Mind the Gap

Julie Hiromoto

Continuing our series on the intersection of beauty and sustainability, Julie Hiromoto of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill reflects on her retreat with Interface and fellow architects when these thought leaders discussed how to close the gap between sustainable design and beautiful design. This is the second blog in the series.

In March, Interface, working with Nadav Malin of BuildingGreen, invited a group of architects from small and large practices across the U.S. to warm and sunny San Diego. Our task was to explore the question of why green buildings are not usually considered beautiful, and conversely, why the sexiest buildings are often not very sustainable. What is good green design and why isn’t there more of it? Unlike a typical conference center, our meeting room was enclosed on two sides with floor to ceiling windows facing the water, with a covered boardwalk as breakout space. While we talked, the sky changed colors, and the sun beckoned us outside after a long and relentless winter. Our hotel was located on a private, man-made island, landscaped to resemble a lush Southeast Asian paradise. Despite the irony of it all, or perhaps because of it, the discussions were lively, and we powered through the two and a half days. What an appropriate location to tease out our collective thoughts on this complex topic, as we earnestly worked together to close the gap.

As designers, we craft a vision for the environments in which we live, work, and play. Good design is mindful of the sensory experience in and around these spaces, whether visual, aural, or tactile; old or new; high tech or natural. The decisions we make range from broad sweeping concepts to minute details. We specify products that are included in systems that, in turn, complement other systems. They serve a particular use and group of people in a particular environment. Our intentions are constrained by time, cost, codes and other feasibility questions. On each project, these choices are based on our own values, those of the client, and the communities the project will serve. Our success depends on aligning the project goals with these values.

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Green must be a part of good design. As architects, we have a responsibility for the health and well-being of building occupants, the community and the environment. Greater energy and water efficiency requirements are making their way into building codes and design criteria. Owners are gaining awareness of financial incentives and savings. Health concerns are gaining traction as architects advocate for product transparency through grass roots initiatives like the Health Product Declaration or more established advocacy and education through the AIA’s Design & Health Leadership Group. But along the way, in our scientific pursuit to validate high performance design strategies, did we lose sight of beauty? Are we mired in the myriad charts, graphs, facts and figures used to justify and validate our ideas? Will we have better results realizing our sustainable strategies if instead we promote beautifully integrated solutions with narrative?

How do you define beauty? Countless philosophical and scientific treaties have been written on this topic, but design sensibility is difficult to validate. Beauty, pleasure, and inspiration are subjective; to one person a space may be ideal, to others it may fall short, but aesthetics cannot be cast aside as a frivolous amenity. This is the soul and life-blood of our work. The delight and experience of a space causes us to linger or smile. A unique sense of place makes a building special and memorable. These feelings motivate us to maintain and restore our homes, workplaces, community centers, schools and cultural spaces. The longevity of our architecture is the real lasting sustainable impact of the watts/square foot and liters/day savings. Even if technical advances help us achieve better performance metrics, demonstrated improvements in the buildings we construct and cherish today will build a foundation for further advancement in the next projects. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it’s still there!

Editor’s note: This blog was originally written before the Living Future unConference in May when the definition of design values continued with an interactive discussion between Julie, Joann Gonchar (Architectural Record), Nadav Malin (BuildingGreen), and Susan S. Szenasy (Metropolis) on the topic of Connecting the Dots: Beauty, Sustainability, and the Occupant Experience. It was held for publishing to be included with our blog series on the intersection of beauty and sustainability.

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