The pitfalls of passive activism in project design

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As architects and engineers, our designs have a distinct impact on the immediate surroundings and communities that they inhabit. Virtually all of the projects we engage in change the way a site communicates with its surroundings—with its neighbors, the general public, and the local and global environment. We may not typically see ourselves as activists, but the impacts of our designs and the myriad decisions we make on each project become manifestations of activism, both positively and negatively. In the not-so-long ago past, many of a designer’s selections were based on financial criteria, with little regard for the long-term impact of these selections. If a project were strictly budget-driven, the designer may not have engaged the client in a discussion about responsible design, and instead may have focused solely on delivering as much building as the program warranted. A typical discussion may have included reasoning like this: “I don’t care that vinyl flooring may not be the best option from a longevity, maintenance, or sustainability perspective; it’s cheap, and we need to meet our initial project budget.” Sadly, many of us have continued to take part in similar discussions. In many cases, the approach was to design as large of a building as could be constructed, and the process of fitting out the building was done as cheaply as possible—just to maintain the budget. Too often, the discussion of building smaller but smarter was not had with our clients. More recently, however, designing strictly for the here-and-now has proved to be a shortsighted approach. The days of considering only initial cost are fading, and we must now consider the full life cycle of our decisions and how they will impact their immediate and global surroundings. Herein lies the demand for activism in our respective professions; we need to educate ourselves and our clients on the best decisions we can make for the long term. Unfortunately, many of our colleagues are content to remain passive in their approach. Many of us have developed a level of comfort and complacency in our processes, our approaches, and the selections we make: “Let’s just copy the casework spec we used on the last project.” “Why change the old wall section we’ve used for years, with insulation between the studs? Adding rigid insulation outside of the sheathing will require us to change all of our standard details.” Many of us are lulled by the safety of knowing how a system may perform and sticking with it, even though it may come with a known set of downsides: “We have been using rooftop units for years. Using a system that requires a BMS is just too complicated.” To these comments, I suggest that you are still taking an activist position. As illustrated by the above examples, the comfortable, passive decisions you make will actively contribute to a larger detriment: casework that is fabricated from environmentally irresponsible materials and off-gasses to the building users; envelope insulation that is known to degrade and is rife with thermal breaks; mechanical systems that are inefficient, contributing to indoor air quality issues and lacking user controllability. In these examples, one could argue that reduced initial costs justify the continued use of these methods. Thankfully with all that we know today about life cycle costs, the enormous energy consumption of buildings (as much as 50% of total energy consumption and 75% of electricity consumption in the country), the environmental hazards associated with building materials construction, and the impact of the choices we make regarding the health of building occupants, this approach is becoming less and less acceptable. Considering the significant impact that each of our projects makes on its surroundings, it is our responsibility as design professionals to educate ourselves as much as possible so that we can educate our clients and the public to make the best decisions. When it comes to changing our buildings’ impacts and compelling our clients to make sound choices, we are the gatekeepers. Like it or not, and even though you may not see yourself as one, we are all activists. It is up to us to decide whether we will choose to remain passive in our activism, or if we want to take a more progressive, active approach. Danny Tanzi, P.E., R.A., LEED AP is a Senior Architect at H2M. You can reach Danny at