Kathleen Hetrick
courtesy Kathleen Hetrick Kathleen Hetrick

For ARCHITECT's September issue, we talked with Los Angeles–based engineer Kathleen Hetrick, about sustainable design. Here, Hetrick—an associate and and sustainability engineer at Buro Happold—shares her insight.

What does your role entail?
Leading diverse teams of engineers, architects and experts to set regenerative sustainability visions for our building and masterplan scale work on the west coast. I also work closely with our corporate and municipal clients to deliver sustainability strategy focused on achieving their Science Based Targets (SBTi) Commitments and spurring market transformation. But it is all about implementation. We want to make change, not peddle the status quo.

My favorite projects intertwine embodied carbon and material health improvements for supply chains. I am also very excited about pushing the uptake of clean construction and quantifying the social impact of build environment projects to help leverage our upstream role to achieve environmental and climate justice. I am also proud to be part of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Fellowship focused on ensuring the built environment is a driving factor in improving public health outcomes.

What’s your firm’s approach to sustainability?
Finding shared values and using that connection to create systemic change. Every project has finite resources, a tight schedule, many competing viewpoints. Trying to convince a client to pursue a Living Building Challenge project because its what I think is right might work once in a while and to great effect, but we don’t have that luxury to wait around for incremental change. We need to meet clients where they are, understand their values, and provide a clear vision for how regenerative sustainability amplifies their mission. Doing it without greenwashing is hard. But if we listen with empathy and fine tune our analysis to unearth the solutions to their strategic challenges, we can push clients to see the risks and reward of turning their capital project budgets into their biggest investment in ESG—their fanciest feather in their social impact and carbon cutting caps.

How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
When I started out as a mechanical engineering intern at Buro Happold in Los Angeles, sustainability was mostly relegated to the world of EUI for MEP engineers and LEED checklists for everyone else. Then, structural engineering and architectural design embraced embodied carbon. And now contractors are getting more and more involved in the realm of circular economy and decarbonization of construction. Carbon has been the driving force, but social impact across upstream and downstream stakeholders is going to be the next driver of holistic sustainability. It is not enough to look at just the impacts on building occupants or a building site—sustainability must include the entire supply-chain life span from extraction to end of life.

What role do architects and designers play in ensuring a sustainable future?
At Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health [where I am a fellow], one thing stands out in almost all of my classes, whether epidemiology, social determinants of health, toxicology, food systems, you name it: The built environment is a realm that all my professors and fellow students see as having the potential for the greatest positive change. Doctors, professors, nurses, social workers, nonprofit executive directors, hospital CEOs—they all believe in the transformational power of the built environment. But we haven’t upheld our end of the bargain. We must totally reimagine our roles as public health professionals and caretakers of our culture and work alongside those fighting to heal our nation’s many chronic illnesses. We must play a role much bigger than architecture, engineering, or even design. We must play the role of activists, advocates, and healers because that is what we need to be.

What’s your firm’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sustainability projects?
I have been thinking a lot about the Barbie movie lately, especially that quote in the beginning: “I have no difficulty holding logic and feeling at the same time, and it does not diminish my powers. It expands them.” I think that speaks to the work we do. Every stakeholder, including myself, has strong feelings about sustainability—even if they are negative feelings! How do we leverage that passion across multiple decision makers, while maintaining the steady hand of design to wield the sharp knife of logical engineering and technical delivery to dissect the problem? Getting that balance right takes trust, and building that trust can be a huge obstacle. You need the right people and the right mindset. And ego has to fall by the wayside. Not an easy feat in our industry.

In 2020, Buro Happold completed Santa Monica, Calif.’s City Hall East, a net-zero-energy, net-zero-water, and all-electric building.  The design process helped “set the intellectual groundwork for thinking about building health as not just an occupant issue, but a construction worker issue, a fenceline community issue, a firefighter issue,” Kathleen Hetrick says.
Undine Pröhl Photography In 2020, Buro Happold completed Santa Monica, Calif.’s City Hall East, a net-zero-energy, net-zero-water, and all-electric building.
The design process helped “set the intellectual groundwork for thinking about building health as not just an occupant issue, but a construction worker issue, a fenceline community issue, a firefighter issue,” Kathleen Hetrick says.

What’s an innovation or design solution that you are particularly proud of?
The Living Building Challenge Ready Santa Monica City Hall Project is innovation unto itself, but I am so proud of the work we did collectively to achieve the Red List across thousands of products. It didn’t break our budget, we built it into our submittal process and everyone from subcontractors to the lighting equipment manufacturers bought into the vision. This process set the intellectual groundwork for thinking about building health not just as an occupant issue, but a construction worker issue, a fenceline community issue, a firefighter issue. Its an innovation that has led to many conferences and speaker panels, including those that bring community activists voices to the forefront of the issue. And now even seasoned journalists are starting to connect the dots between hazardous petrochemical building products, vinyl chloride exposure in train derailment in ohio, ethylene crackers in Pennsylvania, cancer alley in the gulf coast, and port pollution in LA. The innovation is a movement towards stamping out environmental racism and I am damn proud to be a tiny part of it.

What’s a project by another group or individual that you think is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design?
Design for Freedom is kicking ass and taking names. I am so grateful for their leadership in bringing forced labor considerations to our industry. They are influencing policy, creating actionable toolkits, and getting such an important message out there. And tip of the hat to all the cities creating new positions around resiliency and health, like Marta Segura in Los Angeles, David Hondula in Phoenix, Jane Gilbert in Miami, and many more.

What research are you following right now?
Anything to do with Exposomic research. The basic idea of the exposome is how do we quantify and understand the impact of all the various exposure we encounter during our life. I love it because I am a toxicology nerd wishing we had a better way of understanding how petrochemicals and halogens impact folks up and down the supply chain, but it a field I think will unlock the key to so many diseases and give designers so many new tools to improve society. I dare you to view the research projects as Mount Sinai and Johns Hopkins and not be amazed. I love the interdisciplinary nature of it.

What’s the most pressing issue in sustainability?
Right now? The inability for anyone to take responsibility. We need to come together as an industry, stop pointing fingers, and work together to design buildings that meet our planet’s carrying capacity and solve our myriad public health and societal problems. Solving the “us versus them” mentality that pits architects-against-engineers-against-contractors-against-clients needs to end. We all have a stake in achieving our carbon goals and unlocking the potential of this industry, and we all need to work together to achieve those goals.

If you had to recommend one book or text on sustainability/sustainable design, what would it be and why?
It is not necessarily about sustainable design, but Dr. Gabor Mate’s latest book, The Myth of Normal (Avery, 2022), cracks open the urgent need for shifting to trauma-informed society and an acknowledgment of the mind-body connection. I think there is so much we can do as an industry to solve the ills of addiction, disease of despair, chronic illness, and lack of community that permeates our current global culture. Every designer should read it and examine how their practice could embrace elements of his book. Even at a managerial level—how can we ensure we are building a studio culture and a company culture that uplifts rather than grinds down the folks on our team? It's also a great take on the need to dismantle capitalist consumption, which I think has some pretty strong implications for our industry….just saying.

How do we teach the next generation of designers and architects about sustainability?
Instead of diving straight into studio or punishing students with what feels like six semesters of differential equations, schools (including community colleges) should be grounding perspective designers, architects, engineers, and real estate professionals on the ethics of our industry. Not just the run-of-the-mill stuff, but really dig in to the power and privilege we embody as the shapers of the built environment. Without that grounding, without the acknowledge of the awesome power we have on the lives of thousands, maybe millions, sustainability…and our future…. will never stand a chance.

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