• The James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, serves as a living laboratory for high-performance building techniques.

    Credit: Kate Joyce

    The James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, serves as a living laboratory for high-performance building techniques.

Location: Chicago
Principals: Carol Ross Barney, Design Principal; Michael Ross, Principal-in-Charge
Date Founded: 1981
Company Size: 26 employees
Little-known fact: In 2001, we lost a university commission when the client representative objected to our conceptual design because we included glazing in the classrooms for daylighting and views.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from the award-winning James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building project?
The most important thing we learned was the importance of water consumption and management as a sustainable issue that is growing with the world's population and the built environment. In the Midwest, we may not fully appreciate the severity of the challenge with access to the Great Lakes with 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water, but access to water for human consumption and agriculture is very real problem in many parts of the world including the west, south, and southwest United States. In addition, the built environment has greatly reduced the amount of permeable surfaces to absorb and filter rainwater in urban and suburban areas increasing pollution from run-off and causing flooding during major storm events. Stormwater management is one of the foremost issues with counties and municipalities across the country impacting the planning and design of new projects. One goal of the Civil Engineering building was to highlight stormwater issues.

What insights from this and other sustainable projects would you share with other professionals?
Sustainable design should not be treated as an “add-on” to the architectural and engineering design of facilities. “Green” goals and objectives should be fully integrated into the planning and decision making of new projects starting with programming and schematic design. In practice, conducting separate design and sustainable workshops is not the most effective way to accomplish holistic design goals.

What is your firm's philosophy on sustainable design?
Ross Barney Architects is committed to providing designs that are responsive to the environment. and respectful of our surroundings. While we have designed a number of LEED-certified projects, we integrate sustainable features into all our projects. Our approach to sustainability involves working as a team with our consultants, clients, stakeholders, and, in some cases, contractors. Our long-term goals include supporting and advancing carbon neutrality within the built environment. We have found that with intelligent planning, an extensive knowledge base, and a creative and inquisitive approach, sustainable construction is achievable even within a constrained budget.

What kinds of sustainable solutions are non-negotiable for your firm? What are the baseline standards your firm aims to meet with every project?
Ross Barney Architects starts with addressing passive sustainable strategies such as building orientation and envelope design before considering more innovative or technological solutions. For example, maximizing daylighting and views is a consistent objective for our firm because of its significant impact on energy consumption and the indoor environment. Artificial lighting accounts for 40 percent of energy use in most building types and access to view and natural light improve both learning and workplace productivity. Building orientation, as well as the depth of the interior spaces are major factors in achieving this objective. We use the LEED rating system as a tool to guide our decision making even with projects not working towards certification.

How do you think these types of innovative green solutions might become standard?
Green solutions are becoming more standard with the general public’s increasing appreciation and understanding that sustainable construction saves money by reducing energy, water and material consumption. The most effective strategies are passive building practices used for centuries prior to the industrial revolution, but temporarily abandoned with the large scale use of air conditioning and mechanical ventilation.