Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, is the founder of the sustainable design initiative at HOK and is currently serving as a Resident Fellow for Sustainability and Design for Health for AIA. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, she will co-lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Building Design + Performance.
In the past, we’ve chatted about how biomimicry, human health, and post-occupancy evaluation (POE) will become critical components of design. Do you still see these as major drivers going forward?
To me, biomimicry continues to be a great strategy, but it’s not something that we have a lot of good examples of yet. In 10 years, we’ll be able to point back and say “See, we made progress,” but right now it’s slow going. Some of the most compelling projects are tying in resilient design. It’s about looking at nature and how it addresses change and how it stays resilient. Change is inevitable in natural systems; they don’t fight it. What can we learn from this?
The issue of POE and building performance is a central one. Architects are notorious for complaining about how the role of the profession is diminishing, but that comes from the old-fashioned idea that the role of the architect stops at the ribbon cutting. The truth is that we should be part of a team for life. There should be an emphasis on understanding both real performance and the gap between predicted and real performance.
How does the profession need to change the way it operates to do this?
We need to bring together building owners, architects, and engineers around these issues and find a way to store and share information. One issue that we’re dealing with as signatories to the AIA’s 2030 Commitment is that we use CBECS [the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey] as a baseline, which means we’re relying on government data that is nine years old. It’s a challenge.
POE also should inform pre-design and post-design. What happens in the next iteration of work? We should also be looking at existing buildings and buildings at the neighborhood scale.
Human health is at the forefront now. The need is there, and the recognition of its importance is there, but the question of what to do about it is still under discussion. We’re shifting and expanding an environmental focus to include health and to recognize that we are part of a larger system. This connects back to biomimicry.
How do you see practice changing as a result?
The mainstream practice is often influenced by individual location and market type, so issues such as resilience float to the top depending on where you are and how relevant it is to your clients and community. Human health, for instance, is taking off in New York where they’ve been working on it for years with the Bloomberg administration championing active design and where the government addressed personal health. There, recognition of the role a community plays in providing active living has really taken off. St. Louis has strong momentum, and the creation of walkable and bikeable communities is part of mainstream discussion. In [a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch edition], there is an article about attracting younger generations and bringing in an infusion of energy and innovation. How we’ll do this is via infrastructure that’s bikable, walkable, and pedestrian friendly.
Food deserts and obesity problems are front-page discussions and the role of the architect as a piece of the solution is becoming recognized everywhere. It’s definitely changing the way we practice, and architects should be looking for more opportunities to be part of the discussion. How to do that and build it into the work isn’t clear yet.
Do you think we’re approaching a tipping point in awareness?
I don’t know. I’m an optimist. For example, I went to a women’s college for my undergraduate education and then to Washington University for graduate school, where more than half of the class was women. The Equal Rights Amendment was part of my world in college and we were going to take care of the inequality, pay disparity, and women in architecture issues. I thought things like that would be gone in 10 years and yet, here it is, 30 years later. So, I’m not willing to predict a tipping point now, but I do think that when there are multiple drivers that are both societal and business-based, we’re getting somewhere.
You’re deeply involved in the sustainable design industry. In speaking with your fellow architects and designers, what do you think are the most pressing concerns or challenges facing architects and builders in the near future?
I think architects need to address the fact that they alone don’t have the answers and they aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the issues that are blooming. It’s very much a team-based solution and that isn’t necessarily the way the world of architecture has worked. We have schools that produce people who only want to be designers. The Howard Roark idea still exists, but there is a whole new set of skills that I wish I had learned in school that are required to be effective as a design professional.
One challenge that architects have to face is that there are new partnerships they need to make in order to be really effective. For example: building science. That needs to be addressed in architecture programs. Everyone should understand the fundamentals of building science: how thermal dynamics work, the fundamentals of integrated systems, the envelope and how to use passive solutions. It’s not something you pick up off the street, and those issues are huge. Integrated modeling is particularly important. We can’t be relying on outside, third-party engineers; it has to be integrated into concept design,and it needs to be part of the scope of the design professionals.
Commissioning is another opportunity for architects to be part of the team and to understand how a building operates after design is complete. The role of the occupant has a huge effect on long-term performance. What makes these people productive and happy? (This is another area where we’re not necessarily prepared.) We need to recognize that there are things we don’t know how to do and promote them within our universities. We, as architects, need to perform different functions than we have in the past. This change in process is key to the 2030 commitment. We’ve been talking about it for years, and it's hard.
In working with builders, performance-based contracting is coming, and architects need to join in, not fight it. We should all work together to find ways where design isn’t lost; where great design performs well.
That seems to be a struggle we can’t overcome: The false impression that high performance and great design aren’t one in the same.
Yes. It’s still out there. So the more that we do to mitigate that concern and show great stuff, the better. The rift between quality, cost, and time needs to go away.
The other challenge ahead is recognizing that we should be focusing on existing infrastructure and buildings, and less on new, shiny objects. To really be of service, that’s where the need is.
You’ve done work on net-zero buildings, such as HOK’s Net Zero Court. Is this the future of design? What about regenerative buildings?
The interesting thing about net-zero is that I feel it has, all of sudden, stopped being a crazy idea. It’s dependent on space, building type, and location, but we’re starting to see net-zero happen in unlikely places like Minneapolis. There are enough demonstration projects that reinforce the same story of the power of integrated design, putting passive design first, and reducing loads. We have more understanding of how to do it effectively in terms of process and cost.
When we did Net Zero Court in 2010, we did it because no one else had done it. We came up with a client. But now we’re seeing others demonstrate that it can happen elsewhere, not just in Ecotopia. It has legs.
Regenerative buildings are a level beyond net zero. The Living Building Challenge is trying to define what regenerative buildings can look like and kudos to the Miller Hull Partnership for introducing the Bullitt Center to talk about the reality of it. But it is a harder concept.
What else is in our near-term future?
The question of materials is interesting. It was front and center at Greenbuild, and there’s a lot of information that is going to be flowing. We need to figure out what to do with it. We’re at this funny point in time where it is a pressing concern for some people, but there’s also the recognition that many people don’t know this is an issue.
For a lot of people, sustainable material means recycled and rapidly renewable content. That’s what they know how to do and manufacturers have done a good job making it clear. Is that going away? I don’t think so. It still matters, but just in a different way. I think we’re in a transition zone that most people don’t even know we’re entering and it’s going to be interesting to see where that goes.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.