Thriving Sustainably

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Trent Bell

Sarah Holland and David Foley Discuss What it means to design sustainably


Architect William Wurster once said, “When I am given a hillside, I embrace it and do not long for a meadow.” He believed design should serve genuine needs: “Architecture is not a goal—architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture.” Sarah Holland and David Foley of Holland and Foley Architecture in Northport embrace this philosophy in their practice. They believe sustainable design is about exquisite adaptation and that the alternative is brute force: uncreative, uninteresting, and unsustainable. MH+D asked them to explain.

Q: WHY HAS Sustainability MOVED SO FAR FORWARD IN THE architectural vernacular LATELY?
A: Isn’t it strange that there’s a niche specialty called “Sustainable Design?” It’s as if we’re all tacitly admitting that standard practice is unsustainable. We didn’t collectively decide to make an unsustainable built environment—yet few people focus on sustainability when they design, engineer, build, or renovate. Perhaps that’s because, until recently, the world was large and humanity’s impact small. But we’re now depleting nature 50 percent faster than it can regenerate—our “ecological footprint” requires 1.5 Earths. We’ve financed a planetary “asset bubble” by liquidating natural capital. We can’t do that forever, or even much longer. During the recent housing bubble, unsustainable debt sometimes encouraged thoughtless shopping sprees over thoughtful investments in enduring quality. But booms bust, and then we realize that debt and bubbles—financial or ecological—erode our security and prosperity. There’s a better way.

Q: What does sustainable design look like to you? What is it—and what is it not?
A: Sustainability sustains us. Sustainable design is elegant sufficiency, neither privation nor excess. It’s embrace, not denial: choosing comfort, health, utility, durability, and beauty over inefficiency, waste, clutter, and thoughtlessness. Sustainable design applies creativity and craft to develop the potential, and respect the limits, of places, so people—and the planet—can thrive. Every place has potential, and limits. Good designers learn to see and respect both. Who needs excess? It just gets in the way. “Style” is ephemeral, beauty timeless. One is the latest “pretty face”; the other is the smile on anyone’s face. There’s no ostentation in nature, and no excess. Yet nature is profoundly beautiful, developing and thriving for billions of years, cycling the same matter ceaselessly, powered by current solar income. That’s amazing. We who design, engineer, and build can learn from that, and help bring vitality, beauty, and enduring prosperity to our clients, communities, and planet.

Q: How does this translate into your practice and design?
A: We’ve taken this to heart. Given a hillside, we design for peaceful coexistence with its slope, saving money and resources. Given a region, we design for its climate, fostering people’s comfort without draining wallets—or drowning polar bears. In New England’s cold climate, we site in sheltered spots, orient for winter sunshine, insulate heavily, build tight, and ventilate right. For a Florida project, we’re adapting vernacular design, using natural ventilation, shading, and careful detailing to minimize air-conditioning. We continually research building science, using experience and energy-modeling software to achieve designs needing only 20 percent to 50 percent the energy of similar conventional buildings.

Q: Are clients becoming more open to sustainability?
A: Here’s what often surprises and delights our clients: efficiency helps them thrive. They’re more comfortable, not exposed to molds, radon, and other contaminants, not facing high fuel bills or endless upkeep and maintenance. Their buildings cost less to own, and often cost the same to build, as conventional buildings of similar quality. Even when first costs are higher, returns are attractive, with minimal risk. Move toward sustainability and you improve your quality of life. We ask clients their stories: who they are, how they live. This helps us all discover what nurtures them and avoid what will merely burden them. When people build or renovate, they encounter pressures, subtle and overt, to follow fads and strike poses, to both conform and display. When our clients realize they can relax and focus on their genuine lives and well-being, we sense their relief. Building and renovating are major investments of money and resources. We want to ensure that every square foot has deep purpose, will be well used and well loved.