what we thought intuitively were good things for people and outcome-based goals.

DI: Are there ways in which what clients value is changing?

MM: Yes. Our current culture is a lot more sophisticated about what makes a good space. We do a lot of work in the tech sector, and they have high standards for recruiting and retaining talent. Environmental ethics is part of that, and a lot of younger people really do care about that. So I think the shifts that we see are indicative of society at large.

DI: What important trends do you see happening?

MM: Technology continues to accelerate. A good example is electric vehicles or self-driving vehicles and how they might influence city-making. It may not be any different than any new thing in the past, really, in that we have a chance to make something that’s really good, or we have the chance to make some mistakes that could be really damaging. But does the new thing make our lives better? Or is it something that seems like it makes our lives better, but then it actually has some unintended consequences?

That theme of unintended consequences is the cautionary side of what I see happening in all of these new advances and developments. For example, we all want to use better materials that are the result of better chemistry. It’s good to get rid of something bad in a material, but what are the unintended consequences of the replacement? So whatever we do, there’s the need to be careful and thoughtful, and that goes counter to the speed with which everything accelerates and happens in our lives.

I also see a lot more focus on issues around carbon. Even if it’s not coming from our federal government, it’s definitely welling up everywhere else.

Another trend I see is the realization of the issue of embodied energy of buildings and products. We had such a big nut to crack with energy use, especially in operational energy use in the building sector. Today, the systems that we choose are beginning to change for the better. We’re getting more conscious of how we deal with building envelopes. Now we need to think about what we’re building with.

Transparency trends are also going to grow. Hopefully, we can use those to make a better built environment and make better products. We’re learning some of the cause-and-effect around what makes us healthier and happier. I hope that we don’t turn those into automated metrics that take away the soul of what we do, because I don’t think we can’t just push a button and design something that will make us happy.

DI: What makes you hopeful? What challenges you?

MM: What makes me hopeful is the human spirit and the desire to make things better. That, I think, just never quite gives up. You see it a lot lately in various movements outside of the building industry as well as all of the groundswell around addressing climate change. At the core, I believe we all want to make the world a better place. The challenge is how hard it is sometimes to find a common understanding or a way to communicate that gets us all headed in the same direction.

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Margaret Montgomery is NBBJ’s global sustainable practice leader. She leads initiatives and projects with the goal of creating healthy places that reunite people with nature. Employing strategies that range from biophilia and indoor air quality to zero net carbon design, she encourages teams to improve building performance, ecosystem vitality and human experience on each project.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 4Q 2018. You can read more articles here.