Why does sustainability need beauty?

Lindsay James

Rounding out our series on the intersection of beauty and sustainability, Interface vice-president of restorative enterprise Lindsay James reflects on what she learned after the Interface retreat and Living Future unConference. This is the final blog in the series.

More than ten years ago, when I was immersed in studying the business case for sustainability while pursuing my MBA, I would have been dumbfounded by the question, “Why does sustainability need beauty?” I can imagine my former self laughing and then quickly returning to a cost accounting case study.

Last March, Interface hosted a two-day workshop that brought together design and sustainability leaders from 20 architecture firms to explore how to “bridge the divide in the design world between beauty and sustainability.”  Between that event and the Living Future conference, which was themed “Beauty and Inspiration,” I had the opportunity to develop a better response than stumped confusion to the intersection of beauty and my chosen career of sustainability.

So what did I learn? I’ve learned that beauty isn’t something you observe as much as it’s something you experience. It’s multi-sensorial, yes, but even more than that, beauty is elegance at a systems level. I found implications of this lesson in terms of engagement as well as systems design.

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During the Interface retreat, architects and designers delved into the seeming divide between beautiful design and sustainable design and considered why these aren’t currently one and the same. Taking this further, I wonder: Should the sustainability movement be promoting images of distraught polar bears stranded on melting ice?  These images may be engaging, but they engage our sense of pity, not wonder. The CFL bulb became the dubious icon of our movement, but the bulb itself, and the light it produces, can hardly be called beautiful.  So why does sustainability need beauty?  Because doom and gloom images are not winning over the hearts of others. Despair is ugly; hope is beautiful. We need to leverage deep beauty to transform our movement from being based in the intellectual to being rooted in the visceral. Deep beauty can help us do that, engaging more of the skeptical public than a singular focus on scientific reason. Think of the graceful lines of a Tesla, sparking a love affair from our gut first, and our brain second.

When I heard Jason McLennan proclaim: “Beauty is our secret weapon, because what we want to change is ugly,” I nearly jumped up and shouted “YES!” from my seat at the Living Future conference. Here is a compelling battle cry that allows us to visualize not only the theoretical talk of ugly externalities (like impoverished children picking through piles of e-waste) but also the beauty embedded in the promise of solving these unintended consequences of our industrial system (imagine those same children with access to education, food, and water).

What will the world look like when we can design solutions where the consequences of our systems – intended or unintended – are beneficial? Imagine the beauty of a future where our industrial systems contribute to healthy lives on this planet, providing income as well as healthy air, soil, and water.

I don’t think anyone believes this level of systems re-design will be easy, but to paraphrase Ray Anderson, “we have to start somewhere (anywhere), and if not us, then who?” Our Net-Works partnership provides a tantalizing glimpse of what these beneficial system consequences could be: replacing virgin petroleum-based raw materials (negative externalities aplenty) with used fishing nets harvested by Filipino villagers (inclusive business generating positive social, environmental, and economic benefits).

Perhaps R. Buckminster Fuller, the father of systems thinking in design, saw past the false dichotomy when he said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” I now see that the emergence of deep beauty in our business models is not laughably insignificant, but in fact offers confirmation that we are heading in the right direction – and doing so in a way that will inspire others to join us.

Read Lindsay’s full blog (and others from the “Radical Industrialist” column) on GreenBiz.com

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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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The Intersection of Beauty and Sustainability: Twitter Chat Recap

To kick off our latest blog series on the intersection of beauty and sustainability, design and sustainability gurus Lance Hosey of RTKL Associates and Julie Hiromoto of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill joined our own Vicki deVuono, VP of Creative, and Lindsay James, VP of Restorative Enterprise, in a live Twitter chat. What unfolded was a thought provoking discussion in bite-sized nuggets – 140 characters or less, of course.

@Julie_Hiromoto began the chat by addressing the balance of sustainability and beauty. She tweeted:

  • Design excellence has always been a part of our practice, our ethos.
  • As a Designer you must always remain true to aesthetics.
  • We work to integrate green building performance criteria within the design intent. Sometimes this is a challenge.

The conversation later evolved to address the core concept of Interface’s Human Nature collection – the belief that where we create inspires what we create. @LanceHosey chimed in to answer the question: Should designers focus on the mental, emotional and physiological impact end users experience vs. their own style?

  • Designers often design exclusively for vision, not for the other senses.
  • Architects aren’t trained in visual literacy. Courses such color theory aren’t required in most design schools.
  • We think of great design as art, not science or something that results from diligent study.
  • The more we learn about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, the better design can become.

The chat concluded with a discussion on biophilic design. Lance cited examples of historical buildings that employed biophilic principles, and Julie closed the discussion with the following question regarding implementation of green building practices:

  • How can we encourage our industry to continue striving towards these goals by positively encouraging all progress?

Find the entire chat, including all questions and responses, by searching #IFinHumanNature and scrolling to the tweets posted on July 10.

Lance and Julie, along with other sustainability leaders, will continue this discussion over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more!

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Trend Spotting with Gretchen Wagner

Gretchen Wagner

This year has been filled with unexpected jet setting adventures to review design shows and I’m finally hitting my stride in knowing what to look for while on the prowl. The fundamental part of trend spotting is understanding why certain materials and concepts are being explored by more than one company at the same time. Isolated design may be unique and thrilling but it lacks context, and context is all the rage. These similarities give light to overarching themes in product design that reflect the needs and attitudes of the consumer. I like to walk into showrooms expecting the unexpected, and when I find it, I know in an instant that this is what is most special. Here are some of the trends that I found to be most special at ICFF and NeoCon this year.

Poppy, Mandarin, Sundried Tomato. Whatever you want to call it, it’s on the border of red and orange and this color has been all over the fashion industry this year. Everyone is catching onto this gorgeous hue that seems to compliment everything from matte finished woods to lustrous copper and back again. I’ve included a few of my favorite examples of this fluorescent color in action from this season.

Flat materials being converted into three dimensional form through different types of manipulations, including cutting, pleating and folding. Beautiful flat cutouts have been popular with new advances in precise laser cutting and etching, but the evolution to three dimensional objects is deriving from 3-D printers. Creative solutions for making three dimensional forms from two dimensional raw materials are exploding into a world of their own through decorative yet functional objects.

Many companies are being inspired by the Americana and Folk resurgence amongst local artisans and makers. Uniquely niche products are becoming main players as companies such as Maharam and Anthropologie bring these hand crafted goods to market while still retaining a boutique-like experience. Artists are also working alongside larger brands to create collaborative product launches, such as Bernhardt’s recent project where they applied beautifully hand rendered patterns to their jacquard technology.

Texture is everything, and throughout showrooms there was a return to sensory based elements. Including our own Interface experiential space, companies incorporated different textures that invited guests and customers to feel their way through the environment. Stemming from our constant experience within our virtual world, we were asked to awaken the mind through the sensory experience of touch. A beautiful reminder to look up from our screens and live in the reality that is all around us.

Both ICFF and NeoCon were excellent design shows to attend for spotting the new and upcoming trends in May and June. See you next year!

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New Direction. Fresh Start.

Jean Nayar

A new corporate headquarters facility serves as the foundation for a culture change that has driven Biogen into a new era of growth

When George Scangos took over as CEO of the biotech giant Biogen in 2010, he brought with him a bold new vision that laid the foundation for a new phase of explosive growth. “Coming into the company, he hoped not only to launch three to four new products over the next three years, but also to change and improve the culture of the company,” says Ed Dondero, director of real estate and planning for Biogen. “Among the steps he took to move the company into a dynamic time was to change the way our people work to reflect what he estimated us to become—a rapid-growth company.”

Unfortunately, the design of Biogen’s headquarters building in Weston, Massachusetts, contrasted with Scangos’ vision of how the company’s employees should most effectively work. So he undertook an effort to locate a new site and design a whole new headquarters facility that would take the company into a new era. And the new 507,000 square-foot, multi-structure headquarters and R&D facilities completed last fall have been instrumental in driving the culture change that is taking Biogen to a higher level of productivity and growth. “His idea for changing the culture turned out to be spot on,” says Dondero.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

Designed by the Boston office of the global firm NELSON, the new headquarters facility promises to provide Biogen the flexibility it needs to readily adapt and change as it continues to evolve. It also facilitates the collaborative, top-down/bottom-up approach to working that Scangos envisioned. Yet, its success, says the facility’s lead designer, Micheal Bourque, can ultimately be attributed to the interactive approach through which it was developed. “Ed Dondero initiated a pilot project to test some of our concepts, and we learned that we got a lot wrong,” says Bourque. “It wasn’t an inclusive process for the employees, and it turned out that the layout and major circulation ideas didn’t work for them and that going completely to a desking system was too radical for the Biogen culture.” So they teamed with ARC, a change management division of Steelcase, and undertook in-depth interviews through all levels of the company along with an employee town hall session that enabled employees to participate in the development of the design. “The process became educational for the employees and with the feedback we received on concepts developed through the interactive design process, we were able to move forward full steam ahead,” says Bourque.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

Ultimately, the new headquarters spaces are divvied up between two new facilities—a 200,000 square-foot research and development facility and a 307,000 square-foot office space for general administrative functions, such as human resources, legal, finance, and IT. These are situated in an urban campus context in downtown Cambridge and adjoin two historic buildings that are also part of the headquarters complex and house a community lab and training center. The end results for the new buildings are open-plan office spaces with plenty of natural light for everyone, including the CEO. “We thought we might have 20 percent enclosed space, but instead we wound up with completely open work areas with gestures of boundaries,” says Bourque.

The workspaces are defined with a desking system that was customized for a measure of privacy with 42” high panels. “A modified, more open panel system was definitely preferred,” says Bourque. As a trade-off for so much open space, the designers developed plentiful huddle rooms, a collection of enclosed spaces with as many seats as there are desk seats. “These are unscheduled two- to six-person nooks or team rooms that people can duck into for impromptu meetings,” says Bourque. Each building also contains different shared elements, such as a cafeteria, daycare space, and fitness center, which draw employees housed in one facility to the other and keep people interacting.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

In higher density open spaces, incorporating elements that can absorb sound are critical to maintaining a viable acoustic environment for working. Among the elements that support proper acoustics are a white noise system, fabric-covered panels, and carpet. The choice of carpet tiles from Interface was also critical in physically defining work zones and enabling the space to be adaptable. “Because the space needed to be flexible, we opted to install a 4” raised floor with electrical and data systems running beneath it,” says Bourque. “This allows changes to be made overnight and steered us toward selecting the carpet tile, which is equally flexible, as flooring.”

Even the color scheme of bright blues, greens, and reds, which is evident on walls and many of the carpet tiles, reflects a new kind of energy that now brims throughout the office spaces. The variegated carpet tiles also enabled the designers to flexibly define ever-changing work areas with minimal expense and fuss. “In addition to the huddle rooms, we created what we call ‘cloud areas’ that are easy-to-assemble and easy-to-move 10’x20’ or 20’x20’ enclosed rooms. A concentration of carpet tile in a single color gives employees a cue as to where these spaces are located,” says Bourque. “The fact that the carpets are sustainably manufactured is a bonus,” adds Dondero.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

So what is the upshot of the inclusive design process in the new headquarters of the second largest biotech company in the world? One measure of its success, says Bourque, is that decisions are being more efficiently made in an unscheduled manner, which was reported to the design team in an informal post-occupancy survey and corroborated by the fewer documented bookings of the large conference rooms. Another is the positive reception of the space by employees, says Dondero. “At the start of the process we ran a survey and found that only 10 percent of the employees were in favor of a more open-plan concept,” he says, “after 90 days of occupation, 92 percent were either neutral or favorable toward the new space.”

With such a dramatic culture change, it may come as little surprise that the company is now also experiencing the unprecedented growth its new CEO envisioned.

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