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Sustainability in Architecture and Design: An Interview with Bert Gregory

BetterBricks talked with Bert Gregory, president & CEO of Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture, design, and planning firm and a national leader in resource sensitive and sustainable design.

BetterBricks talked with Bert Gregory, president & CEO of Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture, design, and planning firm and a national leader in resource sensitive and sustainable design. Mithun has received numerous awards for their work, including honors from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Architecture+Energy, Business Week/Architectural Record and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The AIA Committee on the Environment selected three of the firm’s projects among the top ten United States green buildings.

Mithun is probably best known for its design of the REI stores and IslandWood, the innovative environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Bert served as design team leader for both of those projects. He is currently the design leader for Lloyd Crossing, a cutting-edge sustainable urban design plan for 35 blocks in Portland’s city center; Jackson, Wyoming’s Teton Science School; and the Seattle Monorail Project’s West Seattle stations. Bert’s national impact in design leadership has been noted by the AIA, the International Interior Design Association, and CoreNet Global, which honored the firm with the 2003 Sustainable Design Leadership Award. He speaks frequently around the country on sustainable building and design.

BB: How do you feel sustainability is progressing in the market and among professionals?

Sustainability is a fundamental factor of design and business in the 21st Century. Guy Battle (of the London-based firm, Battle McCarthy) in his interview last month with BetterBricks, pointed to a “massive sea change in attitude just in the last 12 months” in sustainable building. I couldn’t agree more. Economics, health and values are driving the worldwide movement toward environmentally intelligent design. In the European Union, carbon limits and resource costs are creating a huge demand for smart buildings. Community values have brought forth new neighborhoods, and whole cities, such as Malmo, Sweden, have adopted very aggressive goals for environmental performance.

Here in North America, we will see that demand accelerate even faster as resources become more expensive, the links between health and indoor air quality become better understood, and knowledge of every individual’s environmental footprint comes to the forefront. In the private sector, marketplace demand will give environmentally intelligent buildings more economic value. People are recognizing this. The education of architects, designers and engineers in sustainable design has accelerated exponentially because our clients are demanding it.

BB: What are some of the key selling points on sustainability that you use with your clients?

Decisions about sustainable design are all about choices, so we don’t really “sell.” When we begin a relationship, we spend a great deal of time sitting on the same side of the table as our clients. We work with them to understand their goals, long term economic parameters, return on investment, and what choices they can make in the areas of sustainable design that will establish a higher value for their building, development or portfolio. Whether from the private or public sector, our clients are generally very clear about what they value in a project. Healthy buildings are at the top of their list. By planning sites, buildings and interiors for water and energy efficiency, private and public organizations can also reap substantial savings in both long-and short-term operating costs. At the same time, they can use these facilities to make a bold statement about their commitment to the smart use of resources. Ultimately, they need to make the decisions, but we can be sure they understand all of their alternatives.

BB: Where do you think the movement is going? What is the next evolution in design?

The platform is there; the playing field has been established. Many design firms, contractors, jurisdictions and owners have implemented strategies to educate their staff in U.S. Green Building Council, or local green guidelines, which is a great first step. Additionally, clients and designers are beginning to establish aggressive goals regarding environmental impact for individual building designs. However, the future of green design is truly in broad-based systems like large-scale city planning. In the long-term, we need to take an integrated systematic approach to all that we do, which will come from multidisciplinary design. On a larger scale in the United States, we may need to see a modest realignment of tax and regulatory policies before this truly takes off. Internationally, we’re hoping that countries like China emerge as a location for the cutting-edge of sustainable design. That country is certainly consuming a dramatic amount of natural resources. Fortunately, there are many people who are very aware of the need to address this issue.

BB: How has sustainable design come to be at the heart of Mithun’s practice?

Mithun has a long history of doing environmentally sensitive design. In the ‘70s we had a strong practice in passive solar homes. Even then, we shared a core value surrounding smart energy use, site planning that was sensitive to the surrounding environment, and maximizing the use of natural light. In 1993 Recreational Equipment Inc. [REI] asked Mithun to help design its new flagship store in Seattle. In a survey commissioned by the cooperative, the members told us they wanted the store to be resource efficient, keep items out of the waste stream, and to use recycled content materials. Remember, in 1993, very few people were concerned about these issues in relation to their buildings. Our work with this client, and with our partners and suppliers, helped drive environmental sensitivity deeper into this industry and encouraged our own commitment to sustainable design. Since then, our education has accelerated.

Since REI, we have received many commissions from people with similar values. They have been the catalyst for us to expand the knowledge base in our organization. That’s one of the reasons that we have more than 40 architects, landscape architects, urban designers and interior designers who are LEED accredited.

BB: Which of your projects do you consider exemplary of sustainable high performance design?

That’s a bit like asking which of your children is your favorite. Each year, more than 4,000 kids come to IslandWood, the outdoor experiential learning center on Bainbridge Island, to explore the environment, art and technology in a truly natural setting. REI’s notoriety has influenced design in many commercial venues, which are now incorporating environmental values; and the book Resource Guide for Sustainable Development in an Urban Environment that we authored with the Urban Environmental Institute is still having an impact on market-based speculative development. Right now, our Lloyd Crossing project is breaking new ground in integrating community infrastructure and building design. But, I’d really have to say my true favorite project is always the next one. With each project we become more educated and sophisticated in natural systems so we can create more value for our clients and less impact on our environment.

BB: Which project(s) anywhere in the world do you consider exemplary?

Perhaps the most exemplary project is the world itself, for which each of us must contribute our part to help make better. Buckminster Fuller had it right, “Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship.” We’re all gaining understanding both of the need to keep the “ship” in good order, and of how integrated we are with the natural systems of this planet.

Some of the most beautiful recent architectural projects integrating resource efficiency goals are those of Norman Foster and Glenn Murcutt. Foster and Partner’s work on projects such as the London City Hall and Swiss Re headquarters in London, England show how the next generation of architectural form will be less dependent on style, and more based upon an integrated response to natural forces. Murcutt’s great work, such as the Magney House on the New South Wales Coast in Australia, shows designing elegant, environmentally intelligent buildings can be done at any scale.

BB: What is needed to move the mainstream toward sustainable buildings?

Knowledge, values and economics are the keys to moving projects toward sustainability. When people learn and understand the benefits of green design, they almost always seek ways to incorporate some degree of these strategies into their projects. We need to continue to drive consumer demand through education.

In the public sector, community values lead sustainable design strategies. We need to keep stewardship for the future generation high on elected officials’ lists, and continually remind them that future economic development will depend greatly on the efficient use of scarce resources.

In the private sector, we also need to continue making the business case for sustainable buildings, while building bridges for private sector leaders with the public sector. We are very focused on economic realities and demonstrating economic value through sustainable design and strategies such as highly productive, healthy work places. Mithun’s studies for real estate groups have helped them understand how they can be leaders in the market place and change this world for the better. It’s important for us to create HOV lanes for people on the for-profit side to travel this path. We want people to make more, not less, money by using sustainable design approaches. That is the way that we’ll really shift the world, and keep the ship sailing smoothly.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of BetterBricks, an Web site dedicated to raising awareness and demand for energy efficiency in buildings by sharing information and resources with the people who design, own and operate them. The article first appeared in April 2004.

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