Projects

Eco Playbook

The Eco Playbook is a primer on how to design with the impact on our planet always in mind; how to utilize the limited resources we have in effective ways, rejecting harmful materials and embracing natural systems; and how to serve our community and be inclusive in the way we do business.

This playbook is written from O+A’s perspective, in our voice, and about our journey of discovery in an incredibly complex arena. We are not experts, do not profess to be experts, and do not presume to teach or preach. We want to help bring needed change to our industry, leading by example if we can, but also following and celebrating the lead of others. This book is revolutionary in that, for us, it is uncharted territory; we are forging a new path for design. It is O+A’s manifesto, laying out a new way of working that embraces the radical change our profession needs and pledging to move fast to address the climate crisis.

Verda Alexander Co-Founder / Studio O+A
October 2021

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The Eco Playbook is a primer on how to design with the impact on our planet always in mind; how to utilize the limited resources we have in effective ways, rejecting harmful materials and embracing natural systems; and how to serve our community and be inclusive in the way we do business.

This playbook is written from O+A’s perspective, in our voice, and about our journey of discovery in an incredibly complex arena. We are not experts, do not profess to be experts, and do not presume to teach or preach. We want to help bring needed change to our industry, leading by example if we can, but also following and celebrating the lead of others. This book is revolutionary in that, for us, it is uncharted territory; we are forging a new path for design. It is O+A’s manifesto, laying out a new way of working that embraces the radical change our profession needs and pledging to move fast to address the climate crisis.

Verda Alexander Co-Founder / Studio O+A
October 2021

Jump to playbook download.
  • Year 2021

  • 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.

 

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O+A thinks of Eco Playbook as a starting point—in architectural terms, it’s a vestibule. We see it as our door to a whole new era of placemaking, a passage from past practice to a remodeled future we want to help design. Once you’ve been part of a revolution, you remain a free thinker all your life. With this ever-evolving playbook, we hope to have an impact by activating free thinkers across our industry.
 

© 2021, Studio O+A. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, which means we encourage any and all parts of this publication to be reproduced or modified in any form by any means. But note, O+A has taken lengths to acknowledge and give proper credit to all artists, design firms, photographers, and writers featured or referenced in the Playbook. We ask that you do the same—and that any work derived from this publication have a compatible copyright license.


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