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From the Design Quarterly: Speak up. Get involved. Shape the future.

January 31, 2019

By Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

Designers are problem solvers. We need to have a louder voice in today’s biggest problem-solving conversations.

Designers see patterns, think in systems, and solve problems. All of us belong to a community facing some issue—environmental, social, or governmental—that could benefit from the designer’s perspective. Perhaps the most urgent and obvious crisis we face is global climate change. A recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us that we have just 12 years to keep global warming from rising to a level that will have extreme and catastrophic results.

The Sacramento Municipal District (SMUD) East Campus—Operations Center in Sacramento, California, was designed with sustainable strategies that reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 4,000 cars off the road.

Climate change is on all of us. But members of the design industry are perhaps especially poised to be change makers—to educate and help society plot a sane and sustainable course. As architects, engineers, and specialists in the built environment, we have a special role and vantage point at the intersection of policy, science, design practice, and community, that makes us more powerful (than we know) in making a course correction a reality. The theme of this Design Quarterly–Intersections–is both timely and of-this-time. We have all heard stories of new technologies arising from unlikely partnerships.

If you think designers need to be more involved in your community, reach out and make it happen.

For the most part, the building industry has stayed in its lane. This is no more evident than in the sustainability world. Consider the recent Global Climate Action Summit, attended by over 4,000 leaders from the public and private sector. The clear signal coming out of the summit was that zero carbon is the goal, and climate commitments made by cities and corporations are the silver bullet. But to succeed, we need an army of planners, architects, and engineers—those who influence the buildings, infrastructure, and operations—to be committed to achieving this goal. It is time for designers of the built environment to widen our sphere of influence and bring our skills to the conversations that significantly impact us but are largely taking place without us. It is also time for communities to recognize the immense value design professionals can bring to solving many of the current, chronic issues we are all facing. Many of which, can be traced back to a design decision in the built environment.

The work of architects, engineers, and planners is shaped by regulations, codes, and standards—and we all have an opinion about them. We also all have a perspective from the implementation side that the authors of these rules and regulations may find useful, and that could help raise the bar on the role regulations play in shaping design outcomes. Building designers and engineers need to get involved.

I recently asked a public-sector client what we, in the private sector, could do to make their lives easier and break down the barriers to implementation. Her answer? Meet us in the middle. Stand at the intersection between the rigidity of codes, standards, bond language, and public-sector protocol, and the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector. See the problem from both sides, help municipalities leverage both perspectives to bring to realization their goals.
We can do that!

At the same time, communities need to reach out to us for input. Think of your own neighborhood. Is there a design professional on your local planning commission? Are designers invited to public input sessions? Is your city asking questions of local architects, engineers, or planners when setting their climate goals? If you think designers need to be more involved in your community, reach out and make it happen.

A recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us that we have just 12 years to keep global warming from rising to a level that will have extreme and catastrophic results.

The first known building code was written around 1700 BC. Though regulation of the built environment isn’t new, it is becoming overwhelmingly urgent when it comes to human wellness. But impacting change at the codes and standards level can take years, a period of time that neither technological innovations nor the devastating health impacts of our growing cities can abide. If designers want to be a key part of the carbon revolution, the mobility revolution, the smart city revolution, we need to become more involved in the regulatory process that frames our work. We need to stand more firmly at the intersection between policy and practice. Consider the recent emergence of a new relationship between designers and utilities.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 04 | Intersections

When our project goal is zero-carbon or zero-energy, it’s likely that achieving that target will involve a significant amount of solar photo-voltaics (PV). If on-site or off-site renewables are so critical to the project goal, then the utility company and solar providers should be our new best friends. We, on the design side, can reach out to the local utility providers’ lead on demand-side management (DSM) and renewable energy integration. They have goals, too! We can start a dialogue about the load profile of our building and how our building can better integrate into the grid and support the utilities renewable energy goals. Clients, ask your design team to initiate the conversation. If your project is going to disrupt and innovate the traditional energy flows on the utility grid, do it soon.

If we, designers and clients alike, are expecting the grid to support our net zero goals, we have a responsibility to understand the sensitivities of the grid and how we can best interact with it.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory Café in Golden, Colorado.

As cities move towards their goals of decarbonization, and the electrification of everything, the need for a greater dialogue between buildings and the over-burdened electric grid is so urgent that New Building Institute has coined the term “grid citizenship” to describe a building that supports reliable, safe operation of our electric grid infra-structure. Simple design decisions like glazing orientation and performance can dramatically impact heating, cooling, and lighting load profiles and the interaction of the building with the utility grid.

We must design and operate buildings that are good (grid) citizens. As designers, we must also be good citizens by applying our knowledge and our passion to that most fundamental of design phases, the regulatory framework that shapes our communities and our lives.

We can influence change, but we need to become more involved and quickly. Designers can get involved in the regulatory process, take responsibility for being advocates for climate impact on our projects, stay educated, and lend our expertise at the local, municipal level. As residents, we need to urge or even require that designers have a voice in the spaces and places in which we live, work, and play. All that’s left to do is act—and time is running out.

  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    As part of the Corporate Sustainability team, Rachel leads our global social and environmental sustainability integration. Applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal framework, she helps our global experts become leaders in climate solutions.

    Contact Rachel
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