I’ve championed sustainability in the architecture profession for the last 20 years, the last half of which I spent at the International Living Future Institute, in Seattle. As I depart from my four-year tenure as the ILFI’s CEO—and as we fall chaotically into a new decade with the realities of climate change made clear through the Australian bushfires—I can’t help but wonder: Did I achieve anything? Was the fight worth it?
Being on the innovative edge of any issue requires a wealth of grit and determination along with a handful of foolishness. In the past decade, I have been told hundreds of times that manufacturers would never disclose their products’ ingredients, and that zero-carbon buildings were not possible. I was talked over, talked down, and dismissed because my bold vision for our collective future threatened the status quo.
It certainly would have been easier to accept that the industry is slow to change, that short-term economic gain—rather than the health of the planet and its people—is the focus of development. Arguing that economics and the environment could go hand in hand only got me so far. For design professionals, criticizing from the sidelines was more common than joining forces to envision how we could scale healthy, zero-carbon buildings. Taking incremental steps allowed the prevailing corporate model to remain preserved and unchanged.
Over time, I discovered that economic arguments can help motivate owners to commit to some proactive measures, such as eliminating toxic materials from their offices. Initiating policy changes that introduced incentives for forward-thinking businesses also helped.
But education proved to be the most vital ingredient. By increasing awareness about healthy, zero-carbon buildings among literally thousands of architects, designers, and builders, I helped to establish a groundswell of support for high-performance environments. I was no longer alone in advocating for significant change.
A few built examples that demonstrated that zero-carbon projects were possible also helped. Gradually, owners and policymakers stepped up to help implement a new vision for buildings and cities—and, importantly, enough architects and designers took a leadership role to make that happen.
Momentum continues to build. In January, Microsoft committed to becoming a zero-carbon company, referencing the ILFI’s Zero Carbon Certification as a goal. It joins other major companies across sectors—Google, Salesforce, and Kingspan—that have previously made carbon reduction commitments with the ILFI.
Despite the struggles, the fight has been worth it.
Now the reality of global climate change is setting in, and the urgency to change our built environment has increased. Fewer and fewer architects and building owners can ignore it as each month goes by. We have about a decade left to turn the global building and infrastructure sectors around, or life as we know it will change drastically.
For meaningful change to happen at the pace necessary, the built environment sector will have to transform holistically. We will have to shift our fundamental relationship with nature to make a whole systems change. Only then can we restore a positive and thriving relationship with the world. Only then can we solve the climate crisis.
In the next decade of my career,
I now know that I want to influence the systems, government policy, and social fabric that can help the building and infrastructure sector shift quickly, on a global scale. I am inspired to take the lessons from nature and the natural systems that surround us and apply them to the built environment.
If I can offer architects one lesson from my past two decades, it’s this: Before you start your next project and try to cram in every sustainable strategy that you can muster, take a step outside and just ask, “What would nature do?”
This op-ed appeared in the April 2020 issue of ARCHITECT.
Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.
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