Architects empowered to drive positive change at SXSW Eco

William McDonough, FAIA

William McDonough, FAIA, gave a keynote at the 2016 SXSW Eco conference that emphasized the need for urban revolution.

Carbon-positive cities, biophilia, and data-centric decisions define the next American city that architects can help create

In discussing solar orchards, biophilic cities, and illustrative mapping of everything from water surges to public protests, architects at the 2016 SXSW Eco conference brought the audience a dynamic voice for change. In its fourth year, the sister conference to the larger South by Southwest festival has grown into a three-day convergence of all things driving global change under the umbrella of design, technology, and business. Its basic premise is a forum for ideation and connection across industries. Participants arrive from around the globe, united by aspirations to establish new ways of dealing with health, food, water, climate change, clean air, energy, and development.

“Architects provide a fundamental voice in this conference,” notes SXSW executive producer Morgan Catalina. “We are talking about environmental and social change. It is a realm that architects can shape, change, and influence through design.” In fact, design thinking and problem-solving were a priority in much of the conference discussions. Topics ranged from idea-driven calls to action to explanations of developing software tools. Creative solutions involving cross- and multi-disciplinary teams were billed as the most effective ways to address many of the world’s pressing problems. 

Time for a (sustainability) revolution

In his keynote, William McDonough, FAIA, of William McDonough + Partners, called for a revolution as he emphasized the need for carbon-positive cities and work toward climate change reversal. A visionary for more than 40 years, McDonough has been a pioneer in sustainability. He co-created the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, and all his work promotes a complete understanding of material health in the design process coupled with built-in renewable energy and social fairness. 

He is currently working on concepts for a Chinese city that can feed and power itself. In Mongolia, McDonough’s “solar orchards” allow industry and agriculture to live in the same place. Solar collectors are elevated six feet, allowing for grazing animals to occupy the same land. “This is beautiful … grasses come back by themselves,” stressed McDonough. His is a call for a new language to deal with carbon that promotes constant improvement and a reevaluation of the current framework from which architects and designers evaluate their impacts on the environment and the future of human health.

Connections to nature

Likewise, Amanda Sturgeon, FAIA, chief executive officer of the International Living Future Institute, noted that architects should change the way they are designing, and recognize that “people are a part of nature, not separate from it.” As part of the workshop on biophilic cities, she presented her research related to biophilic design emphasizing the reconnection of humans and the natural world. Biophilic cities prioritize the integration of green and blue ways throughout urban zones, urban farming initiatives to support food deserts, and integration of wildlife preservation in planning efforts, among others.

“We are talking about environmental and social change. It is a realm that architects can shape, change, and influence through design.” - SXSW executive producer Morgan Catalina

Sturgeon summarized her argument for new design thinking: “Most of architecture is being created with no connection to place, climate, geography, or regional context. With increasing urbanization, and the fact that we spend 90 percent of our time inside, our fundamental connection with nature is disappearing. At the same time, the Paris climate agreement requires that buildings radically reduce their energy use, past the incremental efficiencies that we have been achieving. If we don’t design our buildings to adapt to our climate, we will not get there. I believe this is an urgent issue for the creation of our buildings. Architects must change the way that they design, and we must train our young architects to have the skills and abilities to design in this way.”

Tools to further the profession

Going beyond just understanding a building’s site was part of the inspiration for Perkins+Will associate principal Leigh Christy to develop Hazel, a software tool for optimizing planning for stormwater infiltration, collection, and reuse. Christy sees part of her role as an architect is to engage in larger questions about the future of the environment. “Hazel is a tool for architects and planners,” she said. “The data help analyze cost, identify policy needs, streamline water detention practices, reduce carbon emissions, improve pedestrian thermal comfort, and create new habitats for wildlife.”

Ultimately, the platform provides data fundamental for project site selection. After being awarded a grant from the AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Prize, Hazel was developed collaboratively by the Arid Lands Institute of Woodbury University, Perkins+Will, the Nature Conservancy, and the City of Los Angeles. The design team is still refining Hazel. Christy notes that after presenting Hazel to architects and city planners, the response from the multidisciplinary audience was refreshing. “It was the first time I had someone come up to me and ask if I needed help coding,” she said. 

Another software tool called SPEA (Spatial Practice as Evidence and Advocacy) was developed by a landscape architect–led team. “[We] are of course influenced by the architectural designers that we work with,” said McKenna Cole, research associate at SITU Studio. SPEA visualizes complex spatial narratives like the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, often using three-dimensional renderings.

“Developing accurate 3-D models allows us to understand events spatially, enabling us to establish known protester and police locations that draws from citizen-captured videos,” explained Cole. The usual outlets for dissemination of the data collected and compiled with SPEA are in the courtroom, through specific publication, or in advocacy reports. SPEA received an honorary mention in the Equity + Inclusion category of the Place by Design competition at the conference.

If this most recent SXSW Eco was an illustration of the prominent role architects can play both as visionaries and as team players working to effect change, the conference also clearly demonstrated that opportunities abound and that people value design thinking. As William McDonough noted, “I’m an architect, and an architect’s job … is to change the way we see, then we rearrange the furniture, and then we build.”

Image credits

William McDonough, FAIA

Steve Rogers

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