Designers discuss the impact of sustainability on the architectural and lighting design process.

» Sustainability. It's the buzzword you hear in every conversation these days, but it is neither a new issue, nor uncomplicated in its focus. From business to politics, 'environmentally friendly' is part of today's discourse. One area on which it has had great impact is the design and building industries. In fact, one could argue that it is transforming the current paradigm for architectural and lighting design practice, certainly in the United States, which in the last decade has seen the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (1993), the American Institute of Architects Resource Guide (1992), and the cradle-to-cradle design and manufacturing process (1995).

A|L spoke with architect Rafael Pelli of Pelli Clark Pelli Architects in New Haven and New York; lighting designers Denise Fong of Seattle-based Candela and New York-based Matthew Tanteri of Matthew Tanteri + Associates; and R. Todd Gabbard, assistant professor at Kansas State University, to survey their opinions on sustainability and its role in design. No matter the discipline practiced-architecture, lighting design, or interior design-several themes emerge. One is a sense of responsibility, both personally and professionally, among those who incorporat sustainability into their own professional practice. Another is that sustainability has to be more than just something one 'does' at work. The challenge is to use one's design background to find creative solutions to these pressing issues.

A New Breed of Designers?
The fact that there are now, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 21,600 LEED-accredited professionals might suggest so; as recently as 2001, there were just 527. Another indicator is the number of projects currently seeking LEED certification. As of November 2005, the USGBC announced that 'more than 390 million square feet and 3,000 projects have registered to become LEED-certified-including nearly 400 projects in just the past four weeks.' These numbers are substantial, considering that the LEED process, from registration to certification, takes an average three to five years.

While most would agree that, sustainability is creating a new breed of designers, it is actually not that simple. Architecture and lighting have always addressed the topic; the issue now relates more to the fact that designers today have different tools and technologies available to them, which enable new approaches to an old problem. Moreover, sustainability-conscious codes and rating systems are encouraging, and in some cases demanding a more proactive approach as well. As Rafael Pelli explains, 'Good designers have always looked to incorporate relevant issues. What we call sustainable now and think about as a new idea is, in many ways, the oldest of ideas. Historically, an architect had to be very involved in thinking about the positioning of a building, the access to sun, air, and water; those were the essential criteria by which you would evaluate a structure.' Denise Fong echoes the point: 'Designing sustainable buildings just has to be part of what we consider good design.'

As Pelli suggests, what distinguishes good design and architecture is that it involves more than aesthetics. 'I think sustainability is restating some basic propositions about architecture, not only in how buildings are built and the technology that is incorporated, but in the tools with which we design and analyze alternatives.' The ability to engage in sustainable design requires a tremendous amount of knowledge, begging the question: How much does a designer need to know? Matthew Tanteri believes that this new breed of designer contains both generalists and specialists. 'People find their place within these two groups based on the way they think,' he says. 'It's a certain type of person who wants to wrap their arms around the whole thing and stay with the big picture, whereas others like to focus on one thing and optimize that.'

It is precisely this interdisciplinary approach to design, knowing who to bring to the project table, that Fong views as the essence of sustainability. 'The big benefit to the sustainable design movement is that it is promoting cross-disciplinary work. Prior to this acknowledgement, it was very common for people to work in 'their' areas and communicate as little as possible to other team members, particularly when pressured on time, fee, and schedules.' As Tanteri explains, 'the ability to facilitate and engage all these parties in the whole building design process, people who might not necessarily be used to working together,' is critical.

Pelli too acknowledges the importance of collaboration. 'The process of designing a building incorporates enormous specialized knowledge in a lot of different fields, and it has made architects much more dependent on input from specialists. As our ability to do more has increased, the ability for any one individual, or firm, to have complete command over all those fields of knowledge is decreased. Sustainable design is trying to reconnect across some of those disciplines in a more complete way.'

Fong believes that her interests and experience are broad enough that she can participate as a team member beyond just the realm of lighting. 'At the end of the day, we all take responsibility in terms of drawing and documentation for our disciplines. It is the part that comes before the drawings, during charrettes when the big picture is discussed, that you can create synergies. That's when we work in the broader terms of a designer. That some people would choose to be sustainable and others wouldn't-that doesn't make sense make sense to me.'

Sustainable Education
When a designer's sustainable education should commence is up for discussion. Should there be more emphasis on it while in school? The short answer for Fong is yes; it should start in kindergarten, meaning a sustainable education begins before one enters design school. 'It has to be something that permeates on a much deeper level than just what you do for a living, so that when you get to design school and focus on the built environment, sustainability becomes just another aspect of the design process.' To that end, she argues that students would be better served in their design education if an interdisciplinary connection was made at the studio level, rather than having the odd lecture here and there.

Sustainable design is only prevalent in some design curricula. 'There isn't any national criteria right now that is pushing the integration of sustainability into design education,' says R. Todd Gabbard. 'Yes, LEED is a national standard, but the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), the sole agency authorized to accredit U.S. professional degree programs in architecture, isn't telling schools sustainability has to be part of the curriculum.'

Much the way students and young professionals have played a role in bringing computers and 3D visualization tools into the architectural workplace, Gabbard sees their influence on sustainability. 'Students and young professionals have really taken hold of sustainability and educated themselves. Many people who are getting LEED accreditation are quite young.'

Pelli believes that schools can do more, but they cannot be looked to as the answer. 'A school only has a student for three to five years; that's a really short period of time given that this is a profession that takes decades to understand.'

Practice and Research
One extension of the role of education is in the integration of research and professional practice. Unlike other fields where research can exist for the sake of research alone, in architecture and lighting, Gabbard points out, it has to move beyond the lab. 'Research is usually applied. With the Solar Decathlon, for instance, there is research, but it's actually in the application that it's made manifest.'

Fong tries to integrate research into her own practice. 'Showing results and putting it in a format that can be used to further educate our clients about why we are making certain recommendations and what the benefits will be-there's not enough of it here in the United States.'

Pelli sites Northern Europe, particularly Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as currently driving advancements in building technologies and products. And while he believes 'academia can help foster research, it cannot happen in a purely academic setting.' As he sees it, the real issue is that there is no centralized U.S. building research center, and as a result advances in building technologies in the United States are falling behind.

One step toward reclaiming a role in developing advanced building technologies might be to reconsider sustainable building features not as 'extras' but 'integrals' to the design and construction of structures. 'I've spoken with several German architects this past year,' Pelli says. 'What's interesting is that they don't think about a lot of the things they are doing there as green design, it's just what they are required to do.' Pelli hopes that the 'green' buildings being constructed in the United States today are more indicative of an 'evolving standard of practice.' He states, 'We are eventually going to be required to do many of the things we are doing on an experimental basis as a means of regular practice. Every firm is going to have to know how to do this or architects won't survive.'

Next Steps?
Thirty-five years since the establishment of Earth Day, first celebrated on April 22, 1970, there has been significant progress, but there is still much to be done.

'Sustainability is broadening the conversation about what good design is, and that's healthy,' says Pelli. These designers suggest that, if sustainability is to be truly effective and successful, it has to become inherent in the processes of our everyday lives. Moreover, it should decrease cost, not increase it. 'Anything that raises awareness about the whole notion of sustainability is a good thing,' says Fong. 'While it's not necessary to have a LEED accreditation to be a sustainable building, it is useful for some people. It's a well-defined methodology that promotes a common understanding.'

Today we are at a threshold, where we must come to terms with the technology that has given us great innovations, but at a cost to our resources and climate. The industrial revolution, as Pelli sites, has enabled us to design and construct taller and larger structures that support self-sufficient and self-contained environments, thanks to artificial heating, cooling, and lighting systems. But in turn, our indoor surroundings are completely devoid of any relationship with nature. As we begin to understand the consequences of our overuse, we must decide if we will continue to accept current practices or push to find new solutions. Sustainability may still be considered a choice for some, but unless we reconsider our actions the choice will be made for us. elizabeth donoff

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