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SUSTAINABILITY: Charting the Ascent of the Sustainability Paradigm

This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth Opacity series publication chronicling HDR’s design excellence initiative and our annual design review where outside critics assess work from our global offices. 33.3 includes the voices of six prominent design journalists and critics who reflected on fundamental design principles: context, form, materials, program, space, and sustainability. Like the Opacity initiative itself, the essays are intended to foster dialogue and discourse, sometimes challenging the very essence of conventional precepts in order to advance critical thinking. The following essay explores how the tenets of sustainability are now interwoven into topics such as resiliency, health and well­ness, and social justice.

I started graduate school at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture in 1994, the same year William McDonough, immediately dubbed the “Green Dean,” also arrived. Had those two events not coincided, I doubt that I could accurately date the origins of my awareness of the sustainable design movement in architecture.

That was 25 years ago, and since then, the industry and its affiliated professions have come a long way. When I joined the National Building Museum in 1996, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED the green building rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and now in its fourth iteration had yet to be introduced. At that point, I would have considered the idea of an environmental industrial complex a fantasy. Not anymore. In the 21st century, an ever-expanding constellation of green-related ratings systems has been introduced, some of which have been subsumed within the LEED brand or are administered by the USGBC’s sister organization, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).

In 2010, for example, the American Society of Landscape Architects launched a pilot program for the Sustainable Sites Initiative, or SITES, which officially joined the LEED family in 2015. Similarly, the International Well Building Institute introduced its WELL Building Standard in 2014, and that program’s certification and WELL AP credentialing are now overseen by the GBCI. Additional rating/certification programs in the fold include Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal, or PEER; True Zero Waste Certification, known as TRUE; and Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies, or EDGE.

As I look back at the National Building Museum’s exhibitions, programs, and publications, it is interesting to note how they have chronicled the evolution of the “green movement” itself. In 1996, for example, we started hosting lunchtime lectures with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s newly minted Smart Growth Network. The initiative which promotes development that benefits the community, the economy, and the environment formed at a time when industry professionals were coming to fully understand the impacts of urban sprawl. A cross-section of designers and planners were beginning to revisit older ideas and promulgate new directions in an effort to reduce the ills begat by the automobile. Momentum was building and, in 1999, the museum presented the first of four exhibitions on smart growth cosponsored by the Urban Land Institute. The groundbreaking series, titled Smart Growth and Choices for Change, marked a turning point in the museum’s efforts to address contemporary environmental issues head on.

Next we shifted our focus to sustainably designed buildings, which were rising across the globe. We opened Big and Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century in January 2003. The exhibition’s design by James Hicks with Pure+Applied fully embraced “going green.” Displays were hung on a framework of recycled (and recyclable) cardboard tubes that were locally sourced, and the imagery was printed on recyclable Tyvek. After its run at the museum, the exhibition traveled to the Museum of the City of New York, the Yale University School of Architecture Gallery, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. In addition, a companion catalogue was co-published with Princeton Architectural Press.

Given the industry’s intensifying focus on green buildings, we opted to explore the subject further. With the Home Depot Foundation as the presenting sponsor, we introduced a suite of educational programs called For the Greener Good: Conversations That Will Change the World. The foundation also supported the museum’s multi-year effort to green our galleries and operations.

Opened in May 2006, The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design was a huge success, thanks in no small part to a sustainably furnished version of architect Michelle Kaufman’s Glidehouse — a sleekly modern prefabricated home. The exhibition also featured 20 additional homes from around the world that embodied green design principles, as well as a resource room that showcased green products and materials. Like prior shows, this exhibition went on the road and circulated into 2010, and the museum partnered with Princeton Architectural Press for the publication.

Geared toward a general audience, The Green House exhibition illuminated the possibilities of eco-friendly design and aligned with larger shifts taking place in society. The exhibition opened the same month Vanity Fair published its “Green Issue” (the first in a series). The cover image, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, featured Julia Roberts as Mother Nature, and George Clooney, Al Gore, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as crusaders fighting to save the planet. Already more than a decade in the making, sustainability had become a cause célèbre.

After having zoomed in on large-scale buildings and houses, the museum pulled back to offer a broader perspective on sustainability. Our Green Community exhibition debuted in 2008, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the American Planning Association (APA). Recalling our focus in the 1990s, the show explored sustainable neighborhoods and development — that is, how we plan, design, and construct the world between our buildings. The APA served as the exhibition’s presenting sponsor, co-presenter of a symposium, and co-publisher of a companion book.

As Green Community drew to a close in the fall of 2009, “green fatigue” had begun to set in for many. This was especially true for those outside of the industry. For example, in April 2009, Vanity Fair announced that it would not publish its annual “Green Issue.” In fact, even before the exhibition opened, the museum had decided to shift its approach to exhibitions about sustainable design. Rather than continue to spotlight sustainability in a straightforward manner, we would, as warranted, present exhibitions in alignment with its underlying principles.

Since then, the museum has presented five exhibitions whose premise, thesis, or primary subject was centered on the benefits of sustainable thinking, design, and/or construction. These shows include the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 Finalists: A Special Presentation (2011); Green Schools (2013), which featured Sprout Space, the first net-zero-energy modular classroom available for distribution at a national level; Designing for Disaster (2014), which presented strategies to mitigate the effects of natural hazards and build community resiliency; HOT TO COLD: an odyssey of architectural adaptation (2015), a look at the work of Bjarke Ingels Group; and Timber City (2016), which was all about cross-laminated timber. In addition, the museum embarked on a collaboration with the Cultural Landscape Foundation to present exhibitions whose focus is centered on our understanding and relationship to the natural world — a topic the museum seeks to address more consistently.

The notion of sustainability has expanded considerably in the 21st century. It is now interwoven into design topics such as resiliency, health and wellness, and even social justice — and it has become entrenched within the architectural profession. To underscore this, look no further than the recently updated Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct for the American Institute of Architects. Now, members are required to discuss with their clients the likely environmental impacts of a project. Since I entered graduate school in the 1990s, I have witnessed — and the National Building Museum has helped propel — the ascent of the sustainability paradigm. I hope we continue working with avidity toward the betterment of our communities and our planet.