For ARCHITECT's September issue, we talked with Washington, D.C.-based architect Anica Landreneau, Assoc. AIA, about sustainable design. Here, Landreneau—a senior principal and the global director of sustainable design at HOK—shares her insight.
What does your role entail?
I direct the firm’s entire approach to sustainability, which encompasses everything from building performance, regenerative design, health and well-being, and our carbon commitments. In addition to serving on HOK’s board of directors and design board, an important part of my role involves industry leadership and advisement.
How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
Although many have defined sustainability as a triple-bottom line approach for decades, “sustainability” in our industry has historically focused on environmental impacts, including cost-benefit and payback analyses.
Sustainability is now seen as a broader issue, an interconnectedness between environmental issues and social responsibility. There is much more emphasis on human health and well-being, equitable and inclusive design, environmental and social justice, resiliency, and regenerative design. This is reflected in the way LEED v5 is developing with a deep focus on equity and resiliency.
We’re also looking at carbon in a much more expanded way, focusing not just on efficiency operations, but the embodied-carbon impact of construction and materials, carbon-sequestering landscapes, and the impact of refrigerants on our atmosphere and global warming. This is reflected in the way LEED v5 is developing with a deep focus on decarbonization, including embodied carbon, efficient operations, electrification, refrigerants, renewable energy, and vehicle electrification.
What role do architects and designers play in ensuring a sustainable future?
We have the expertise to successfully advocate for sweeping changes to our regulatory framework—to advance the way all buildings and development must be conducted. When we describe what is achievable, policymakers listen. We can advance policies and building codes through our advocacy and participation in the process, whether through committee service or leadership, testimony, direct advocacy with policy makers, or enlistment of community support. When codes and policies change, we change the way everything is built, not just the projects we are directly connected to. After all, it isn’t equitable unless it’s for everyone.
We have the talent to effectively inspire through the development of unique, innovative, and compelling design. Once we have demonstrated what is possible—from high performance to net zero, net positive, regenerative, resilient, equitable, and inclusive design—others follow and build upon our example, which normalizes the practice of designing and building this way.
We have a responsibility to work toward decarbonization, human health and well-being, and resilient, regenerative, equitable, and inclusive design on everything we do, regardless of the client’s level of commitment. If we’re not part of the solution every single day, then we’re part of the problem.
What’s your firm’s approach to sustainability?
HOK believes that all projects should set targets for sustainability, including decarbonization, resiliency, regeneration, equity, human health, and well-being. All projects should incorporate passive and cost-effective design strategies to achieve these targets and should benchmark iteratively throughout the design and construction process.
HOK believes in accountability and transparency. We signed onto the AIA 2030 commitment 13 years ago and have been comprehensively reporting and sharing our progress against the 2030 baseline and toward the 2030 goal of a carbon-neutral portfolio by 2030. We signed onto the SE 2050 Commitment three years ago, and have been conducting life cycle assessments, optimizing embodied carbon and reporting our progress every year since. We have also signed onto the American Society of Landscape Architects and MEP 2040 commitments, and are actively working to optimize refrigerants, carbon-sequestering landscape design, and embodied carbon in our horizontal infrastructure. We have also set internal targets for interior materials, including embodied carbon, human health impacts, and circularity.
We share our progress on all sustainability commitments, as well as the strategies and resources we employ to overcome challenges, because we believe we can only effectively address the climate crisis if we all act to address it. And we believe it isn’t sustainable if it’s not for everyone.
What’s your firm’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sustainability projects?
Project design and construction schedules continue to get tighter and tighter, which makes it an uphill battle to change the status quo. We need time to do the analysis, research, optimization, and validation that convince our clients and consultants that we can do something differently. We’re working against long lead times as well. There is also still a lingering bias that we should expect clients, consultants, and colleagues to opt into sustainability, rather than opt out. We shouldn’t determine that there are no good-fit sustainability solutions for a project until we’ve done the work and actively investigated viable opportunities. Plus, there is still a perception that sustainability has to cost more or that a project can explore sustainable design only if there’s a certification goal despite numerous studies that indicate the opposite, despite the largest federal incentive package ever adopted, and despite numerous demonstrations of cost-neutral sustainable design. There should be cost-neutral strategies that can be employed on any project. We need our design team and clients to set expectations around that, rather than dismissing the opportunity altogether.
What’s an innovation or design solution that you are particularly proud of?
We are working on a hospital in Washington, D.C. We don’t have any roof area for solar PV; mechanical equipment and a helipad take up most of the viable roof area. We do have a parking deck. We were able to conduct solar analysis and design an almost 1MW solar canopy for the structure. We presented this to our clients and district stakeholders, and it was determined that this could be funded through D.C.’s Solar for All program (which benefits low-income residents); structured as a Community Renewable Energy Facility (connected outside the hospital’s meter); and the green energy generated would feed directly into the grid, helping to offset the energy bills for 200 to 300 low-income households in the neighborhood and assisting D.C. in meeting its Renewable Portfolio Standard. This solution helps the city accomplish its decarbonization, resiliency and equity goals, while improving the aesthetics of the hospital’s campus and providing a more comfortable environment for patients, visitors, and staff to park on-site.
What’s a project by another group or individual that you think is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design?
We’re thrilled to see all of the investment in building repositioning and conversions out there. Many buildings are finding new life through deep green retrofits, adaptive reuse, and refurbishment. This increases access to housing, diversifies cities, avoids the embodied carbon of new construction, reduces the operating carbon emissions of our existing building stock, and increases investment in the heart of our communities.
What research are you following right now? (What’s an example of a research project by a group or an individual that’s informing your practice?)
We always follow the research of Architecture 2030, which continues to publish great information on building decarbonization, including embodied carbon. Architecture 2030 published the model Zero Code, which was the basis for the Zero Energy appendix to the commercial International Energy Conservation Code 2021. I was able to leverage that in my testimony to the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and we see $1.25 billion in incentives for states and localities to modernize their building codes and adopt the IECC 2021 and the Zero Energy appendix, or the equivalent. None of that would have happened without Architecture 2030’s work.
We are also following the great building-code work conducted by New Buildings Institute, including decarbonization codes (electrification, solar, and electric vehicles), embodied carbon, and zero-energy and zero-carbon construction. They continue to develop model code overlays that are adopted in jurisdictions from California to Washington, D.C.
What’s the most pressing issue in sustainability right now?
Resiliency is probably the most pressing issue. The momentum of climate change is such that we won’t be able to delay or reverse it for decades. We must be thinking about the risks that face our built environment, the magnitude of those risks, and how we right-size our mitigation approach. We can’t harden against everything, but we can design to adapt and bounce back quickly. Our codes haven’t kept up with this quickly enough, so this is going to take the leadership of the design community to ensure that we’re talking about resiliency early and often in the design process.
If you had to recommend one book or text on sustainability or sustainable design, what would it be and why?
The HOK Guidebook on Sustainable Design is still a good overview of the basics. The 10 steps the guidebook describes are reflective of best practices for integrative design.
When it comes to sustainable design, what’s missing in architecture and design education right now?
Design education does not delve into design for human health, equity, inclusivity, or resiliency. I would love to see the AIA Framework for Design Excellence become the framework of design education. Education focuses too narrowly on aesthetics and not enough on performance, community, and the human experience.
An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.