Implementation of the Lakeside master plan, approved by Chicago City Council in 2010, is slated to begin in 2013.
Sasaki Associates Implementation of the Lakeside master plan, approved by Chicago City Council in 2010, is slated to begin in 2013.

Regional issues such as stormwater treatment and energy production have become major elements of the design of architectural projects, even at a very small scale. As demand for natural resources rises and the impact of pollution spreads, taking these issues into consideration is likely to become a more important part of urban planning and architecture. This year’s national AIA convention recognizes the shift with its theme “Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters.”

But many argue that the long-term thinking of regionalism is still a burgeoning concept.

“The time frame that our culture works on is far too short when we look at how long cities actually last,” says Tom Christoffel, AICP, editor of Regional Community Development News, a bimonthly newsletter tracking regionalism in planning and architecture.

A building is not just a building. It’s part of the ecology of the built environment—a vast interconnected web of components and elements as varied as transportation, water, jobs, and energy. These are the concerns faced by the regions within which buildings stand. Increasingly, macro long-term concerns are weaving their way into the design processes of architects and planners.

A number of projects nationwide epitomize detailed consideration of regional issues, from energy production to transportation infrastructure to affordable housing. Water is often seen as the most important regional concern. With watersheds and aquifers that can span states and serve tens of millions of people, it is increasingly important for projects to use both an appropriate amount of water and reduce reliance on aging water infrastructure and centralized water-treatment facilities.

This was the main goal for Habitat Trails, a 17-unit neighborhood development in Rogers, Ark., designed as low-income housing by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC). Low Impact Development (LID), an emerging set of standards for utilizing natural watershed processes to clean and recycle water, guided the Habitat for Humanity Project. The site will essentially work as a sponge, absorbing all rainwater and runoff without expensive and inefficient pipes, catchbasins, and curbs and gutters, according to Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA, director of the UACDC. Absorbency served as the dominant design parameter and the first step.“Once we had determined an ecological fabric that can function within a predevelopment hydrological model, then we went in and proposed the roads and houses,” says Luoni. “Water-management infrastructure is designed not to exceed the carrying capacity of the site’s landscape to biologically treat stormwater runoff. It’s starting in the exact opposite way that conventional developers start.”

That approach may catch on. Of the six housing units already built, Luoni reports that the water absorption and treatment capacity of the site have already exceeded expectations.

The project has also won numerous awards, including the 2008 AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design.

Another inventive regional design is Lopez Common Ground by the Seattle-based architecture, planning, and landscape architecture firm Mithun. Located on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, the project’s 11 homes on seven acres are designed to be both highly water- and energy-efficient. Photovoltaic solar-panel and solar-thermal systems provide energy and water heating for the project, which approaches net-zero-energy consumption, according to Mithun principal Mark Shapiro, AIA. Catchment systems in this rainy climate provide all the water for the neighborhood’s toilet flushing, clothes washing, and irrigation.

But water and energy aren’t the only concerns. Once a primarily working-class community, this small island about 65 miles from Seattle has steadily transformed into a weekend retreat and vacation spot for mainlanders, pricing island service workers out of their homes. The response from Mithun and its client, the Lopez Island Community Land Trust, was to build affordable housing.

This is just one Mithun project that takes a regional approach to its design. Shapiro says that responding to the natural environment has become an integral part of the firm’s design process.

“Once one starts to look at things from that point of view, the idea of scale jumping becomes really important,” Shapiro says. “It’s about how any individual project, no matter how small it is, can really contribute to a larger strategy.”

Neighborhood planning takes on even more importance as the scale increases. On the south side of Chicago, the location of a former steel-manufacturing plant that’s been unused for years is the site of some innovative, large-scale, and regionally sensitive planning. The Lakeside master plan by Sasaki Associates and SOM would replace the disused 460-acre plant with a 13,500-person medium-density, mixed-use community. Located directly on the shore of Lake Michigan, this project proposal is notable for using and integrating former industrial land into the urban fabric. The master plan also includes 100 acres of lakefront park space, part of which fills in an empty segment of a regional waterfront park system.

Again, water is the crucial consideration. Because Chicago has a shared hard infrastructure for its stormwater and sewage, major rain events cause major pollution problems in the lake. The master plan accounts for this potentially hazardous regional condition, and rainwater passively absorbs into about 90 percent of the project’s footprint. Reducing the stress on an already overstressed urban water infrastructure system was a priority, according to Sasaki president Dennis Pieprz.

“And we did it in a way that made it ecologically visible,” says Pieprz. “It was expressed as part of the aesthetic of the public realm, so you could see how the cleansing and the design of the wetlands were operating.”

The master plan was recently approved by the Chicago City Council, and major work on the 25-year vision is expected to begin in 2013.

Projects of regional scale like these do exist, and their numbers seem to be growing. But for many veterans in the field, those numbers are still too low. Daniel E. Williams, FAIA, has long been a practitioner of ecologically based planning and design that addresses regional issues, including climate change, sea-level rising, and post-disaster planning. His 2007 book, Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture and Planning, calls for an expanded definition of sustainability in design that considers not only a region’s environment, but also its economy and social structure over a time scale of hundreds of years.

“What we all need to be doing is learning more of the science—in particular on climate change, ecology, and hydrology—and finding out how regional systems actually contribute to the health of the local economy and community,” he says.

Once architects and planners develop this understanding, more projects will begin to actively recognize and respond to the ecology of the built environment. That shift has begun.