Team Al McKee, Alex Pokas, Brianna Bernstein, Chinwendu Ibe, Elizabeth Vereker, Eric Mersmann, Gustavo Lopez, Lauren Harrison, Lauren Perich, Lisa Bieringer, Meredith Quinn, Minnee Pham, Paulina McFarland, Rodley Jean, Sarah Hotchin, Sean Houghton, Verda Alexander
At O+A, climate action started with lunch. Late in 2019, a team of interested staffers met periodically over lunch to discuss what we as a company could do to address the growing urgency of climate change. The carbon-savvy among us ordered salad; those new to the cause ordered meat. But a consensus arose that as professionals in an industry that contributes to the problem, we had a responsibility to help solve it. Action 2020 was the name we chose for a program of outreach, new initiatives, and new alliances through which we hoped to engage the issue. Then COVID hit and 2020 became a mostly digital year. Many months later, Action 2021 is shaping up to be more hands-on. We understand that our early efforts were a microcosm of what’s been happening across the industry: designers and clients, consultants and contractors, getting together to figure out what they—what we—can do to make things better. We’re especially looking forward to getting back to lunch.
“I miss the stuff,” O+A Senior Designer Cathy Barrett said. She was talking about the materials library long out of reach during the pandemic’s enforced work-from-home period and what she was looking forward to when the office finally reopened. The stuff—carpet samples, wood and tile samples, little cuts of textile and stone—is what a lot of designers love most about their work. You assemble a tray of stuff and that becomes the furniture and millwork, the floors and walls of your project. Every designer knows “the stuff” does not always meet the highest environmental standards, but as O+A’s eco team dug deeper, we were startled to learn the full extent of the problem. It was like learning your best friend has been pulling off armed robberies. Some of the materials used to build our model workplaces are unregulated industries or are brought to market under socially untenable conditions. Surely the low-hanging fruit of design reform is eliminating harmful materials from our practice. Easy, right?
If materials selection seemed to O+A’s eco team the low-hanging fruit of design reform (it was higher-hanging fruit than we thought, minimizing waste feels like the most impactful thing we can do at the project level. Making sure materials selected are used to their fullest capacity aligns with our firm’s long-held belief that no space in a floor plan should go to waste, that every square foot has a purpose. Finding what that purpose is for every square foot of carpet, wood, tile, and stone will be the challenge of 21st-century design. Procedures that install the full measurements ordered or find another use for scraps and discards will make accurate planning, budgeting, and ordering even more important than they are now. Is a no-waste construction site even possible? Like all forms of perfection, it’s a goal.
Social equity in design is the conviction that when spaces are welcoming and functional for all people, everyone benefits. What does that have to do with climate change? Putting aside the disproportionate impact of global warming on historically oppressed communities—and the culture of affluence has been putting that aside for decades—O+A began to see the social ecosystem as a template for the ecosystem of the planet. How designers work with users to design spaces that accommodate the wide spectrum of their needs—physical, emotional, environmental, social, cultural—will surely guide them to a better understanding of how to address the multitude of challenges posed by climate change.
There was a period in O+A’s early development when our photographers moved plants out of the picture. Indoor plants were seldom part of a featured design. They were usually brought in by the client or the staff, and the photo team considered them clutter. Gradually, wellness took hold as a design priority, and certain types of “clutter” acquired a new cache. Plants returned to the frame. As O+A’s eco team prepared this playbook, we debated whether a chapter on biophilic design was needed, was even relevant. Again, what did it have to do with climate change? A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggested an answer. It found that in addition to its obvious impact on personal wellbeing, connecting to nature “encourages individuals to act in ways which protect the health of the planet.” In other words, it’s a form of recruitment—a reminder of the planet we’re working to save.
So what are we going to do about it? One of the hard truths the COVID-19 pandemic dumped in our laps was how indifferent global crises are to good intentions, lip service, hearts-in-the-right-place, etc. If we’re not prepared to disrupt our lives and do things differently, the crises that threaten us will persist and get worse. As O+A’s eco team was preparing this playbook, we understood it to be our guide for remaking our design process. O+A has long believed the way we do design—a combination of client research, storytelling, and cross-discipline translation—is what distinguishes our work from that of other firms. Adapting that process to the new climate realities will disrupt some of our usual work habits, but we are confident it needn’t alter—and may in fact enhance—what makes the process unique.
Eco Playbook Download
AIA: The Architecture & Design Materials Pledge
The pledge was developed to inspire a shift in how architects and designers evaluate the products and finishes we specify on a daily basis. Participants commit to five overarching statements that will lead to more intentional product specification over time.
Carbon Leadership Forum: The Carbon Challenge
The Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) invites you to join its coalition of architects, engineers, contractors, materials suppliers, building owners, policymakers, and associations committed to radically decarbonizing buildings and building materials.
The Design Vanguard: The Designer’s Pledge
Join peer design leaders and design ambassadors in co-signing The Design Vanguard’s ten-point pledge to realize their goal of a more just, safe, and beautiful world. A commitment to the pledge is a reminder that design can have a higher purpose and has the potential to positively impact our world.
Metropolis: Climate Toolkit for Interior Design
Industry experts in design, construction, and manufacturing participated in a 3-month-long hackathon to identify where we can make the biggest difference with interior design. They helped define 20 key strategies—for low-carbon spaces—where the industry can improve and evolve from.
Metropolis: Interior Design Pledge for Positive Impact
The pledge calls upon designers to understand, assess, and maximize the positive impact of their work by making three interconnected commitments to climate, health, and equity.
mindful MATERIALS is a free platform with aggregated information on human health and environmental impacts for products from leading manufacturers, vetted by experts passionate about making it easier to make informed product choices.
Mismatch.design is a firm dedicated to advancing inclusive design education and resources founded by Kat Holmes, SVP of Product Design and UX at Salesforce and author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.
RIBA: Built for the Environment Report
This global report, produced by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in partnership with Architects Declare, makes the case that the built environment must drastically reduce its carbon emissions to work towards net zero.