How Designers Can Help Lead the Conversation about Science

Reflections on the March for Science in Washington, DC

May 30, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

“Energizing” is the word I would use to describe the March for Science in Washington, DC, last month on Saturday, April 22. Along with the People’s Climate March a week later, and with ongoing drama over the Paris climate accord, it’s obvious that people are feeling the need to get out and speak up on the issues surrounding our planet.

At the march I attended, it was wonderful to see such a wide diversity of age, race, geography, religion and profession uniting around the significance of science.

In particular the unanimous support for the reality of climate change is a call to action to reverse this human-instigated circumstance which could make many species — including our own — extinct in the next century.

The “science” of designing, building and operating the physical environment contributes significantly to adding carbon to the atmosphere — the leading cause of climate change — so our role as architects should be pivotal in reversing this. Designers can shape the dialogue in three ways:

1. Get Involved
I spoke to dozens of people along the March for Science and most were scientists and academics: although it’s possible I missed a few individuals, nowhere did I see the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) participating. I would argue our profession is at least half science, and therefore our input is paramount. Climate change is certainly discussed in architecture circles; however, it would be great if more people trained in design and architecture were in the political realm. Policy is the root of change and getting in at the ground level is key.

2. Implement Best Practices
There are a number of things the design industry can do that are simply best practices taken seriously, yet even today, 13 years away from the deadline of the 2030 Challenge, we are not taking the basics to heart. Design begins with one’s relationship to the environment, so appropriate responses to climate and solar and wind orientation are the most fundamental. Simple energy modeling that allows us to make big or even incremental moves can save megawatts of energy over decades. There are many passive design opportunities, from building orientation, to enclosure design, to building materials, to sun shading and louvers that we can take advantage of more frequently. We have a really big tool chest to work from!

3. Innovate
Then there’s the real science and innovation side, from things like photovoltaics, to making lighter buildings with less material, to sustainable materials like timber. There is no reason why the surface area of buildings can’t also be generators of energy or surfaces for agriculture. Even things like modular construction can significantly help reduce waste, in addition to creating better safety on-site and increasing construction quality. A whole range of potential innovations can be put into practice by the design and construction industry.

This will require help from our partners — clients, engineers, contractors — but the design professions can play a leading role. As the holders of the design vision, we have the platform and the point of view to orchestrate the conversation, to describe the issues and challenges. Initiatives like the USGBC and the AIA’s 2030 Challenge are a great start, but we in our profession we need to ramp it up.

 

Tens of thousands of people marching down Constitution Avenue and at over 600 similar events around the world send a clear signal to our elected leaders to take this matter seriously — science is the foundation of our future health, prosperity, even our very lives!

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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