Raising the Standards of Sustainability

Earlier this week, Sagegreenlife hosted a timely and informative panel discussion that brought together Chicago architects and designers from top firms in Chicago. Rusty Walker from Holabird & Root, Loren Johnson from Legat Architects, and Chris McDonough from The Gettys Group joined Sagegreenlife founder Richard Kincaid at the beautiful Marriott Renaissance Hotel, situated right on the Chicago River amongst some of Chicago’s most famous architecture. The panel, moderated by Adrian Lopez from Architizer, discussed how the definition of what is sustainable has changed, how the current political climate is affecting sustainability efforts, and how they’re using living design to build a more sustainable future. Here’s what they had to say.

Setting the room up with Sagegreenlife living design products, including a new product: Verdanta (bottom right)

Sustainability has shifted from building performance to human performance and wellness

Adrian’s first question was to simply ask how the panelists described sustainability. The consensus was that the definition has changed as we learn more about how our spaces impact us and how we impact the environment. Sustainable design has moved beyond focusing on building performance, as Rusty Walker pointed out, and toward individual performance. His experience working within the academic arena has shown him that student performance is improved when the spaces in which they work are optimized for productivity and wellness.

He said, “The shortcoming of LEED is it’s so much about systems. It historically isn’t as integral to the user experience. The demand is there; most of our buildings are Silver without even trying. This is where we're going – we're getting into psychology and physical wellness.”

On the flip side, Loren Johnson touched on how what we build and design impacts the environment. His says we should view architecture as an organism that can have a symbiotic relationship with everything around it. “We don't need to compete with the environment,” he said. “We can have a mutually beneficial relationship.” Johnson later touched on examples of designing with the environment in mind, like considering storm water management and ecosystem disruption.

From Richard Kincaid’s perspective, it’s Sagegreenlife’s responsibility to show architects, designers, and the public what is possible in living design, and that they don’t have to settle for a sub-par environment, indoors or outdoors.

Panelists chatting before the discussion

What verticals are leading the way in this shift?

When Adrian asked what industries were ahead of the curve in the shift from building performance to individual performance, both Richard and Rusty agreed that workplaces lead the way in sustainability and wellness.

Rusty pointed out that human count in workplaces is more expensive than ever, making it a great sector to optimize. Companies are finding that improving productivity through sustainability and wellness is an effective way to get more for their money.

Richard noted that workplaces are moving away from the “Dilbert-esque cube farms” to better work environments. He added that while many wellness programs were started to reduce group healthcare costs, they’ve become an integral part of hiring and retaining talent. He said, “The marginal cost of having a great environment is nothing compared to turnover.”

Chris goes commented on the hospitality industry, where he does much of his work. He said that the hotels he’s working with are minimizing personal space and maximizing public and collaborative space, and that collaboration and human interaction is very much a part of wellness.

Is the future a sustainable one?

To wrap up the conversation, Adrian posed one final question: is the future a sustainable one? The panelists agreed that it is, if we continue to work hard at it.

Richard Kincaid said he is optimistic because of the extraordinary innovation that is going on. He added that while government pressure may be lessening sustainability requirements, it has energized efforts on the local level. “These actions galvanize people in a way that move things forward,” he shared.

Chris agreed that the younger generation is ingrained with sustainability. Their passion will carry the sustainable efforts through regardless of the government’s stance on the matter. He also noted that the private sector will continue with their sustainability plans without government regulations because of consumer demand.

On the topic of public demand for sustainability, particularly among the younger generation, Adrian said, “Environmental protection is seen as a human right to make sure our future is a sustainable one.” When Adrian noted that we need to look at sustainability globally, not just locally, Rusty added, “We have the privilege of making decisions, so we have to be conscientious and responsible with those decisions.”

The panelists agreed that through architecture, a forward-thinking discipline by nature, we can build a sustainable future.

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