Though starchitecture has its negative connotations, the term signals that a designer has made it big enough to be recognized by the general population. As the attendees at the Living Future UnConference 2014 noted, the design community has an opportunity to strengthen starchitecture’s connection to positive contributions by elevating the dedicated, but often overlooked, experts in high-performance building design into the mainstream.

As such, the third and final day of the UnConference saw several people well known in the tight-knit community of sustainable design and construction speaking not only about their initiatives and experiences, but also how to take the message of environmental stewardship effectively and apolitically beyond the conference’s walls.

David Trubridge, a New Zealand designer and artist renowned for innovative product design, such as the Coral pendant luminaire, began the day by discussing how technology can become a wedge between art and the artist. Boat hulls, for example, once were designed to minimize drag through water. The flat-faced bow of today’s massive barges is counterintuitive to sensible design, he said, “because we have the fuel to punch through the water. We no longer have craftsmen but engineers” who can finagle success from inefficiency with cheap fossil fuels.

Author Jay Harman delivered the day’s plenary with a talk on biomimicry that thankfully went beyond the occurrence of fractals in nature to cover ways to commodify biomimicry and gain buy-in from businesses. If we can show corporations can take a page from nature, which has achieved ecosystems with no waste or energy shortage, and help them eliminate liability and save costs through more thoughtful manufacturing and materials, they will be more amenable to innovating.

For example, he and his company, PAX Scientific, took note of the nonlinearity and turbulence that exists in nature in everything from sharkskin to veins and whirlpools, and invented the Lily impeller, a compact device to introduce turbulent flow in water treatment plants. The metal device can be retrofit into existing plants, reduce energy usage by more than 80 percent, and has been effective in the 1,000-plus plants in which it has been installed.

Courtesy PAX Scientific

Harman acknowledged that getting the attention of an industry reticent to change is a universal challenge. But, he says, “the paradigm is shifting. The walls are starting to crack.” He had been working on projects within PAX, which comprises a host of companies, for 15 years before he finally began gaining traction in the last year. “Biomimicry is rushing to meet us [and the] folks in the building space,” he says.

The challenge of delivering the message to an audience not ready to listen was central to the conference’s traditional closing circle. After two days of information-dense seminars and workshops, the hundreds of attendees still eager to commiserate with their colleagues, friends, and peers gathered in a large circle late on Friday evening, May 23, to answer open-ended questions such as “How do you define beauty?”

Wanda Lau

Richard Graves, executive director of the International Living Future Institute, addressed the reality on everyone’s minds: the audience beyond the conference walls would be less responsive to sustainable design strategies and principles discussed at the conference. “When we go home, it may feel like no one’s listening to us,” he says. But by collectively taking action and sharing ideas and lessons, the community can take risks, make mistakes, and learn from each other. He quoted from a church sign shown in ILFI’s Trim Tab blog: “The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf.”

The next Living Future Unconference will take place in Seattle from April 1 to April 3, with the theme “Place and Community.”

Read the May 21 and May 22 postcards from the Living Future UnConference 2014.