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Fighting for the Driver’s Seat

Architects are in a position to lead the conversation on sustainability, building materials, and public health. Before it can be a design challenge, however, it must first be a consumer issue.

By Kim A. O’Connell for AIARCHITECT

As Mad Men’s Don Draper once noted, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Now, perhaps more than at any time in the history of the profession, architects are engaged in high-level research and discussions about sustainability, resilience, and public health—things that have far-reaching and long-lasting ramifications for our species and our world.

If that sounds hyperbolic, think again: For those who have worked to rebuild in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the threats are very real. Architects now have an unprecedented opportunity to change the consumer conversation about design and building in profound ways.

Over the past couple of years, the AIA has been engaged in this work through the development of four action plans on sustainability and resilience, energy, design and health, and materials, all of which came out of a report, “Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan,” developed by Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a resident fellow at the AIA. “What we’re trying to do is create initiatives to promote architects’ awareness of these issues,” says Melissa Wackerle, the AIA’s director of sustainable practice and knowledge. “The public at large is part of that audience. Right now, there’s a gap in understanding of how big an influence architects can be.”

So how can architects leverage their unique position to bridge this gap? In addition to promoting advocacy and increased information sharing, these action plans include steps to inject more transparency into design, construction, and material specification, including such proposals as a requirement that each AIA honor award submission include predicted energy- and water-performance metrics.

The logical next step, when it comes to increased community engagement, is to better communicate this kind of information to users, which can be accomplished in myriad ways.

At Emory University, multiple residence halls designed by Ayers Saint Gross include building dashboards on large computer screens where students can see in real time exactly how much energy they’re using. “Our actions speak louder than our words,” says Anne Hicks Harney, AIA, the firm’s director of sustainability. “These buildings exist in the public realm, and that’s how we can truly communicate with the public.”

Still, words can speak loudly as well. Examples are rife in the consumer-product world of how media campaigns, marketing, and word of mouth have changed the things we buy, eat, and use every day, from the trademarked “Just Do It” to the more generic “gluten-free.” Food author Michael Pollan, for example, has written several books about how what we eat affects both people and the planet. Pollan famously summed up his message this way: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While Pollan’s statement might not pack the PR punch of, say, “Got Milk?” or “The Breakfast of Champions,” it manages to distill some complicated ideas about sustainability and society into language that is (no pun intended) easily consumed. This is a challenge that architects have yet to fully meet.

Harney’s firm is part of a working group of large firms pushing for greater transparency from product manufacturers regarding chemicals and other potentially harmful substances in the materials that architects specify. Inspired by Pollan’s Food Rules, Harney offers up a slogan that she hopes will catch on with consumers, or at least inspire others to keep working in this direction: “If you don’t know what’s in the product, don’t put the product in your home.” The AIA has also topped its Web page on materials with a snappy headline—"Materials Matter"—and a video that asks the important question, “What if we could do more?"

“We need to ask our manufacturers what’s in their products—and if they don’t tell us, we don’t buy it,” Harney says. When trans fats became a public health concern, she says, “It took all of three months for trans fats to disappear from grocery shelves, just from the new requirement that this info was included on the nutrition label. We need a simple set of product rules to help us make better day-to-day decisions. We need nutrition labels on all our products-not just our food products, but our clothing and our building materials.”

So far, Harney says, manufacturers are starting to respond to the working group and offer more Health Products Declarations (HPDs) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Both kinds of declarations quantify the environmental impacts of building materials. (EPDs are now being collected in the EPD Registry [], a new database published by Eco Health Data and a resource for green-building professionals.)

But the issues around materials and products are complicated, and sometimes the cure is just as bad as the disease. Take the chemical bisphenol-A, better known as BPA, which was removed from items such as baby bottles and other containers after consumer advocacy groups identified the potential health and environmental risks associated with it.

Now many products declare themselves “BPA-free.” The problem is that manufacturers replaced BPA in those bottles with the similar chemical bisphenol-S, or BPS, which researchers now claim also has biological risks to the heart and brain. Yet there are, at this time at least, no “BPS-free” labels on products.

If consumers are in the dark about what’s in bottles and containers, then they are in pitch darkness when it comes to what’s in most building products and materials. This is a major area where architects can continue to drive consumer awareness and decision-making. “We’re not trying to make architects into material scientists,” says the AIA’s Wackerle, “but they can identify a document associated with a product to help determine its environmental safety.”

Russell Perry, FAIA, director of SmithGroupJJR’s Washington, D.C., office and a co-leader of the firm’s sustainability efforts (who sits on the AIA’s Materials Knowledge Working Group), also finds correlations between the consumer product industry and what architects are advocating regarding materials. He admits that while he spends a significant amount of time on advocacy, he says it is “100 percent focused on the industry and not on the public.” That can and should change, Perry says.

“Now you have websites exposing the underlying chemistry of toothpaste,” Perry says. “You have Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson taking public positions [on environmentally hazardous chemicals] and getting phthalates out of hairspray. The parallel of that is what we’re doing with manufacturers, but the public has no idea about it.” Perry insists, however, that the first audience for this must be the architectural profession as a whole, then clients and the general public. “If we had every architect say, ‘I’m not specifying your carpet until you tell me what’s in it,’ then every carpet manufacturer would do it,” he says.

But no matter what words are used, the old “save the planet” ethos doesn’t necessarily work anymore. Even the words “green” and “sustainable” are overused and may have lost their meaning, according to some architects. Rather, the message is more effective if we couch it as saving ourselves, our cities, and our wallets.

“It’s about tuning into people’s own value set,” says the AIA’s Lazarus, whose research drove the development of the Institute’s action plans. “With energy, for example, you’re talking about savings and investment. With daylighting or putting a natural landscape outside an office building, it’s about making it a better place to work so your employees are more productive and want to come to work every day.”

Human systems are much more vulnerable than the ecological systems on the planet, she adds. “We as a species are going to be most affected by what we’re doing,” she says. “In the long term, the Earth will be fine. So we’re focusing on the benefits of sustainability to us, our species. It’s just common sense. We have a responsibility to do so.”

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT April 2015.

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