Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design Recap

This is a guest post by Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED® AP BD+C, HOK’s director of sustainable design. Mary Ann wrote this after attending the Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design hosted by the Design Futures Council on Sept. 11-13 in Portland, Ore.

I just returned from the Design Future Council’s Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design. This was my fourth time attending and the DFC’s 11thtime convening this l event. The Summit is intentionally small – limited to 100 people – and made up of senior leaders from architectural and engineering practices. Vice Chairman Clark Davis and “Emerging Leader” Colin Rohlfing joined me in representing HOK.

The Summit introduces participants to new ideas about sustainability through keynote presentations and then we discuss, debate and synthesize what we heard. Several dynamic speakers from outside the design community brought fresh perspectives.

Through all the presentations and conversations, I noticed one recurring theme: the strong connection between sustainability and the health of individuals and communities. Our discussions at the Summit reinforced the social aspects of sustainability and the idea that creating healthy environments for humans requires a balanced, healthy ecosystem. This approach resonates with a broad audience because it personalizes the discussion of sustainability. It reinforces fundamental sustainable ideas and is something everyone can relate to.

Here are highlights from some of the keynotes.

Rob Bennett

Founding EXECUTIVE Director, Portland Sustainability Institute

Rob Bennett talked about the rise of eco-district scale sustainability and the direct economic, social and sustainability benefits in these communities. In addition to its Portland-based focus, his organization plays an important national role in promoting and sharing eco-district best practices.

Alex Steffen

CO-FOUNDER, Worldchanging

Alex Steffen described the Overton window, a political theory that the boundaries of public opinion can shift significantly when ideas that otherwise may have been considered extreme are introduced as credible. Understanding this theory helps explain people’s changing attitudes on issues like climate change and affordable healthcare. The Overton window offers a powerful way to introduce new approaches to sustainability. Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 Challenge is an example of this effect. By advocating a stretch idea — carbon neutrality in all new buildings by 2030 — and finding early adopters, Ed made it credible.

Emphasizing global urbanization, Steffen told us that by 2050, 95 percent of the earth’s population will live within one day’s travel from a city. This will have a profound impact on resource consumption and accelerate the already exponential shifts in climate change.

The threshold effect states that real changes don’t take hold until a specific point is reached. When something does reach the right level, behavior changes quickly. Expanded use of public transit is an example of a threshold that people reach when it becomes easier, faster and healthier to use public transit instead of cars. We see obvious examples of this in major metropolitan centers like New York and San Francisco. Today, though, when gas prices reach a threshold, we are witnessing the same thing in smaller cities like Portland and St. Louis.

One contributor to these shifts is the change in demographics. Generation Y gravitates toward community-based environments and is more likely to choose central city living. Members of this generation are more content living in smaller personal spaces, with their social spaces and broader neighborhoods connected by the Internet. They seek out pedestrian and bike-friendly communities.

Technology, said Steffen, is driving a transformation in which travel is being reduced by social networking. At the same time, 18-to-34-year-olds have the most real-world friends and a passion for public debate that we haven’t seen since the 1960s.

Efficient use of surplus capacity is an exciting new trend that reinforces a better balance of resource availability and need. Owning things is less important, with a trend for shared use of everything from tools to cars (Getaround), apartments (Airbnb) and workspaces.

Steffen also points out that people’s appetites for easy access to expert information are accelerating and democratizing knowledge creation.

Dr. Richard Jackson

Professor and chair, environmental health sciences at UCLA

Dr. Richard Jackson’s talk on the relationship between public health and the built environment integrated several themes from the Summit. As the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, he believes the built environment can alleviate US public health problems, which he calls “environmentally induced disease.”

Our life expectancy in the US has increased by 30 years over the past century. Jackson noted that better medical care accounts for five years, improved immunization has added another five years, and that improvements in infrastructure (healthy water, air and living conditions) have added 20 years to our life expectancy.

The exponential growth in obesity and Type 2 diabetes is directly attributable to the growth of suburbia and easy access to cheap, high-fat food. If the current trend holds, 42 percent of the US population will be obese by 2030. This impacts many industries. In aviation, jet fuel use and emissions have increased significantly due to increased passenger weights. A recent medical study stated that the best way to reduce obesity is to make physical activity a routine part of life, not an add-on. This is the fundamental health benefit that comes with creating livable, walkable communities.

Jackson also discussed the growing concerns around toxicity of materials and the critical need to change regulations so bio-accumulated toxins in flame retardants are no longer permitted. He pointed to the sudden drop in lead levels after lead was removed from paint and gasoline.

Colin Beavan

AUTHOR, No Impact Man

Colin Beavan recounted lessons learned during his well-publicized one-year experiment to have a zero or even positive environmental impact while living in a New York City apartment with his wife and child.

Beavan reinforced the sustainability benefits of personal healthy living. By using only self-propelled transit (a bike made of used parts), he lost weight, became stronger and experienced special times with his infant daughter that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. By limiting his consumption to locally available foods, Beavan ate healthier, saved more money and challenged his intellect. Owning less stuff and clarifying what really mattered made him happier and more satisfied.

The experiences of “no impact man” are consistent with many studies that show that, beyond a certain point of meeting basic needs and comfort, happiness is not related to income. Recalling Alex Steffen’s description of Gen Y’s preferred lifestyle, I found a positive message about a new definition of success in North America. Based on the Overton window concept, establishing that happiness is not linked to high income could drive different consumption patterns. The “do more with less” mantra of HOK Chairman Emeritus Bill Valentine could become reality.


As creators of the built environment, we must continue helping clients link personal and community health with broader sustainability goals.

When talking about projects with our clients, we need to explain all the benefits of dense, walkable communities that promote healthy lifestyles. This moves the sustainability focus beyond resource consumption, which does not always engage people, to personal health. Most people can relate experiences from their own lives – from walking to school to driving their kids – to national concerns about public health.

I challenge all architects to take a leadership role in their communities to promote this type of thinking. Let’s convene multi-generational dialogues on the topic in and engage social media to unite people and ideas. Let’s take a leadership role in transforming local zoning and other regulations as a way to help dramatically shift the old patterns towards a new, healthy, more sustainable solution. Our success could improve people’s lives and have a ripple effect across the world.