IIDA Focuses On Approaches to Sustainability in Design As a Response to COVID-19

06/03/2020 By Irena Frumkin

How are approaches to sustainability in design shifting as we navigate a changing world? This was the leading question for the May 14 episode of IIDA’s ongoing webinar series, Collective (D)esign, launched as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This episode—Sustainability, Design and Adaptive Change, moderated by John Czarnecki, Hon.

IIDA, Assoc. AIA, deputy director and senior vice president of IIDA—brought together a panel of leading design experts for a conversation focused on designing for a more sustainable, resilient future while taking lessons from our current global moment.


Photo: John Czarnecki, deputy director and senior vice president of IIDA; Credit: IIDA

The panelists had a variety of insights into how we should continue taking steps forward, with the underlying principle that the health and wellness of humanity go hand-in-hand with sustainability, and we cannot expect to lead healthy lives without building a healthy world.

The effects of this current moment on the future of sustainable design do not have to be detrimental, explains Sonja Bochart, IIDA, principal at Shepley Bulfinch in Phoenix. In fact, there is opportunity to be found amid collective uncertainty.

(Photo: Sonja Bochart, principal at Shepley Bulfinch in Phoenix; Credit: Sonja Bochart)

“The world has slowed down, yet so many of us are still trying to hurry to have all the answers and the solutions,” she says. “The best thing we can do right now is honor the situation we are in and take a deep breath together.”

As we move forward in a profoundly changed world, we need to have the courage to embrace this “slowing down” and use it as a chance to question everything, from the systems we have created to our corporate cultures, and even the way we treat the planet.

“Now is the time to reconsider our values and what we want to reenvision,” Bochart says.

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For designers working toward sustainable solutions, this could mean centering project goals on the human element with a focus on health and wellness, nature, restoration, and protecting the materials and resources that we have.

But this will require effort and meaningful collaboration.

“To get to a place of regenerative design, we need to have personal conviction,” Bochart explains. “We have the technology, innovation and tools, but what we need is the will.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a necessity to question “business as usual,” says Mikhail Davis, director of technical sustainability for Americas at Interface in San Francisco.

(Photo: Mikhail Davis, director of technical sustainability for Americas at Interface in San Francisco; Credit: Mikhail Davis)

“At Interface, we’ve always had a big-picture view on sustainability,” he says. “The way our founder Ray Anderson framed sustainability was as a systems challenge.”

[Related: COVID-19: Complete List of Coverage

Davis adds that the systems society has developed have generated their own momentum towards a greater system that is inherently destabilizing the climate.

COVID-19 has disrupted this system for the time being, which “is a good thing,” according to Davis, but not if, in a post-pandemic world, we go right back to the way things have always been. 

“This is a time to question how much we really liked ‘normal,’ and exactly how our systems were working before we had this enforced disruption,” agrees Blaine Brownell, FAIA, professor and interim Architecture Department head at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

(Photo: Blaine Brownell, professor and interim Architecture Department head at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; Credit: Blaine Brownell)

For example, people have designed building systems that run continuously and require a great deal of power even when not being utilized.

Brownell considers this a “failure” on society’s part and something we must seriously rethink going forward.

This is also a time to strongly reconsider how we approach waste, reuse and material health, which are all interconnected.

According to Davis, “just because a material is considered healthy does not mean it’s part of a healthy system.”

The trick is to approach material production, recycling and waste management more holistically, so that we can not only have more access to green materials, but also the chance to develop them sustainably and eventually reuse them.

“If we want to talk about health and materials, we can’t leave out circular economy,” explains Davis. “There is a lack of great circular economic systems within our society for recycling, reusing and repurposing materials.”

We presently have temporary solutions for this current crisis, many of which are additive and will eventually create waste, so there is a need to more fully integrate the cycle.

Designers and clients must keep in mind that safety solutions are not always sustainable solutions.

“The overriding challenge for designers right now is to not overreact to this specific crisis and make decisions we will later regret,” says Davis.

This includes using dangerous chemicals within interiors or scarce resources to make furnishings.

This also includes an increase in demand for antimicrobial materials and coatings in offices and public environments.

Paula McEvoy, FAIA, associate principal at Perkins and Will in Atlanta, cautions against the excessive use of antimicrobials within manufacturing and design, especially since they are often a temporary solution and potentially create additional health risks, leak into water and air supplies, and influence microbial resistance.


Photo: Sonja Bochart, principal at Shepley Bulfinch in Phoenix; Credit: Sonja Bochart

“Antimicrobials that are applied by manufacturers and end-users, according to the CDC, have no proven benefits at this time,” explains McEvoy.

Additionally, the antimicrobial side to materials and sustainability is not always closely aligned. “You have to look more closely at the research and the science to move towards alternatives,” she says.

Part of the challenge in creating spaces, buildings, and products that uphold the health of both human beings and the globe is for the industry to double down on design ideas we already know are effective instead of seeking interim solutions that could potentially backfire.

Effective solutions include designing for indoor air quality and reducing volatile organic compounds.

Says Davis: “These are all things we wanted to do anyway—but they make even more sense in the middle of this crisis.”

To hear more about energy saving, waste reduction and climate change, watch Collective D(esign) Episode 8 | Sustainability, Wellness, and Adaptive Change on IIDA.org. This webinar has been approved for one IDCEC HSW CEU.

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