Trumpeting the Sustainability Horn

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Nicole Wolf


Sustainability fits well with the Maine mindset and approach to the built environment, giving the state the potential to be a leader in the movement nationally. But sustainability depends, according to Gunnar Hubbard of Thornton Tomasetti, on the crucial role of the architect to help create value and performance, promote healthy environments, and share the knowledge base architects bring to projects. MH+D asked him to tell us more. 

Q.How has the role of architect changed as the industry’s changed?

A. Over the past quarter-century, architects, engineers, and construction professionals have come a long way in their understanding of climate change and the need for the industry to adopt new approaches in the sustainable design of the built environment. During this time, the role of the architect in promoting sustainability has changed dramatically. For the most part, the U.S. design community has largely accepted the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) as a tool to evaluate the environmental impact of building projects. The LEED system provides a point system for aspects and elements of projects that promote environmental sustainability. While the rating system is not perfect, we can accept that it has made an incredible impact on raising awareness of sustainability among owners and the design community. However, ratings systems do not go far enough. Professional architects—I believe—have a responsibility not only to respond to owners’ requests to incorporate green design elements into their projects but also to actively promote and provide sustainable alternatives as an integral part of the design process.


Q.What has the Maine AIA done to make sustainability an integral part of the design process?

A. The Maine AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), which I currently chair, works to advance, disseminate, and advocate design practices that integrate built and natural systems and enhance both the design quality and environmental performance of the built environment. COTE serves as the community and voice on behalf of AIA architects regarding sustainable design and building science and performance. COTE reflects the profession’s commitment to providing healthy and safe environments for people and is dedicated to preserving the earth’s capability of sustaining a shared high quality of life. The committee’s mission is to lead and coordinate the profession’s involvement in environmental and energy-related issues and to promote the role of the architect as a leader in preserving and protecting the planet and its living systems.



Q. What are you and your firm doing to promote sustainable design?

A.   As a longtime proponent of sustainable design, first as a founder of Maine-based environmental design consultants Fore Solutions and now as principal and leader of the Building Sustainability practice of the international engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, I constantly strive to push the envelope in sustainable design. Today’s buildings account for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, our company was the first structural engineering firm to adopt the AIA 2030 Commitment to educate architects and engineers with the information they need to create carbon-neutral buildings by the year 2030. This is the first national program designed to provide the roadmap architects need to make a direct impact on the effects of climate change as it relates to integrative building design and energy efficiency. Obviously, not all existing buildings can be retrofit to meet the challenge of carbon neutrality. This means that architects and engineers must strive to set their goals even higher to design net-positive structures in the years ahead.


Q.How can architects adopt the principles of sustainability in how they do business?


A.  Sustainable practices need be part of how responsible designers deliver buildings and incorporated into our approach early in the design process. Far too many introduce sustainable design elements only when requested by their clients. The more we weave considerations of how buildings handle conditions like harsh climate, creating healthy indoor environments, use of locally sourced materials, and approaches to recycling construction debris, the better we can promote the long-term efficiencies of projects while dealing with the reality of short-term budgets. Green buildings don’t have to cost more. The ideal is to design high-performance approaches into our architecture using everything at our disposal, from the building’s orientation to natural ventilation to high-performance envelopes, and sound construction techniques for a tight building.  For far too long designers have looked to building systems alone to address comfort and energy efficiency, depending on the luxury of fossil fuels with little regard for their effects on the world around us.  

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