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Designing a More Just World Through Sustainability

As a signatory of the Architecture 2030 Challenge, HDR is committed to meeting its responsibility to improve planetary health. That’s why I was pleased to have been asked to speak to that subject at the 2020 AIA Colorado conference and valued the opportunity to be part of a conversation about the potential to design a more “just world.”

As part of the conference’s “Just Sustainability” agenda, I spoke about the growing understanding that humans are intertwined with nature, not separate from it. The concept of planetary health recognizes this codependency, but how do we do that? How can we live and thrive within the boundaries of a natural system?

I believe that, first, we must understand it. Half a century ago, the writer, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote, "We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it."

Resource consumption plays an important role in what is good — or not — for the world. And the construction industry is one of the world’s biggest consumers. Architects have a big role to play in the supersized world of material consumption, but we can change it with some hard work. That effort takes many forms, including addressing both the embodied and operational carbon of the buildings we design.

We must reduce embodied carbon if we have a chance at meeting our climate goals. And since it takes 15 years for the average net-zero energy building to pay off its carbon debt, shouldn't we start with a holistic picture of embodied and operational carbon and how they affect each other?

At HDR, we started by testing this idea by looking at our recently completed hotel in British Columbia, Canada. We learned what we could have done differently to carbon balance it. (A detailed video of this can be found here.) Since then, we've been applying what we've learned on projects of different scales including:

The work that lies ahead of us is vast — but exciting. Throughout my presentation to the AIA Colorado conference attendees, I sought to explain not just the urgency of our work, but the exhilarating possibilities of regenerative design strategies,  the concept of cities as forests and forest as cities, carbon balancing at an urban scale — and yes, even life cycle assessments and cost models. You can learn about all these concepts and more by listening to my full presentation.

The AIA Colorado conference and others, like CarbonPositive, are fundamentally about what is actionable through the material and design choices we make every day. I encourage designers to incorporate a design process that embraces complexity like carbon balanced buildings. With a mission-driven mindset across project scales and sizes, we can build a narrative and an outcome for a more just planet.

Learn more about carbon balancing and buildings as carbon banks