At the Greenbuild 2018 Conference in Chicago this November, myself and a community of 20,000 professionals from a variety of industries gathered against the backdrop of the growing climate crisis to address our role in shaping the future of the built environment.
We came together following a tumultuous year of climate-related catastrophes, from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the fires raging in Northern California, to combat the effects of climate change on our industry and the global community. We sought urgent solutions in the wake of a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report imploring industries to transform the world economy at an historically unprecedented speed and scale to avoid climate devastation.
As a steward of our natural environment and someone with shared responsibility for ensuring a more equitable future, below are three key takeaways from the conference.
1. Human Health + Wellbeing as Industry Imperatives
“Leading long and healthy lives in not a privilege. It’s a right for everyone, regardless of their circumstances. We have a lot to live up to, but it’s within our reach. And if we’re going to claim that reality, the time is now.” – Mahesh Ramanujan, President and CEO U.S. Green Building Council.
We continue to see an increased consideration of the human dimension in sustainable buildings, a smart decision influenced by the economic reality that 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related, while certifications like the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel are taking the market by storm. Built projects focused on occupant health and wellbeing now account for a trillion-dollar industry with millions of square footage currently certified in 40+ countries around the globe.
In my role at ZGF, I am excited to be part of an interdisciplinary design process that supports wellbeing through a commitment to healthier building materials and product transparency. Just this month, USGBC and the Health Product Declaration® Collaborative (HPDC), of which ZGF is a member, came together at Greenbuild to announce the creation of a new strategic partnership to improve material health in the design industry.
2. Footprints and Handprints: Acknowledging our Impact
“People are part of the environment, not just caretakers, and we are at the core of our environmental troubles. Environment then, is also about human and civil rights, economic equity, gender equality, and from the standpoint of a pilgrim on the road, environment is about how we treat each other when we meet each other.”
—Dr. John Francis, Planet Walker
One of Greenbuild’s featured education sessions, “Footprints and Handprints on the Journey to Social Equity,” posited that progress and social equity are only possible when people take responsibility for ways in which their actions may unintentionally harm others, the community, or the environment.
The idea of emphasizing awareness and responsibility for your actions is similar to understanding your “footprint,” or the associated negative environmental impacts of an action, such as the carbon footprint of a household. While footprints have been around for decades, this session also introduced “handprints” as the reverse, or the net-positive social and environmental outcomes of an action.
I had the opportunity to put the concept of handprints to work recently through my participation in a public design workshop. Working with “Right 2 Root,” a community-centered system for equitable development, ZGF partnered with RADIX Consulting Group to engage community residents about the development of a Health and Wholeness Center on a community owned site in Northeast Portland.
Public interest design was a key driving force behind my decision to pursue a career in design. I am thrilled that ZGF is among the growing number of firms who recognize the opportunity to not just build buildings, but build dignity for a better, more just, and more equitable world.
3. Resilient, Responsive Design for the Future
“This is not about politics, this is about saving lives.” – Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, Major of San Jan, Puerto Rico
One of the most pressing imperatives to come out of Greenbuild 2018 was preparing for a more dynamic built environment. The global climate crisis demands architecture that is responsive to the regional and localized impacts that are expected with a warming planet: more intense storms, coastal and valley flooding, wildfires, and power outages.
Closing speaker and current mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, addressed the urgency of resilient and responsive design in the face of regional climate impacts. Soto shared the story of Hurricane Maria, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans and devastated Puerto Rico’s national infrastructure. Soto emphasized the collaboration it took to rebuild Puerto Rico and the support of the design community in the process.
Soto concluded with a resounding call to action that bears repeating here: we will continue to see climate change devastate lives unless we own our shared responsibility and moral imperative to design for a more resilient future.
My time at Greenbuild 2018 served as a strong reminder that our success as sustainability advocates is more than just a movement, it is an imminent responsibility.
Peter Harrison is an interior designer at the ZGF Portland office. He is an emerging professional with a background in sustainability, landscape architecture, and interior design with a passion for healthier materials and equity-based projects affecting vulnerable communities.