Seonhee Kim, AIA
courtesy Seonhee Kim, AIA

For ARCHITECT's September issue, we talked with Baltimore-based architect Seonhee Kim, AIA, about sustainable design. Here, Kim—a principal and the director of sustainability at Design Collective—shares her insight.

What does your role entail?
More and more, I feel like being a director of sustainability is something like a jack-of-all-trades. Mainly, my role involves three aspects: First and foremost, I oversee the integrative design process and building performance analysis for all projects, making sure projects establish sustainability goals and specific performance targets. Second, knowledge management is an important part of my role. I make sure we maintain sustainability literacy and keep up with the ever-changing field of sustainable design and compliance requirements. Lastly, I make sure our business operation and practice has established sustainability goals. May be a master of none but better than a master of one, for sure.

How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
To me, the definition of sustainability and the role of sustainability professionals change constantly to be more inclusive and systematic. It goes hand in hand with better understanding humanity’s impact on the planet, applying long-term and life cycle assessments to the decision, and figuring out the most urgent and timely actions needed.

Early in my career, sustainability meant green building or a project pursuing LEED certification. With Architecture 2030 and the AIA 2030 Commitment, our focus started shifting from a checklist or an a la carte approach to prioritizing measurable performance, especially energy efficiency. Around that time, we addressed a building performance interchangeable to sustainability. Around the time of COP21 and becoming AIA 2030 Commitment signatory, we made an intentional shift to look at sustainability more holistically and recognized that we can’t achieve sustainability goals without addressing environmental justice and social justice at the same time.

The Pearl in Silver Spring, Md.
Morgan Howarth (left); Tom Holdsworth (right) The Pearl in Silver Spring, Md.

What role do architects and designers play in ensuring a sustainable future?
I go back to the phrase, “What surrounds us shapes us,” and think about our role as architects and designers. We shape what surrounds 8 billion people around the world, and that is a huge responsibility. I think we, architects and designers, are well aware of our responsibilities in creating environments that are long-lasting, energy efficient, and not harmful to human health, and that have less or no adverse impact on the environment. But I’m thinking we should focus on how we might change human behaviors and cultivate experiential stewardship toward nature and each other through our design. We all wish there was an easy button [to push] or technological solutions that would clean up all the postindustrial-era messes, but I still think the key is changes in human behavior, whether we willingly change it or are forced to adapt.

What’s your firm’s approach to sustainability?
We believe sustainability is essential to all our projects and every project has a unique opportunity to improve human conditions and the environment. We strive to improve our process to be integrative in pulling expertise and aligning goals within which sustainability becomes integral. We believe diversity and inclusion add value to our design and support the outcome of creating an equitably built environment.

What’s your firm’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sustainability projects?
Schedule and budget remain the largest obstacles that are often out of our control. Not every obstacle is external. Applying the integrative design process to all projects is still a work in progress, internally. Some [projects] are more successful than others and we continue working on perfecting the craft, so it can be applied more universally.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Alain Jaramillo The National Aquarium in Baltimore.

What’s an innovation or design solution that you are particularly proud of?
This is not an innovation or a design solution, but we have adapted AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence as our sustainable design assessment and goal-setting tool and utilize it for all our projects. Along the way, we internally developed a Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion Framework for projects. So far, it’s been successful putting both frameworks at the forefront of process and integrating solutions that are embedded with sustainability and JEDI goals and principles.

What’s a project by another group or individual that you think is pushing the boundaries of sustainable design?
There are so many professionals pushing the boundaries and delivering inspirational projects, however I’d like to give a shoutout to various collaboration efforts within our industry, such as Mindful Materials and the Common Materials Framework, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and many others who create collaborative environments to pull the resources together and harness group genius.

What research are you following right now?
I’ve been following developments in the circular economy, biomimicry, networked geothermal, energy storage, and nuclear fusion, just to name a few. I’m interested in anything related to low- and zero-emission energy transition, including energy storage. Nuclear fusion technology is my personal pipe dream. I studied physics before I became an architect because I wanted to replicate the stars on earth.

The Metropolitan Promenade in Columbia, Md.
Jennifer Hughes The Metropolitan Promenade in Columbia, Md.

What’s the most pressing issue in sustainability right now?
Reducing carbon emissions and ensuring equity. Because of the time value of carbon, reducing carbon emissions right now and in the short-term future will have a huge impact. Therefore, evaluating the embodied-carbon impact of design and finding alternative solutions is as important as ensuring energy efficiency, if not more. When we are working toward solutions for climate change, equity must be embedded. As noted in IPCC’s “AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023” publication, “Fairness is one of the solutions” in combating climate change and reducing suffering.

If you had to recommend one book or text on sustainability or sustainable design, what would it be and why?
One book?! That’s tough. But, if I must go with one, I’d recommend Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation by Paul Hawken. Just like his 2017 book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Regeneration is full of solutions, readily available and effective in making real change.

I have three additional recommendations: Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth, Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

How do we teach the next generation of designers and architects about sustainability?
From a content standpoint, I think we can use a younger generation with building science knowledge and more cross-pollination between majors and classes—not only within disciplines, such as landscape architecture, urban design, and interior design, but also including physical and social sciences, such as physics, chemistry, psychology, economics, etc..

I would like people to think about what is at stake and how much impact we can have as professionals shaping the built environment. I would like the next generation to be confident and yet humble to know our place within the ecosystem.

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