Blog Post

Do You Understand Sustainable Design? Nine Quick Ways to Find Out

We asked architects how they evaluate someone’s sustainability literacy in a single question.

July 10, 2017

Tassafaronga Village by David Baker Architects. This affordable housing project proves that high levels of environmental performance can be achieved with a very low budget by relying on strong, foundational design skills rather than expensive technologies.

Photo: Brian Rose / David Baker + Partners, Architects. License: CC BY 3.0.
How do you measure someone’s sustainable design literacy? As we discuss in Sustainable Design Literacy: A Foundation for Transformed Practice, no single exam or other measure tells the whole story.

We thought about writing our own, holistic, non-LEED-centric version of the LEED AP exam. We quickly recognized, however, that it’s the discussion questions, not multiple-choice, that show someone’s understanding. So we asked a variety of educators and design leaders what questions they might use to start a discussion that would help them assess a designer’s knowledge and understanding of sustainable design.

Consider using these questions to evaluate how you think about sustainable design, or to evaluate a designer you are thinking of hiring, or someone whom you are thinking of adding to your project team.

What questions do you like to ask (or would you like to be asked) to evaluate expertise in sustainable design, and generate a fruitful discussion? Please comment below.

Z Smith, AIA, principal | director of sustainability and building performance, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple

Z’s question: “Make two columns. In column A, list the things that enhance planetary sustainability that make a building less beautiful, comfortable, or delightful.  In column B, list the things that enhance planetary sustainability that make a building more beautiful, comfortable, or delightful.”


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What he’s looking for: The correct answer is to question the premise. In doing so, revealing conversations can happen.

Katie Ackerly, sustainability lead, David Baker Architects

Katie’s question: “What do you find to be the most challenging sustainability strategies to incorporate into [building type, e.g. housing]? Where would you focus your efforts, given the constraints of the building type?”

What she’s looking for: “Most important for me is that their answer demonstrates thinking beyond rules of thumb or what they think are the "right answers" based on what they remember from school curricula, or what the latest trends are. For instance, for urban infill housing in the Bay Area, I would be disappointed if someone responded with ideas like optimizing for massing and orientation first (lot line and street conditions often prevent the use of this nugget), and putting vertical shades on west-facing windows (you want horizontal shades on all orientations because people in apartments in San Francisco still welcome winter sun). People that are more literate with the actual fundamentals might demonstrate more of a thought process for thinking through the opportunities and challenges related to a certain building type based on what they do know, and be up-front and comfortable about what they don't know.”

Stefan Knust, AIA, director of sustainability, Ennead

Stefan’s question: “I would want to know about their knowledge of and ability to document all the types of metrics that we are tracking for COTE Top Ten Awards currently. That is a good list to go through for plenty of pointed questions.”

What he’s looking for: Examples of responses Stefan would love to hear:

  • “I built a Grasshopper script that combines basic programming data, local climate files, and regional service-‘shed’ information to create a ‘project load’ calculator and then link that to an idealized site-specific biodiversity index in order to study human-centric comfort metrics in passively optimized massing options. Sliders with instant visual feedback allow for further refinement of favored planning schemes. I call it sketching on a ‘smart-napkin,’ but the whole project team participates in real time. Can I show it to you?”
  • “My previous office used that list of criteria as a template for developing and communicating about their designs. It really helped the staff see the impact of their decisions—whether at partner level, or at intern level—and we felt empowered to nudge the design towards better outcomes regardless of any stated certification goals.”

Stefan’s other question: “I would ask what their criteria are for making decisions about material options and what responsibility they believe the architects have with respect to product ingredients.”

What he’s looking for: One answer Stefan would love to hear: “This issue makes my head hurt because innovative material options seem to evolve faster than we can understand their impacts. But there are good resources available, starting with the AIA white paper ‘Materials Transparency & Risk for Architects’ from 2016. I want to make a positive difference—I know now that every line I draw and material I chose has a consequence. Tell me how you guys tackle this? I want to be involved.”

Julie Hiromoto, AIA, vice president, HKS

Julie’s question: “When presenting a portfolio project:

  • “What's the one strategy you'd recommend to increase passive performance of this building?
  • “What's one thing that you did differently on this project, that you haven't done on any other projects?
  • “What was the most impactful thing you learned from project stakeholders on this particular project?”

What she’s looking for: Overall depth and breadth of thinking on design process.

Mara Baum, AIA, vice president and sustainable design leader, HOK

Mara’s question: “How do you integrate sustainability goals and strategies into a project?”

What she’s looking for: “That would be the high-level question that anyone should be able to answer, and there would be several different follow-up questions to dig deeper,” depending on the strategies they mention.

Jennifer Preston, design architect, The Laurentia Project

Jennifer’s question: “Where the heck is the sun?”

What she’s looking for: “I want them to know the difference between the sun’s position in the sky during the winter afternoon and high noon on an August day. It’s as simple as that.”

Eric Corey Freed, founder, organicARCHITECT

Eric’s question: “What is your opinion of LEED?”

What he’s looking for: “If they like it, why? If not, why not? Does it go far enough? Why not?” There aren’t any right answers, but a discussion about LEED as a tool will reveal a lot about how a person thinks about the industry, and what their knowledge level is.

Betsy del Monte, FAIA, principal, Transform Global

Betsy’s question: “Explain your approach to energy efficiency.”

What she’s looking for: “If someone started talking right off about solar panels and wind turbines, I'd know they were off-base. Even if they started rattling off SEER numbers, and R-values, I'd not be impressed. What I'd be wanting to hear would be an explanation starting with siting and massing, then passive measures, shading devices and light harvesting, tight envelope, etc. And I'd hope for some mention about the importance of an integrated design team.”

Carl Sterner, director, Sol Design + Consulting

Carl’s question: “Which is more important and why: embodied or operating energy in buildings?”

What he's looking for: “I'm not so much interested in a definitive answer—in fact, I'd be looking for someone to qualify their answer thoughtfully. But a cogent response requires some understanding of both aspects and how they relate to one another.”

Carl’s other question: “What's the best way to retrofit an existing masonry building to net-zero energy?”

What he's looking for: “More than a definitive answer, I'd be looking for understanding of the various considerations that would be at play—including issues of durability and human health that often come when you start to incorporate high levels of insulation and airtightness.”

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