Greg Mella
SmithGroup Greg Mella

For ARCHITECT's September issue, we talked with the Washington, D.C.–based Greg Mella, FAIA, about sustainable design. Here, Mella—the vice president, corporate director of sustainability at SmithGroup—shares his insight.

What does your role entail?
I lead a group of sustainability specialists across our firm that works with internal design teams to set and implement sustainability goals for projects. I collaborate with technical experts to democratize sustainable tools and resources across the firm, which designers can leverage to optimize performance outcomes. I also head a group tasked with advancing life-cycle assessment modeling in our processes and elevating our expertise in addressing embodied carbon. I manage SmithGroup’s reporting of the AIA 2030 Commitment. And, I sit on the firm’s Research Steering Council, advocating for research to spur innovation in sustainable design and climate action.

How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
My focus on sustainable design started in 1998 when I served as the project architect for the first LEED Platinum building in the world, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Maryland.

In the 2000s, sustainability was primarily focused on holistic resource conservation. Toward the end of the decade, with the advent of the 2030 Challenge, the emphasis shifted towards combating climate change through energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

The 2010s saw sustainable design embrace health and well-being considerations, which led to the creation of the WELL rating system by the WELL Building Institute. Sustainability was no longer only about preserving ecosystems, but about investing in human and planetary health. Resilience and adaptation also emerged as a critical part of the definition as we began to experience the more catastrophic impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020s have seen an increased emphasis on environmental justice and the interconnection between sustainability, equity, and how vulnerable communities are most affected by the impacts of climate change. The current definition also emphasizes the pressing need for rapid decarbonization, renewable energy integration, grid-harmonized buildings, electrification, adaptive reuse projects, a circular economy, and embodied carbon reduction.

What role do architects and designers play in ensuring a sustainable future?
We must push our clients to include goals and design elements that mitigate and adapt to climate change. But what should we be advocating for? Building less and renovating more, to leverage existing building stock; creating structures that are flexible and reconfigurable, serve our communities, and have the potential to last for centuries. We should also advocate for designs that maximize resource efficiency and enhance human health; for the electrification of new and existing buildings to leverage an ever-cleaner electrical grid; and for increased transparency from product manufacturers so designers can select products with lower global warming potential, no known adverse impacts on human health, and longer life cycles.

What’s an innovation or design solution that you are particularly proud of?
Our 2023 COTE Top Ten winning design for DPR Construction’s Sacramento Office exemplifies SmithGroup’s success in advancing climate action and sustainability. The project incorporates energy conservation, passive design, renewable energy, and embodied energy-limiting elements while enhancing the well-being of the building’s occupants and the local community. This project is also an adaptive reuse of an existing building, which not only capitalizes on the embodied carbon of the building materials that already exist but also removes a low-performing building from the grid—transforming it to net zero energy.

 SmithGroup completed the COTE Top Ten Award–winning Sacramento, Calif., office for DPR Construction in 2018.
SmithGroup/Chad Davies SmithGroup completed the COTE Top Ten Award–winning Sacramento, Calif., office for DPR Construction in 2018.

What’s your firm’s approach to sustainability?
SmithGroup is committed to designing a carbon-free future that embraces conservation, maximizes renewable energy, decarbonizes systems, adapts existing buildings and sites, incorporates low-carbon construction materials, and goes beyond offsets as much as possible. We use performance modeling software to iterate and optimize sustainable solutions and strive to verify building performance during the first year of operation. Our 2022 annual reporting, for example, showed that our projects reduced their emissions by approximately 278,000 MT eCO2/yr compared to regional medians.

In our own operations, we reduce carbon emissions by designing our spaces to achieve LEED Platinum status. We’ve created policies to limit the purchase of goods, enhance recycling and composting, decrease reliance on business travel, and reduce staff commuting impacts. We also purchase a carbon offset annually to counterbalance the remaining carbon emissions produced from our operations.

What’s your firm’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sustainability projects?
The obvious answer is clients with limited, first-cost budgets. Although, the recent tax incentives with the Inflation Reduction Act have helped overcome cost issues. We are also finding ways to reduce building size by creating more flexible, multi-functional, efficient spaces, and using these cost savings to invest in enhanced performance. Reducing building size by as little as 3% can help cover the cost of LEED Platinum-level strategies.

With the cost barrier beginning to break down, the biggest obstacle is a reluctance to do something new or deviate from old standards and business models. We must be willing to change the way we think about design and the built environment so we can create innovative solutions.

What’s a project by another group or individual that you think is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design?
One group that is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design is the Carbon Leadership Forum. The industry has been tackling operational energy or carbon use for decades, but embodied carbon has not gotten the same level of focused commitment. To make smart decisions on selecting low-embodied carbon materials, we need manufacturers to publish robust Environmental Product Declarations, create a repository for that information, and design tools to model embodied carbon impacts. CLF created the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, or EC3, that does all of this.

CLF also created the Structural Engineering 2050 Challenge with the goal of creating carbon-neutral structures by 2050, and assisted with the creation of the MEP 2040—a similar commitment program aimed at lowering the embodied carbon impacts of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering components. Together, with the AIA 2030 Commitment, these programs hold our industry accountable for achieving carbon neutrality. SmithGroup is a signatory of all three commitments.

The work of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, laureates of the 2021 Pritzker Prize, represents a different approach to sustainable architecture. With their public housing building in Bordeaux, France, they maintained the existing building—instead of tearing it down—and encased it in an addition that reflects their focus on adaptation and urbanism. They also believe in reusing existing buildings, with the least amount of intervention possible, and creating flexible buildings that enhance occupant well-being. Lacaton and Vassal’s Pritzker Prize win was controversial, as their work stood in sharp contrast to the starchitects who won before them. However, their low-carbon approach to adaptive reuse provides a model for the kind of sustainable thinking and humility we need as architects.

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?)
Our firm has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a study on Universal Design Space Exploration. We are developing an automated methodology for modeling the performance of thousands of design alternatives for various building types and climate zones. This will allow for more robust option considerations during the conceptual design phase of projects.

We try to partner with universities to see how research findings can be applied in the built environment. We’re especially keen on understanding how next-generation control technologies can utilize data and machine learning to increase sustainable building performance.

What’s the most pressing issue in sustainability right now?
Rapid decarbonization is more than a pressing issue, it’s a global existential crisis. We are facing what some call the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction,’ with estimates that species are going extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they would without human impacts. Research says we need to cut global carbon emissions by 65% before 2040 to maximize our chance of not exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius change in global climate that will trigger climate tipping points. Because buildings generate approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we must work to decarbonize the built environment significantly and quickly.

If you had to recommend one book or text on sustainability or sustainable design, what would it be and why?
I would recommend Sustainable Built Environments, compiled and edited by Vivian Loftness, FAIA. It’s part of the “Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology” series published by Springer. The book features contributions from the industry’s most esteemed leaders and covers a range of topics such as biophilia, regenerative design, resiliency, urban planning, and healthy materials. It touches on nearly every way the built environment can holistically address sustainability.

How do we teach the next generation of designers and architects about sustainability? (Put another way, when it comes to sustainable design, what’s missing in architecture and design education right now?)
I’ve been interested in this topic for my entire career. In 2005, I worked with the AIA Committee on the Environment, and with Kira Gould, Hon. AIA, and Lance Hosey, on the Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education Report and Proposal for the Tides Foundation Kendeda Sustainability Fund. Upon surveying the state of sustainable design in architecture programs across the U.S., we found that the schools that emphasized multidisciplinary, integrative design approaches were among the most successful.

This remains true in 2023. The most important lesson a student can learn is that sustainable design is holistic, and frankly, complicated. Successful sustainable design must draw on the diverse expertise of many individuals and disciplines. Architects must learn to be collaborators and advocates as well as leaders.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.