02/21/2011 01:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Designers Neglecting Climate Change in Favor of Holistic Sustainability?

Sustainability is a ubiquitous buzzword in design discourse. Unlike the more flexible term green design, sustainable design implies a holistic consideration of environmental impact. In his book, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, Jason McLennan states that the intention of sustainable design is to "eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design."

Sustainability is a perfect concept that aspires to the establishment of an ecologically-balanced culture that can exist in perpetuity. This is a beautiful ideal, but in reality, our building culture will never be perfect and ecological balance can be disrupted quite easily.

Sustainability is an effective term when it is used to inspire designers to consider more. Sustainability becomes green washing when it is used to generically lump distinctly different environmental consequences into an overall level of progressiveness. The holistic approach to sustainability provides opportunity for less essential considerations to camouflage urgent considerations. If reforming mainstream building practices is an incremental process, let's make sure we are going after the most important increments. Our historical inability to bring aggressive radical utopian change directly off the drawing boards and into the built environment is the reason why we should spend our progressive capital on the increments of change that are the most essential.

When people try to do everything, sometimes the most important things get neglected in favor of the easy things.

If climate change is the most pressing issue and we are not cutting our carbon emission rapidly enough to stop it, then perhaps we need aggressive prioritization as opposed to holistic considerations.

Is pursuing holistic considerations of sustainability compromising the speed at which the design community addresses carbon emissions and climate change? In trying to address everything are we neglecting the most pressing issues?

According to, buildings account for about 49% of the energy consumed in the America. An aggressive approach to energy efficiency could make a big difference.

Green building practices are becoming more common. The USGBC recently announced that their green building standard LEED has accredited more than 1 billion square feet of construction.

LEED may not be as stringent as some of its critics would like but it certainly does include a broad range of considerations. Energy performance is just one of the many areas where designers can score points with their designs.

In his article "It's the Energy Stupid," Joseph Lstiburek suggests that the average LEED building is only slightly more energy efficient than its average counterpart. He points out that LEED buildings use approximately 15% less energy than typical buildings constructed at the same time. A little progress is certainly better than no progress, but it is essential that these buildings' actual effect on climate change isn't overshadowed by their other green features.

I have been in many discussions with builders and developers who talk about the low hanging fruit of LEED. They reduce LEED to the cost optimal approach to branding their project as green. Expensive energy considerations are disregarded in favor of inexpensive indoor air quality features.

The broad range of consideration within LEED allows them to brand their projects as green without making a serious effort to reduce their carbon emissions.

A portion of sustainable discourse often centers on occupant health. I am all for creating non-toxic work environments but I don't see as strong a link to the overall health of our ecological systems as I do with carbon emissions and climate change.

I care about indoor air quality, but not unilaterally and not as much as I care about climate change.

I don't care if the Hometown Buffet has good indoor air quality, but I do care about its carbon emissions. I know it may sound elitist, but I say, "Let the patrons of these establishments eat tiny polyester fibers and off gassed VOCs along with their second helping of cake."

I think LEED has contributed greatly to creating public awareness of the environmental performance of buildings. I think the people of the USGBC do an incredible job in constantly adapting, improving and updating the standard. Making everyone happy with such a standard is impossible.

But... imagine if you bought a car based on LEED

You wanted high MPGs because you care about emissions. You had a moderate budget so you selected a LEED Gold car figuring you are doing your part. Later you realize that it only gets 20 mpgs but earned its LEED rating by installing extra airbags (think occupant health and safety), soy foam seats covered in organic cotton and a steering wheel made from reclaimed wood finished with low VOC sealant. Unless the soy foam seats can serve as a floatation device, this car does little to address the consequences of climate change.

My short-term suggestion would be to create sub scores that identify a particular focus such as energy, carbon footprint, occupant health, water etc. This would at least create at a glance transparency for LEED buildings that do poorly in terms of energy and carbon.

The long-term question is do we need to raise the floor or the ceiling? Instead of focusing on critiquing LEED for what it doesn't have, should we simply ask that certain components be adjusted? Simply put, should we say that LEED buildings must use 50% less energy per square foot or occupant than the average building of a similar type in that climate zone?

It has been demonstrated that elite levels of environmental performance across a wide range of considerations can be achieved when progressive clients hire smart designers. The critical challenge is what to do with the majority of buildings that are funded, designed and constructed by those who are less talented and noble. Simply telling people to be smarter and more considerate is not a solution. We know that the cream of the crop will constantly push the envelope and raise the bar. We know that portions of the innovation achieved by the most innovative designers will trickle down to the multitude of average designers ad developers.

How do we get the most out of the average majority?

If the majority of designers are going to apply watered down portions of sustainability, then perhaps it is wise to direct their limited efforts in a prioritized manner instead of a holistic manner.

Unfortunately, the fate of the planet is affected more by the environmental footprints of average buildings than it is by the few brilliant buildings that represent the best of sustainable design.

There are some standards that are demanding more. The Living Building Challenge and The Passive House Standard are worth checking out for designers who want to tackle a challenge that goes beyond the low hanging fruit.