As a child, Allison Ewing developed an early interest in architecture, but a friend of the family was discouraging. “At the time, I didn’t understand, but the implication was ‘You’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ And I believed him,” says Ewing, with more humor than resentment. Putting aside architecture, Ewing eventually obtained a degree in psychology, which may have added another dimension in the circuitous route that led to her successful and innovative architectural career.

She blames it on Paris. During an extended study tour in the French capital, the rich architectural environment rekindled Ewing’s desire to design, and she made the decision to return to the United States and study at the Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. “The program focus changed from interior design to environmental design somewhere on my flight between Paris and New York,” she recalls. “The architectural focus turned out to be perfect for me. I finally realized I could do this, and perhaps do it well.”

She eventually did her graduate work in architecture at Yale University, and once more traveled abroad, winning a Monbusho Scholarship to study Japanese architecture. She later worked in Genoa for Renzo Piano, and eventually returned to the U.S. where she and her husband became partners at William McDonough and Partners in Charlottesville, Va. In 2006, Ewing joined her husband to form Hays + Ewing Design Studio, a practice focused on merging contemporary design with a core belief in the importance of environmental responsibility. Projects they led both in their own firm and at William McDonough + Partners have garnered two dozen prestigious architectural awards. 

I began by asking Ewing about her approach to design.
We see ourselves as having a strong focus in marrying landscape, architecture, and the environment with an interest in a fresh and integrative approach. While we are naturally drawn to a modern aesthetic, we honor the climate-specific solutions of traditional models. We remain process-oriented rather than approaching projects with a preconception of what a building will look like. I believe that the true potential of sustainability is to create a new architectural language where an aesthetic evolves from the pragmatic.

So function dictates form?
I don’t like clichés. The design process is much more complex, unless you’re designing a purely utilitarian object such as a chair. It’s a lot more like solving a Rubik’s cube, there are so many considerations to weigh and balance that the process involves integrating all of them while teasing out an aesthetic that celebrates the practical, performance, and ethical elements. I have to make the case for beauty because beauty inspires hope. Beauty is survival, it leads to procreation. Flowers attract bees, light attracts moths, and there are so many examples where the law of attraction—which is beauty—is at the root of sustainability.  

Can you successfully create beauty out of building science? 
Yes and no. Simply following the laundry list of LEED credits won’t produce good design. A practical philosophy alone cannot produce a livable habitat. Consider the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, where the building was demolished because it had no soul. It was practical, but not beautiful. I’m very interested in the potential to merge science and art to create an aesthetic language, but efficiency alone won’t yield buildings of lasting beauty.

What process do you use to blend building science with beauty?
The process always begins with research. We start by developing a response to the site, looking at hydrological, topographical, solar, and wind characteristics, and social studies as well. We ask what the key sustainability concerns are. The project is a product of those studies. The Japanese concept of Shakkei, of borrowed landscape, informed one project I led while at William McDonough’s. Located in Banff, Alberta, Canada, we created an abstract play of roofs that mimic the mountain landscape: The roofs frame the mountains and draw your attention to them. Water quality was a major concern and became the practical aspect we used to inform the building design. Just as the water from the mountains goes to Bow River, our roofs spill onto balconies and courtyards; the project represents the aesthetic of water. So, getting back to style, it’s not out of preconception, such as modern or neo-traditional architecture, that we seek to develop a new architectural language for each specific site. It’s architecture with a sense of place, but not an attempt to recreate the vernacular; rather an innovative response to the environment.

Looking through your portfolio, your projects seem to respond to social needs, as well.
We see community as one of the criteria of sustainability and as fundamental to the success of a project. This is where design separates itself from the laundry list approach. Getting LEED points for good indoor air quality and daylight are not enough to create a healthy building. This is why I believe the additive approach to design is insufficient. Absolutely the building must have daylight and access to fresh air, yet that is not enough. Promoting a vibrant community, at all scales, is fundamental to happiness, I believe.
That’s where an integrative approach is key. The Japanese concept of Ma is something that fascinates us and it is one approach to promoting community. It translates roughly as “gap,” “space,” or “pause.” It’s the space between structural parts, the pregnant void. Perhaps this goes back to my psychology degree, but I am keenly interested in how to handle the spaces that allow for human interactions, the spaces that create a transition between inside and out, public and private, intimate and social. In architecture I often find it is the void between spaces where the consciousness is excited and interaction the richest.

Buildings, too, offer opportunities for community at many levels. In the home, community happens at the family level. We never have the traditional dinning, living, and kitchen separately in our projects. We always design this space together with the kitchen at the hub of the house. And happily, community and energy efficiency go hand in hand because, by combining the family gathering spaces in an open plan, we can reduce the overall building area and only heat and cool the spaces the family inhabits. 

If you were invited to give a commencement address, what would you tell the new graduates at Yale?
Go forth and be responsible. Design is intentional and good design must be judged on both aesthetic and moral terms. Understand building science, know your climate and site, and work with these elements to develop your design aesthetic. Think of it as cooking: A master chef looking into your larder of sustainable strategies would create an amazing dish, and not just a nourishing one. Eschew the additive approach for one that is truly integrative and beautiful.

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.