Feature Article

Sustainable Design Literacy: A Foundation for Transformed Practice

How well does the average designer know sustainable design? And how are the best firms supporting increased knowledge—and action?

Presenting variations at a weekly design pin-up at David Baker Architects. What knowledge should designers develop to suport a sustainable practice? What tools and processes can foster sustainable design literacy?

Photo: David Baker Architects
Good morning, choir.

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you care more about and know more about sustainability than the average architect or designer. Your “sustainability literacy” is high.

Sustainable design literacy involves the ability to understand the various ways in which a project can impact—negatively or positively­­—environmental and human health.

But practitioners with this kind of knowledge are outnumbered. The industry has far more designers—at every level of seniority—who lack basic sustainable design knowledge or literacy.

And it shows. You, the choir, may know a lot, but we need the whole congregation working together.

We recognize many barriers to meeting that goal, but in this article we’re going to focus on one: knowledge. A significant proportion of practitioners are either not adequately equipped with the know-how they need, or they are not in an organizational structure where they can apply it in their work.

Collectively we know a lot about how to create buildings that are healthy, resilient, sustainable, and even regenerative, but we continue to see that most projects being built and renovated don’t come close to the industry’s most shared and critical sustainability goal­—carbon neutrality by 2030.

The Habits of High-Performance Firms,” published recently by the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), explains the key traits of “high-performance firms”—firms that have been awarded an AIA COTE Top Ten Award three or more times over the past 20 years. The average energy reduction on projects of the 10 firms featured in the report was 51% in 2015—not on track with 2030 Commitment levels, but far ahead of industry averages.

As we reported recently, most of the firms studied have instituted regular staff training to expand in-house capabilities and have a large percentage of LEED accredited staff—48%, more than twice the industry average. This level of in-house knowledge and LEED literacy corresponds with the fact that as a group, these firms actively use LEED on 92% of their projects.

But this report leaves us with more questions than answers:

  • Are LEED credentials the most reliable and important barometer for sustainable design literacy? If not, what is?
  • What topics or skills should the average architect have in order to engage productively with sustainable design?
  • How do successful firms distribute sustainable design knowledge from individuals and groups who already understand it?
  • Is architectural education preparing professionals for today’s environmental and health challenges?
Published July 10, 2017