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September 29, 2008

If green design were easy, everyone would be doing it. And though it makes sense in theory, actual implementation is often easier said than done. How to make all design become sustainable design was the question posed this past weekend at West Coast Green, a conference about green innovation held in San Jose, California.


Increased education, considering both material and social aspects of sustainability, and even asking the United States Green Building Council to offer LEED certification for citizens were some of the suggestions offered at a discussion moderated by Autodesk director of sustainability Lynelle Preston Cameron. On the panel: Ken Hall, a LEED-certified architect at Gensler; Alberto Villarreal, a senior designer at Lunar; and Rocio Gonzalez, a senior project engineer and visual design and communications coordinator at Swinterton Builders.

What are the greatest obstacles to sustainable design?
Ken Hall: We have this tendency to want to link one cause with one effect; that’s an 18th-century way of thinking. We’re in this huge, interrelated, complex system and so we need intent and ethics but also a whole-system way of thinking.
Alberto Villarreal: As consumers get more educated, they will demand more eco-friendly products. Companies are becoming more aware of that, and they are coming to us requesting sustainable design.

How do you deal with that in the meantime?
AV: Simple projects like tableware or furniture are easier to tackle but consumer electronics have hundreds of processes and materials. Some companies have manufacturing plants all over the world and controlling all of that is very complex. So, with some companies, we’re taking incremental steps like getting rid of toxic materials, getting rid of paint on plastic parts, but for other clients who come in with a full sustainability initiative, they can create a whole new sustainable product right away.

How do you see this transformation in your industry, Rocio, is it slow or radical change?
Rocio Gonzalez: LEED certification is part of our initiative, and we have 260 certified professions—so it’s not difficult to create a team who has green knowledge. We also look for that same green quality in our building and daily office activities: 100 percent recycling at the job site, steel water bottles and silverware at the office and the job site, and we even have people in marketing studying for the LEED test so they understand sustainability as well.

Sustainable design is not necessarily easy. How are you able to implement it in your work?
RG: The key is to not be afraid of testing it out. Technology allows us to do many different things so you choose a project and tackle the most complex part of the project. We do not have to model the whole project but just tackle that area and text it. My subcontractors question what the benefit is if we’re not getting paid extra by the owner to test the sustainability potential of that part of the project. But innovation takes risks. If we just tackle one area and we see the benefits then they are willing to participate next tie and gradually it becomes part of our daily delivery process.

When you’re designing a building, Ken, do you think of just “green design” or are you thinking of LEED certification?
KH: We work with four tiers of sustainability: it may not be a LEED project but there’s a basic level of sustainability we work to achieve on every project, then there’s better than basic, best, and then transformational practices. Our goal is to drive transformational practices down to basic practices, maybe drive LEED silver certification down to our basic practices.

Wal-mart plans on eventually selling only sustainable products. How will this affect industrial design, Alberto?
AV: It’s a big challenge because part of their business model is based on selling low-priced products, which means someone else is paying for them: the manufacturers in China and others. Sustainability is not only about materials or carbon footprint but a sustainable social system. I’m interested to see how they tackle that part of the operation.

Is education the sweet spot for turning the spark into the fire?
KH: Architects need to embrace building science and not be afraid of a little physics, how heat moves through a building. I think the USGBC should create a LEED certification for citizens because this is about getting our society on board with sustainability. There are basics that every human being needs to learn about the situation we’re in today.

Photo courtesy of West Coast Green; L to R: Ken Hall, Alberto Villarreal, Rocio Gonzalez, and Lynelle Preston Cameron

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