Environmentally Responsible Design: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Environmentally responsible design and construction during the pandemic


In the swirl of health and economic crises we currently find ourselves navigating through, it may be easy to lose sight of the underlying long-term crises which have come to light over the last decades relating to the built environment to human well-being, the health of ecosystems and a stable climate. The pressures we face have only shed light on the connections of social justice, climate stability and environmental health. Sustainability, in the expanded sense of the word, is critical to any of these systems which, erratically unstable, threaten our well-being and possibly our very existence. It’s critical that all of us keep our focus on how we can exist, and thrive, in a healthy and diverse ecosystem, a stable economy and a society that is equitable and just for decades to come.

Our role as architects, designers and builders is to rise above the present and imagine the future. As conceivers and planners, we have the greatest responsibility for incorporating long-term values into construction projects, from urban towers to small renovations. We are the ones with the education, experience and guiding principles to contribute to the team. Even the most concerned clients, developers and owners have the financial bottom line on their minds; contractors, vendors and fabricators are typically responding to design decisions that have already been made. We are the critical nexus point where values meet practice and concepts turn into action.

As conceivers and planners, we have the greatest responsibility for incorporating long-term values into construction projects, from urban towers to small renovations.

Anyone who has adopted sustainable or green best practices in the recent past has run up against paradoxes and conflicting values. As one example: the value of energy conservation (reducing raw material dependence and consumption, lowering carbon-based emissions into the atmosphere) comes in direct conflict with the value of using more biodegradable and nontoxic construction materials; most of the highest performing insulating materials, such as expanded polystyrene and polyurethane, are polymer based, utilizing extracted materials that release environmental toxins in their production and ending up in landfills or oceans as nonbiodegradable waste. As another example, the choice between rapidly renewable or recycled materials (bamboo, wood by-products, flax, etc.) which utilize non biodegradable polymers as a matrix and large amounts of energy to produce and sometimes toxic off-gassing in situ, can be seen in opposition to traditional finishing products such as solid hardwood, which can cause deforestation, degradation of natural habitat, loss of biodiversity and an increasingly scarce supply.

As a designer with a small practice of 20 years, I’ve treated each of my small, medium and large projects with the same rigor, holding them to the highest standards of environmental responsibility. My work, on large and small projects alike, is guided by a “praxis,” a combination of theory and practice which I apply to a wide variety of choices and decisions along the course of a design process. I realized long ago that there is no perfect solution; we must make choices and establish hierarchies of values to arrive at the best, if not perfect, solutions.

Some choices and design directions are easier than others. Passive solar design, storm water retention and waste reduction are sometimes simple formal manipulations to maximize performance. The decisions become more difficult when the inherent conflicts (as I touched on above) rise to the surface.

For me, in recent years, the crisis of landfills, the collapse of recycling infrastructure and the abundance of plastic waste have become crises in which the construction industry plays a big role. One of the practices we have adopted is deep research into any given construction material: how (and at what social or environmental cost) is it sourced or extracted? How (and at what environmental or social cost) is it processed, transported and delivered? When installed, how does it affect environmental and human health? What is its lifespan, and what happens to it after its life as a building component? Subject to these evaluations, typically there is a “best and brightest” candidate, if not a perfect solution.

Alongside these design-process practices within our firm, I have supported these values in my engagement with clients, vendors and contractors. It’s rare that I’ve had a client choose to spend much more money towards the goal of sustainability alone. Some businesses or institutional entities see benefits in public relations to pursuing these values, but there is always a bottom line that is increasingly important to them. Navigating the conflicts in budgets and environmental health values is yet another fine line that I and all designers find themselves walking, and a well-conceived praxis is helpful in instilling confidence that a good solution that elevates sustainability and human health is always possible, regardless of budget.

Blake Goble, AIA, LEED AP, is an architect and educator. He is on the faculty of Parsons School of Design, and his firm B Space LLC has created projects in New York, Vermont, Minnesota and Arizona.