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An Eco-Friendly House Divided: Lance Hosey, AIA, on What Sustainable Architecture Should Look Like

The three steps to integrate aesthetics and sustainability are conservation, attraction, and connection

By Leigh Franke

As the everyday vocabulary of green design has expanded to include net-zero efficiency, LEED certification, off-the-grid energy performance, and other terms previously reserved for industry professionals, Lance Hosey, AIA, reminds architects that “sustainable” has as many faces as it does descriptors—but to be effective, these have to be faces people want to look at.

Though the design professions and the public have come to widely embrace sustainability in only the past few decades, Hosey insists that what lies at the core of green design might not be the most cutting-edge technology, but something that has been essential to architecture since before Vitruvius: the cultivation of beauty. By creating guidelines to green design driven by inherent aesthetic preferences rather than any singular auteur-designer’s own artistic vision, Hosey, in his recently published book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press), defines the criteria that make buildings relatable, charming, perhaps even captivating, and thus sustainable.

Earlier in his career, as a Director with William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, Va., Hosey realized the potential of sustainable design to reshape the market for design services in its own image. Now, as chief sustainability officer for the mega-firm RTKL (with 13 offices on four continents), he applies the principles of his book to multitudes of buildings across the nation and world.

So what does it mean to be chief sustainability officer for RTKL?

Part of the reason I took the job is because it’s an opportunity to look at a very large practice and establish new standards. Whereas smaller firms sometimes take years to finish a project, RTKL can complete 50 million square feet in a single year. We touch more of the built environment in one year than some architects do in their entire careers. So this job is really a juggernaut, but it’s also an opportunity to apply some of the ideas from my book, The Shape of Green.

What motivated you to write The Shape of Green? Is sustainability coming to a crucial point where technology trumps design more so than in the past?

When I first heard about the sustainability agenda 20 years ago, the first question I asked was, “What does it look like?” Most people didn’t have an answer, or they didn’t have a satisfying one. I wanted an answer, but I also wanted to appeal to designers who believe that sustainability is irrelevant to aesthetics. There’s got to be something driven by both the sustainability of resources and the sustainability of emotional appeal. How do we make things that are efficient, but also meaningful and fulfilling?

In recent years, it seems as if we are headed in the opposite direction. A lot of a very well-known architects and designers were saying publicly that they thought sustainability had absolutely nothing to do with architecture or aesthetics. What I ask in the book is to imagine a day when everything we make is clean, safe, and infinitely renewable. Is that enough? If you could get up every morning and ingest a single pill like a vitamin, and not have to eat again and be perfectly healthy, would that be enough? Or are you missing something?

So how can we talk about sustainability and aesthetics together?

This is the first book to specifically to outline clear principles for aesthetics in sustainable design: conservation, attraction, and connection. Conservation is that you can shape something in order to use resources more intelligently. [Gensler’s] Shanghai Tower twists, allowing them to use less steel because it works like a reed on a riverbank, right? It works with the wind instead of trying to work against it. Attraction [is], how do we make things that will give us lasting emotional appeal? The connection part is, does the building feel specific to a place? Part of that is simply better performance in the obvious way that we measure performance.

For example, a building made out of very thin materials in a hot, dry climate might not be very smart, whereas a building made out of materials that have a lot of thermal mass—like adobe in the southwest—would be very smart, and it contributes to the performance. That has a direct impact on how the building looks, how the building feels, texture, and color, etc. So in the same way that you wouldn’t build an igloo in Idaho, you wouldn’t build a pueblo in Pennsylvania because it directly affects the performance.

A lot of greener buildings look fairly generic. You see a lot of glass double facades on office buildings that appear all over the world, and they might deal with energy conservation well, but because they could be anywhere, they are missing an opportunity to help people pay more attention to their environment. The idea that one kind of building is appropriate everywhere means that we are ignoring the difference between one place and another. There are two reasons why designing for place is so important. One is environmental performance. Narrowly defined, that's just how we use resources, but it's going to be dramatically enhanced if you work with the particular bioclimatic zone.

[This process] demystifies the whole design process. It takes it out of the realm of the celebrated few who come down from the mountaintop and say, “This is beauty. Now enjoy.” If we can pin down what we mean by “good design” and make it into something that any competent professional can produce, then the benefit of that is that there will be more of it.

Do you think that architecture based on crowdsourcing would be a way to encourage a diverse, beautiful, and sustainable built environment?

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but this might be my next blog. Indigenous architecture is traditional crowdsourcing, right? The smartest structure built is the igloo, but the igloo wasn’t invented by one really smart Eskimo. It was the Inuit people living in a place for many generations and learning what works and what doesn’t. It was crowdsourcing over a very long time. Social media and other channels allow us to crowdsource more quickly, but it’s actually returning to a very traditional process.


The Shape of Green by Lance Hosey, AIA. Cover image courtesy of Milan Bozic.

Lance Hosey, AIA. Image courtesy of Sarah Cramer Shields.



Buy The Shape of Green from the AIA Store.

Visit the AIA KnowledgeNet Committee on the Environment website.

Visit the AIA KnowledgeNet Committee on Design website.


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