For ARCHITECT's September issue, we talked with New York– and Los Angeles–based architect Illya Azaroff, FAIA, about sustainable design. Here, Azaroff—the director of resilient design and regenerative planning at +Lab Architect—shares his insight.
What does your role entail?
Changing the world, one conversation at a time, is my ultimate daily goal. As a small firm, everyone shoulders all of the responsibilities. We focus on collaboration. It’s tough but satisfying.
How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
Over the years sustainability has been one side of a two-sided coin—with resilience being on the other. We will not be able to achieve a sustainable future without shifting gears to regenerative design practices.
What role do architects and designers play in ensuring a sustainable future?
I believe everyone plays an important role in building a better future, especially architects. However, we only have so much power. I believe we need to think about influencing the systems that make our projects happen. If we’re diligent, we can change a great deal by influencing product manufacturers, driving innovation, supporting local circular economies, and enhancing the livelihood of people and communities. We must think about leveraging the systems that protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Our responsibility is to think about everything outside of the building that makes the building what it is.
What’s your firm’s approach to sustainability?
We look at sustainability and resilience as two sides of the same coin. If we fuse those elements successfully, we create equity. Following the COP27 framework shared in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a global shift in practice is needed. To get to a long-term sustainable and regenerative future, we must adapt to climate-driven shocks and stresses—first, through disaster risk reduction. In our work, we examine the global systems that intersect with our projects. For example, we conduct hazard assessments to determine how a building will behave after completion. The best-case scenario is the resulting studies will drive a series of adaptation strategies and development initiatives that will contribute to the overall sustainability of the project.
What’s your firm’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sustainability projects?
Communicating and translating goals into fundable actions. We work with a lot of frontline communities and do our best to avoid the band-aid approach. The immediate needs of a community must be recognized and acknowledged, but sometimes they can obfuscate the long-term goals that only come with true transformation. Spending more upfront to achieve long-term resilience and sustainable benefits is a constant task with varying degrees of difficulty and success.
What’s an innovation or design solution that you are particularly proud of?
How we think about our work and engage with communities is where true innovation lies. We work to give a greater voice and visibility to communities in need. We strive to partner with community leaders and work to mine out Indigenous wisdom that can be brought into a contemporary context and deployed in projects.
Geography plays an important role in allowing us to express the uniqueness of place in our work. While the uniqueness of place expresses itself, geography, Indigenous wisdom, and a recognition that we are building for tomorrow are important elements we infuse into our work.
What’s a project by another group or individual that you think is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design?
Ken Yeang, Hon. FAIA, is one of my architecture heroes. His biophilic design, eco-architecture, and ethos in practice are inspiring. Yeang’s work has a firm basis in the science of ecology and an understanding of culture and place.
What research are you following right now?
Most recently, I have been reading through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s AR6 Synthesis Report and working on the New York Climate Impact Assessment. Climate research and impacts on the built environment directly influence our work.
What’s the most pressing issue in sustainability right now?
To start, we have to figure out how to achieve net zero emissions across the industry and how to measure and report carbon. However, the most pressing issue is how we, as an industry, can quickly recalibrate and shift gears toward regenerative design processes. If we begin looking at increasing carrying capacity with each part of design, procurement, construction, and occupancy, the issues surrounding our collective work will begin to change.
On a fundamental governance level, we need to turn our attention to performance codes, not just across the country but across the world. This entails educating architects, code officials, and an entirely new workforce to achieve high performance as a minimum standard.
If you had to recommend one book or text on sustainability/sustainable design, what would it be and why?
The Blue Marble Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton is an excellent framework that bridges scales from global to local contexts. As architects, systems thinking makes sense and can apply to project work.
How do we teach the next generation of designers and architects about sustainability?
I am fortunate to be teaching at New York City College of Technology where we incorporate sustainability and resilience efforts in the curriculum. The students of this generation give me hope. They are engaged with topics of sustainability, resilience, and social impact design.
I believe that students should learn about retrofitting existing buildings, first, in studio sequences rather than immediately focusing on new projects. I also believe that climate modeling, as a design tool, should be required along with Geographic Information Systems applications for all research and design courses. And, instead of teaching sustainable development goals first, we should teach students resilient development goals so they will understand what society needs right now.
An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.