Margaret Montgomery

Margaret Montgomery

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ, @MargaretMontgo1
Margaret is a nationally recognized sustainability leader. She has served on the board of AIA Seattle and co-chaired its What Makes It Green program, and is involved with Better Bricks, the Cascadia Green Building Council / International Living Future Institute and Seattle Climate Partners. She’s currently on an AIA Energy Education Working Group curating energy education for professionals across the nation.

Five Questions About How Sustainability Improves Human Well-being Here and Now, Not Just the Distant Future

An Interview with NBBJ’s Sustainability Leader Margaret Montgomery

March 4, 2019

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from an interview originally published in the Q4 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.

What sustainability priorities should we focus on?

High-performance, sustainable projects are the only future that is viable for our profession and our clients. Zero carbon is viable for many projects, and we’re able to steer clients toward an achievement that’s possible for them. Material selections for reduced environmental and health impact are easier every month. Planning and site development for resilience and for a healthier urban ecosystem are equally critical.


You mentioned materials transparency. What are you doing about that?

We’re tweaking our specifications in areas where we can knowledgeably improve our standard options. For example, if we want to include a product, and we have enough manufacturers that are willing to disclose what’s in their product, we can require that disclosure.

We’re getting a bit more sophisticated about reducing the carbon footprint of our projects, as well. For example, what are all the concrete mixes? What’s the lowest-carbon concrete mix we can use for that particular structural purpose? How can we make sure that we are fine-tuning those mixes for the lowest carbon while maintaining performance?

The largest carbon and environmental footprint tends to be in the structure and exterior materials. The health footprint, the complicated chemistry, and the disclosures tend to congregate around the finish materials and that end of the spectrum.


Where do the ideas of being practical and being effective intersect best for sustainability?

If we’re doing things in the right way, we shouldn’t need to add money. We should be able to reallocate resources in a smarter way to do almost everything we want to do. So, for instance, if we create a better conceptual design — with the right window/wall ratio, better orientation and massing for passive energy flows, and we put the effort into better architecture — we should be able to spend less money on mechanical heating and cooling. To me, that’s pragmatic and effective because we’re conserving first-cost resources and getting more from our client’s money. The goal is to do that while also creating a more comfortable, more livable place for everyone who experiences it.


In the years that you’ve been practicing sustainable design, what changes have you observed in clients’ viewpoints?

Many of our clients recognize the value of creating space that helps them and their people be more comfortable and perform better. This was an idea that probably didn’t resonate well a few years ago because there weren’t enough studies to show the connection between what we thought intuitively were good things for people and our quantitative goals.


What makes you hopeful? What challenges you?

What makes me hopeful is the human spirit and the desire to make things better. You see it a lot lately in various movements outside of the building industry as well as all of the groundswell around addressing climate change. At the core, I believe we all want to make the world a better place. The challenge is how hard it is sometimes to find a common understanding or a way to communicate that gets us all headed in the same direction.

Banner image courtesy Stuart Isett/NBBJ. 

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How High Is Too High?

In Our Race to the Sky, We Can’t Neglect Humans’ Inherent Need for Nature

October 22, 2014

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


I’ve had opportunities recently to participate in several conversations about the impact of biophilic design on our health and well-being. For instance, I facilitated a dialogue for the new Seattle chapter of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) with Bill Browning. Bill works a lot on these issues, and he focused his lecture on moves that are most desirable to high-rise occupants. It turns out that the most significant factors are daylight, views and air quality.

Air quality is an especially interesting finding. I know from personal experience that when the windows are open in my office I feel differently. There’s a sense of expansiveness, freshness and alertness that comes from breathing air from outdoors, even before the sounds, scents and breezes are factored in. These are all factors that can be considered in high-rise buildings too, but more direct incorporation of “Nature in the Space,” as Bill calls it, can be quite challenging as buildings get taller. It’s hard to step outside for a few minutes in the garden when you’re on the 78th floor. Even operable windows (for natural access to fresh air without a mechanical interface) are, if not impossible, challenging in tall buildings. And what about water?

At these heights, access to “real nature” is a challenge. Yet science indicates that we are biologically — if not consciously — able to tell the difference between the real thing and a fake [PDF]. We know that nature’s effects are positive, increasing immune system support, sharpening cognitive function, reducing the detrimental effects of stress.

So this leaves me wondering. Given that our bodies clearly know the real thing when we experience it, and that human-fabricated facsimiles (while better than nothing) are not as good as real nature, and that the link between nature and the 78th floor is tenuous at best, how tall is too tall?

To take tall-building living to an extreme, here’s a scenario: If we accept research that says five minutes a day of immersion in nature is enough to affect self-esteem and improve mood, imagine creating botanical chambers in our cities in the sky. We could make five-minute appointments, reserving space in the greenhouse like we might plan for an exercise class. When we go to work in the morning, we could rise via elevator to a transfer floor where there would probably be a coffee shop or café, then go to our desks and spend the day in the sky without needing to ever descend to the actual street (or park, or neighborhood) until the day ends. Good thing, because the elevator system in a super-tall building can’t move the entire population of a building fast enough to take lunch outdoors. Even more efficient, maybe we actually live in a condo in the same building, or one skybridge away. We could spend years in the same building without leaving it.


Singapore National Library, designed by Ken Yeang (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Technically speaking, we already can do this; Ken Yeang has made a life’s work in blending nature and high-rise construction as inextricably as possible. I fully support such an aim, given that our need for density will require plenty of high-rises. But it won’t be cheap (either in dollars or in resources). And it will be only a partial solution.

As a blanket solution to urban existence, does this really serve our humanity? In my opinion, no. I wonder what metric will tell us we’re too far separated from real nature. Five minutes a day might solve the particular need measured in a particular research project, but people are more complex than that, and the science we lean on is young yet.

Equally importantly, when we lose connection with the real beauty and life of the natural world around us, will we care enough to fight for its survival? Will we survive if we don’t? When we say that “variety is the spice of life,” we’re not kidding. We know that biologically we are hardwired to react to variable sensory experiences and to tune our awareness to the natural elements surrounding us. We can recreate that as best as possible indoors, with intermittent puffs of air, scent or other mechanical tricks. But honestly, why not just invite nature in? And why not construct our cities so that we are never so far from it that we can’t take a short break and go outside?

I fully believe that our cities of the future must be as inextricably woven with nature as the buildings Yeang aspires to, and, yes, high-rise zones will be inevitable. But the vast majority of neighborhoods in most cities could be densified significantly and still maintain our connection with the earth — with less cost, fewer resources and less carbon burden. By doing this, we’d be creating a deeper opportunity to heal ecosystems, restore water cycles, breathe cleaner air, harmonize communities, live within our planetary means and experience deeper joy in our daily lives.

Image courtesy of Sarath Kuchi/Flickr.

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Finally, Some Good News on Climate Change

Recent Policy Developments Are Proving the Importance of United States Leadership

July 29, 2014

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


It has been a good few weeks for those of us who advocate for climate change action. Although the US Chamber of Commerce, in anticipation of the Obama Administration’s new climate rules, preemptively released a study announcing the $51 billion they calculate that the rules will cost the economy annually, Paul Krugman countered with a delightful editorial putting that number in context — .2% of the economy — and celebrating that climate change can be addressed so cheaply.

On June 2 President Obama announced new EPA rules on coal-fired power plants, and already there are indications that China intends to set a cap on carbon emissions by 2016. Obama’s announcement was hailed as the “most sweeping climate action ever taken by a US president,” admittedly not a high bar. But high or low, this is a truly significant move. US leadership has been missing in action for way too long on climate change, and this immediate news out of China reinforces that our country’s leadership is critical to cohesive and significant global climate action.

For the days when the news is not so exciting and you need to remind yourself of why we work so hard to reduce building energy use, or when you want to understand how climate change will affect a certain place, I suggest clicking over to the National Climate Assessment 2014. Another recent Obama Administration release, this report — available both as a pdf and as an elegant, interactive web resource — is thorough, local, strategic and clear in its messaging. It outlines comprehensive impacts to climate across the United States by sector, issue or region. It makes clear that climate change is not just on its way — it’s here.

My first reaction to the report was visceral — the backdrop of each key page is video footage of a pristine and beautiful place, and it sparked both my craving to experience those places and a sense of urgency to preserve them. Each is a poignant introduction to a great communication tool. The website can be taken in small bites, or you can geek out in as deep a dive as you want. Each section is elegantly presented, with enough citations and links to keep you reading for days — or simply to provide the key messages for the next time you need to explain why reducing energy use is so important.

The work is clear and pressing, and momentum is building. It’s our task to accomplish, and we can find no higher calling than to build a future safe for our children and grandchildren.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Garden of Proof

Can We Quantify the Benefits of Biophilia?

December 17, 2013

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


When you think about your childhood, what are your strongest memories? Many of mine are associated with the time I spent playing outdoors, climbing trees and “treasure” hunting alongside a creek. My family always had a big vegetable garden, so I remember picking beans; an orchard of pear and apple trees, a grape arbor and a walnut tree added to the richness (and to our summer diet). Now I live in Seattle. My watershed is Longfellow Creek, and I live near the crest of a hill, the first ridge encountered by weather fronts coming across Puget Sound.

My yard has its own microclimates; we can grow tomatoes on the parking strip to the south, but are hard pressed to ripen any but the shortest season tomatoes in the yard proper. Carrots, chard and potatoes do better. We have an ancient apple tree that shades us in the summer, letting in green-tinted dappled light. I often have the urge to thank the tree for sticking around. It’s not very “wild” nature, but it grounds me in a place where I belong.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that matters, and especially why it matters as we become an increasingly urban species. We need nature; not just for the air we breathe, for the water that constitutes most of our bodies, and for the sun that warms us and provides energy and the earth that feeds us, but also for the way it enables us to be fully human and a part of the whole that surrounds us.

Biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to refer to this innate affinity that humans have for nature, the love of capital-L Life. And in the past few years, I’ve been heartened that we appear to be rediscovering just how important that connection with nature is. A number of research studies have reinforced what appear to be instinctive affinities with scientific data, and connecting nature with health has broadened the field of interested designers and citizens considerably.

Across a range of themes, the findings are interesting:

Perception and Context: Although the frequency and sound patterns of freeway noise and ocean waves are very similar, our reactions depend upon our associations. A 2010 study by Hunter averaged the two and played them for listeners to determine their physiological responses through functional magnetic resonance imaging. When accompanied by beach images, the sound induced brain patterns consistent with tranquility, but the same sounds, when accompanied by images of freeways, did not. [1]

Simulated Nature: Another study by Peter Kahn and team at University of Washington exposed subjects to three different scenes – a blank wall, a plasma screen “window” (a webcam image of the landscape outside), and an actual window looking out into the landscape. Subjects were exposed to several creative and proofreading tasks, and their stress recovery (heart rate) was measured. When confronted variously with these scenes, their recovery heart rate reduction leveled out similarly with both the blank wall and the plasma window, but was significantly greater when exposed to the real window. [2] Real nature means something to us.

Forest Bathing: Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” the practice of spending time relaxing in the forest, has taken hold in Japan and research is noting the benefits. One study measured the amount of human natural killer (NK) cell activity before and after forest bathing, finding that greater NK activity, increased anti-cancer proteins and reduced stress were the outcome of time in the forest. [3] Another study shows that even five minutes in nature improves self-esteem and mood. [4]

I’m aware of the inherent conflict in quantifying something so seemingly intangible, and it’s true that we need to be careful about boxing in something that can be such a source of delight and liveliness. But our era carries a thirst for data that challenges us to a greater rigor of execution. It may be that we swing too far to the quantifiable on the way to creating places that make our hearts sing, but I have hope that we will find that balance, and that our work and our cities will be better for it.

Most importantly, if we are to thrive in our societies and our cities, nature must be a necessary participant. I dream of the day when we hear birdsong more often than traffic, and pollution has made way for the clean crisp scent of snow, the heady fecundity of blooming trees in the spring, or the often pungent odors of rotting leaves at fall’s end. I yearn for the time in the future when we can barely see cities from Google Earth, expecting to find them beautifully intertwined with forests, meadows or wetlands. I hope I see a time when even urban dwellers know their watershed, and understand what creatures belong there, and find their own place full of Life to love.


[1] Neuroimage. 2010 Nov 1;53(2):611-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.06.053. Epub 2010 Jun 30.The state of tranquility: subjective perception is shaped by contextual modulation of auditory connectivity. Hunter MD, et al.

[2] Kahn, P.H., Jr., Friedman, B., Gill, B., Hagman, J., Severson, R.L., Freier, N.G., et al. (2008). A plasma display window? The shifting baseline problem in a technologically-mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 192–199.

[3] Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2009 Mar 25.  (

[4] J. Barton and J. Pretty, What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A multi-study analysis. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44(2010); 3947-3955.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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