Powerful Perspectives: Cross-Industry Experts Discuss Design & Holistic Sustainability
To kick off this year with inspiring and forward-thinking discussion, we brought together a diverse group of design, architecture and planning professionals to engage in one of the most important discussions of our era: What does holistic sustainability mean, and how do we achieve it through design?
Guided by moderator Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Andreas Andresen Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, the panel began with a brief discussion of the three pillars of sustainability—the dimensions of economic, social and environmental responsibility that, when existing in balance and harmony, form the basis for holistic sustainability. The conversation then shifted to real-world examples of how these pillars interact and play out in project scenarios, how some pillars can intersect, overlap and maybe come into conflict. And finally, the panel explored some of the technologies, policies, and strategies that designers, architects, landscape architects and planners can employ to better advocate for holistic sustainability and more meaningfully enact positive change for our planet and our communities.
Panelist Avinash Rajagopal, Editor In Chief of Metropolis Magazine, began the roundtable with a discussion of the Portland Building, Portland, Oregon’s municipal services building designed by prominent Postmodern architect Michael Graves in 1982. Following a substantial restoration and subsequent LEED Platinum certification, the Portland Building is a stand-out example of a project that bridges all three of sustainability’s pillars, to Avinash. "One of the areas where I think we still have a lot of growing to do in the building industry—but an area where the Portland Building really succeeds—is thinking about buildings not just as finished objects. We need to better consider aspects of the full supply chain like materials, labor, and finances, and the downstream effects these aspects have on communities,” he described.
Building on Avinash’s discussion of the Portland Building, panelist Holger Hampf, President of Designworks, a BMW Group company, painted a promising picture of the changing desires of his clients and the increasing recognition of the importance of approaching sustainability from a holistic perspective. "The good news is we’re entering a time where the three pillars generally are no longer being seen as mutually exclusive by our clients,” said Hampf. "Very often, social and environmental responsibility are being considered from the early stages of the design process, and the general perception is that this type of thinking is no longer damaging to financial performance—if you consider sustainability from an early phase, and if you make it all-inclusive, the better it is for your company, your financial performance, and your overall well-being as an organization.”
With a breadth of experience in the private sector’s desire and motivation to prioritize sustainability, panelist Kate Williams, CEO of 1% for the Planet, offered a powerful confirmation of the financial case for businesses to dive deeper into holistic sustainability. "We have found increasingly that there’s been this convergence of consumer interest and demand for new methods for consumers to use their dollar in ways that drive sustainable solutions,” said Williams. “It’s a trend that plays out in our network and its data—five years ago, we were having many more conversations where businesses were genuinely asking, ‘What’s the business case for this?’ But fast forward to the now, we’ve had record growth in new 1% for the Planet members, and while they’re still doing it because they believe in driving positive change and supporting the nonprofit sector, they’re also doing it because they know it’s a good business decision. I think we’re in great place now where meaningful contributions to sustainability are not seen as tradeoffs, but as credible ways to position businesses as solutions, rather than the cause of the need for remediations."
As the discussion shifted to the intricacies of environmental and social stewardship and how the different pillars can be interwoven to create a strong tapestry of holistic sustainability, panelist Alan Steel, President and CEO of the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, recounted the process by which Javits Center evolved and continues to evolve its sustainability program. "Our sustainability program is very much an unfinished piece of business. The green roof, which helps us with stormwater retention and reducing the heat island effect, led us to look much more closely at solar power and battery storage to offset our electricity bills. In total so far, we’ve been able to reduce our electricity bill by about $9 million per year,” Steel proudly noted. "These experiences also inspired us to create an urban farm on our expansion, and now we’re growing 40,000 pounds of vegetables per year. So in our sustainability program, it’s never about just about one thing—each step leads to another step, and the small things accumulate together, continuously pushing us further toward finding sustainable solutions for any issue concerning the facilities and their operations.”
Reflecting on Javits Center’s varied patchwork of a sustainability program, Rajagopal began a discussion of recent and burgeoning technologies that can help better understand and, importantly, quantify the impact of these diverse yet interconnected strategies. "No single new technology is a silver bullet, but I’m most interested in technology that deals in knowledge management. Powerful decision-making is the most important factor here—how designers, architects, landscape architects and planners understand costs and benefits through analyses, make the right decisions while on a project, and communicate those decisions with their clients is key,” said Rajagopal. "No material or technology is perfect in and of itself, and it only becomes appropriate in context of a project. But you can’t know if it’s appropriate if you don’t have the tools to measure and validate. So emerging knowledge management tools, especially the amazing advances recently with open-source technology, are some of the most exciting innovations in sustainability to me.”
Panelist Pamela Conrad, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, tied together the discussions of clients’ changing values and the emergence of more powerful knowledge management tools to reframe the approach to sustainable design in a compelling way. "Maybe I consider myself lucky, but most of the people we work with these days are asking for sustainable work. It’s becoming the status quo. So I think where we need to be going is beyond sustainability, beyond net zero, to a place where we’re not just checking boxes and getting points on credit systems, but actually solving real problems,” Conrad described. "This is where knowledge management technology is so important and exciting. It fills a knowledge gap and gives people the power and resources to advocate though their design, to not ask permission to advance sustainability, but to just do it because that’s good design.”
Entitled Designing for Holistic Sustainability, an hour-long recording of this live roundtable webinar in which the panelists offer greater detail, more deeply explore each other’s perspectives, and answer audience questions is available here
. Designing for Holistic Sustainability is the first of a new series of webinars from Landscape Forms featuring esteemed industry professionals who share new insights into the role that design can play in creating a more sustainable world.