Twenty-five years ago, a group of architects in Kansas City, Mo., felt a responsibility to change the way that they had been designing buildings, urban spaces, and landscapes. They believed that the decisions made by designers were not always the best for people, the environment, or a client’s pocketbook. Growing evidence had begun to reveal harmful environmental impacts of building construction and occupancy practices, and research showed increased evidence that humans were suffering similar negative impacts from their time spent inside buildings. These architects saw a growing divide between contemporary architectural practices and what their architectural licenses bound them to do.
The group realized that changing their individual practices would require changing the entire industry. Their practices were integrally linked to engineering disciplines, construction practices, material sourcing and manufacturing, building codes, zoning laws, human behavior, financing, and lease structures. They did not understand the breadth and depth of these connections, but they did recognize that the first step was convincing their fellow architects to change the ways they design.
The group traveled to the AIA 1989 Convention in St. Louis with a resolution in hand. Its decree—Critical Planet Rescue (CPR)—called for the AIA to take action by creating resources that would help architects design more responsibly and educate clients and the industry about responsible environmental actions:
RESOLVED, that as the next step in its series of actions to protect earth’s fragile environment, the AIA develop a practical resource guide for architects, consistent with the December 1988 policy, to better enable them to educate and influence their clients, the public, and elected officials to act responsibly in considering the effects of planning and design decisions on our environment.
It is not commonly understood that these architects advocated for environmentally responsible design with the intention of heightening beauty and human experience as well. Their perspective: What good is an efficient building if it doesn’t make people feel good and give delight?
In retrospect, the timing was important. From a practical standpoint, the planet was suffering. Rainforests were being depleted, affecting ecosystems across the globe. Symbolically, the 1989 AIA Gold Medal recipient was Joseph Esherick, whose design philosophy and practice resulted in buildings integrated into their settings and surrounded by nature. The next year, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, a feat of collaborative design, materials science, and design excellence, would be awarded the AIA’s Twenty-Five Year Award. These honors symbolized the future of architectural practice through innovation, collaboration, and design.
However, while the AIA voted to move forward with CPR in 1989, today’s architects should not be satisfied with the accomplishments made since then. The road continues.
The U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED rating system have made sustainable design more visible, but this only rewards the intention of doing less harm to the environment. The Living Building Challenge raises the bar by rewarding actual results rather than models, but the program remains a boutique metric. The annual AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects honor a selected group each year, but is that enough?
A divide continues to grow between practice and promise. Twenty-five years after the acceptance of CPR, there remains a need to transform the design, construction, and operations of built environments large and small.
Design excellence and sustainability are still believed by some to be mutually exclusive. The fact that we still have independent awards for design excellence and environmental excellence reinforces that belief. However, design excellence and environmental excellence are both critical to our responsibility to elevate human experience for all. It is time to recognize that you cannot have one without the other.
Leaders from across the profession are searching for ways to communicate the intertwined nature of design excellence. One simple step would be for the AIA to recognize the COTE Top Ten as Institute Honor Awards of the same stature as those for Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Regional and Urban Design. This would be meaningful, and we are in need of meaningful change.
It’s fitting that the AIA Convention is once again being held in the heartland, this time in Chicago. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago shaped architecture in the U.S. through design and innovation. Hopefully the 2014 convention will shape the future of our profession and renew our commitments to do more good for nature and the people that we serve.