Taking the Lead

As the release of LEED v4 approaches, we’re reminded of the social and environmental responsibilities facing designers in the 21st century. But are we doing enough?

by Felice Silverman, IIDA

There was a time not so long ago when sustainability in design still had something of a novelty to it. Today, sustainable design has become a part of our universal design language. One rarely sees a firm or designer highlight “sustainable” or “green” projects anymore—sustainable design is now expected by our clients, and part of our best practices.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system have played a major role in the integration of green thinking into our working regimen, making sustainable environments a priority in design. What’s significant about LEED, in particular, is that while sustainability has become an important goal for many industries, the program gives us the all-important metrics by which to measure the sustainability of our spaces. Although not everyone will agree with how every point is awarded or every credit is calculated, the system’s existence has proven invaluable in pushing sustainable design forward.

The introduction of LEED v4 represents the next step in the evolution of sustainable design, but it’s interesting to note that as we learn more about creating green spaces, new concerns continue to appear. For example, look at the spate of single-attribute certifications flooding the market these days. While it’s encouraging to see products earn third-party certifications, it’s important for us to consider more than just that single-attribute benefit. Maybe a product claims that it’s made up of a certain percentage of post-consumer recycled material, and is certified by a third-party like SCS Global Services. That’s great, but what if the new manufacturing processes required to accommodate the recycled material entirely negate the benefit of using it?

This is where we as design professionals have to begin adjusting our own thinking and practices to take the lead. We need to arm ourselves with the best information we can to help us separate the sustainable from the suspect, and continue to review processes, systems and products that can cause harm to the environment and people.

While there may not yet be a single, reliable standard against which to measure the sustainability of a product, a number of organizations now offer independent evaluations that address the full life-cycle approach, including Green Seal™, the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos™ Project, and ecoScorecard™. In each case, the goal is to offer designers a more efficient and accurate means of discerning what products are truly sustainable, allowing them to focus on their work instead of endlessly researching product specifications.

Of course, certifications are only part of the sustainability puzzle. The study and evaluation of healthy products is not a finite endeavor by any means; the research of materials that we use must continually be evaluated and re-evaluated as they evolve. An example of this appears in a recent study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute detailing the presence of carcinogens in commonly used flame retardants.

According to the study, concentrations of cancer-causing chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants are frequently present at levels higher than permitted by EPA health-risk guidelines. The study, conducted in California, where stringent regulations about product flammability are in place, found 44 different types of hazardous chemicals in various samples, including TDCIPP (chlorinated “Tris”—a substance banned from children’s pajamas since 1977) and pentaBDE, which is banned in 172 countries and in 12 states due to its ability to damage endocrine systems and stunt brain development. Tragically, the study also revealed that 64 percent of the couches tested as part of the study had no label identifying that they contained flame retardants, despite a California law requiring them.

These discoveries vividly illustrate how deep our concerns over product materials can and should be. As the USGBC presents LEED v4, with the goals of “expanding market sectors, increasing technical rigor [and] streamlining services,” we must expand our vision of sustainability in a more holistic way. Yes, energy conservation, renewable materials and recycling remain important. But the future of true sustainability is about fostering and promoting a sustainable way of living, as a means of guaranteeing the health of the environment for future generations.

It’s up to us as designers to internalize this mission and bring it out in our work. Carefully examining the products we select is a responsible step to take in this direction, but ultimately we need to work toward integrating healthy lifestyles into our designs. Active design strategies, for example, encourage more physical interaction within the spaces we inhabit, which in turn create a more sustainable life for each person; likewise, incorporating natural elements in our healthcare environments can promote healing effects and raise awareness of the importance of natural environments. It’s in these ways that we can design to promote and enhance lifestyle, and bring to fruition the vision of truly sustainable environments.


IIDA President Felice L. Silverman, IIDA is president and a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates Inc. in Boston. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at iidahq@iida.org.