Teaching a design studio without consideration for sustainability, resilience, and performance leads future architects in the wrong direction.
This spring, Ali Malkawi and Gordon Gill, FAIA, co-taught a studio at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) called Zero Energy Residential High-Rise that saw students from architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design come together to design environmentally responsive towers for Chicago and Mexico City (facing page). The course’s integrated approach to design and data blended the expertise of Malkawi, professor of architectural technology at the GSD and founding director of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, with that of Gill, a founding partner at Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The two spoke with ARCHITECT about why sustainability and design need to go hand in hand in architectural education, and about how to prepare the next generation of practitioners to design for climate change.
What differentiated the high-rise studio that you ran last year at the GSD from other studios that focus on sustainability and net-zero design?
Ali Malkawi: The intention was to try to take some of the work that we’ve been doing at the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, expand it, and relate it to education—and design education in particular. We chose the residential high-rise typology since there are so many of them around the world, and they’ve been developing in a way that is repetitive and mostly with the intention to maximize profit—relying very little on the concepts of the local situation. The intention was also to find ways of educating the students on how to deploy the right principles, and to be able to utilize the same type of ideas for any kind of project. It was important to give the students the tools and techniques to be able to generate information about environmental and site-specific issues early in the design process, which allowed them to be able to respond to that information and integrate it into a design.
Gordon Gill: The students were asked to conceptualize the environmental issues at the same time as the architectural issues, analyze the environmental issues and apply that back to the architectural concept—and then go back and test it again. There was serious accountability, which, in a professional environment is what it’s all about. I also think that what was different was the idea that these were simultaneous actions. This was not about a linear approach to design. That is at the root of what the studio is about: one holistic mindset where you do not design something, hand it off to an expert, and wait for information that you’re not aware of.
Why did you think it was important to take that approach with this studio?
GG: I think what happens to a lot of students is that they don’t understand the connection between information and the design consequence. When people hear it’s a data-driven process, they think that spreadsheets dictate design. That is not true. We talked about data as much in the studio as we did common sense. You have to understand the multiple contexts that you’re dealing with when you’re designing, and the environmental aspect is one of these layers. We were not looking for the students to come and tell us what the newest technology was in photovoltaics, or what the newest algae farm was going to do for energy. That was not the point. The point has always been to put buildings, cities, and people in the best possible position. And if you want to put a building in the best possible position to use less and need less, you start with the the data.
How do you think that holistic approach is different?
GG: When people talk about integrated design, what they really mean is that they have multiple disciplines that they layer one on top of the other, but the process is still linear. Let’s take the second before the idea: Before the pencil touches paper, the mind that creates that idea needs to be holistic. If the individual who is envisioning a place or a building does not have an all-encompassing approach to sustainable design, then by default, the process becomes reactionary. Architecture is the integration of art and science. We want beautiful architecture, but if we can create beautiful architecture that has genuine purpose and intelligence behind it, then we’re on a path to a much more integrated mindset.
AM: The students always need to know the principles. But there’s also the translation issue—how do we take the principles and techniques and translate them into design? That is a really delicate and important part of the equation.
You’re talking about embedding this awareness in the design DNA of students. Are we there yet? Or are we still treating how we teach design and sustainable design as different things?
GG: I think they’re being treated independently. I think we’re in a transitional period as it relates to understanding energy, the environment, and how to design for it. We’re making huge strides as to the blending and merging of an integrated approach. But I think there’s still a lot of skepticism among some students, and architects—one process is about collecting information and analysis and the other is about art, and they think they are two separate things. But I don’t think that they are. If you want a pure piece of art, that’s one thing, but I do not believe that pure artistic expression has to be void of environmental understanding. And what I love about this approach is that now the business school, and the school of policy, and the engineering schools want to understand it. It’s a very interesting educational model to begin to wonder about 'what is the platform for education where we’re able to cross-pollinate all these fantastic mindsets and feed each other.' I think it will take a lot of time, but I think we do see it happening.
AM: And things are changing, right? This is a very critical moment, where environmental considerations are becoming highlighted now more than ever. We have the capacity to do this in a way that would allow a new generation to take those issues very seriously. I think it’s evolving, but the topic is not new, this connection between science and art. It’s always been there. The story is putting these two things together—how to do it. The educational responsibility is high. The more that you educate students, the more you are inching toward a solution that would be environmentally responsive. You’ve got to have really good examples of buildings that students can see, so that they believe that they do exist, they can happen, and that this integration idea is inherently beautiful and applicable, and that there is a demand for it. And not just demand, it’s also responsibility.
How can we be making some of these changes that you’re talking about across design education nationwide?
AM: It takes time to build the belief and build a system. It’s not just about the need. It’s going to be a requirement in cities, and I’m hoping that it’s going to be natural for most schools to take that into consideration and to respond. Most of the schools that I’m aware of have been trying to figure out how to do this for many, many years. Gordon and I think this is one way of doing it. I’m sure there are others. But at the end of the day, we wanted to ensure that students would understand that performance and good design go hand in hand. You’re going to have to have that approach. It’s fundamental, and we cannot afford not to have it anymore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is an expanded version of what appeared in print in the November 2017 issue.