September 14, 2021
What makes a building great? A query for examples of “great architecture” will certainly return a list of beautiful objects and forms. But beyond a privileged few, whom have those projects served—and how much does that matter?
For many design professionals, architecture is more than the final product. It is a language, a process of creating spaces for people, and a representation of what we value as a culture. What is good and appropriate in one context may not work in another. Though defining design excellence can be like “asking the meaning of life,” says Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, describing it is possible: “Good architecture is resolute. [It has] resolution in the scale of the site and the building, and in the hand or detail.”
Successful design also maximizes the positive impacts of a context and makes something that works and is loved. “Scale and proportion don’t cost anything,” continues Blackwell, the principal of his eponymous firm in Fayetteville, Ark. “It is about economy of means for a maximum of meaning.”
Embracing the Potential of Good Design
By now, many, if not most, architects would agree that environmental performance is a collective and urgent priority, particularly as the effects of climate change acutely manifest around us. This summer is yet another one of the hottest on record, and wildfires and extreme temperature swings are recurring news stories.
Beyond energy use intensities, attention to factors such as the health and experience of people in and around a building is becoming more prevalent. Increasingly, architects are acknowledging community engagement, resilience, and social justice as project performance criteria. At the same time, formal certification programs such as the Living Building Challenge, Declare, Fitwel, WELL Building Standard, and Social Economic Environmental Design have emerged. The U.S. Green Building Council has evolved LEED, the first mainstream green building rating system, to meet market demand for not only energy efficiency but also bigger-picture thinking via LEED for Neighborhood Development and LEED for Cities and Communities. WELL, a complementary rating system to LEED, focuses on evaluating occupant experience, which has a clear cost value to companies in the forms of staff turnover, productivity, and job satisfaction.
Some architects (and clients) think they know good design when they see it, and that they don’t need another checklist for evaluating design. But sensory experiences—like the textures of materials, quality of light, privacy and noise, connection to nature, and integration with a community—are critical to a building’s success. These aspects are hard to detail and compare. “You manage what you measure” holds truth in design, but without explicit attention to the impact of architecture on health, well-being, social equity, and community fabric, these factors could get lost.
A Framework for Excellence
Recognizing that architecture goes beyond aesthetics and site boundaries, The American Institute of Architects, in 2019, adopted its Committee on the Environment’s (COTE’s) 10 measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, which is relevant to projects “regardless of size, typology, or aspiration,” according to its website. The rubric comprises 10 principles that define “good design in the 21st century.” Quantitative aspects—energy, water, economy, resources, and ecosystems—are paired with qualitative aspects vital to the building’s story—integration, equitable communities, well-being, change, and discovery.
Since 1997, COTE has honored projects that best meet these values through its Top Ten Awards program, whose winner archive provides a record of building data and an annual snapshot of our profession’s potential. The program is open to recently built projects across all typologies and climate zones to establish a wide spectrum of what constitutes sustainable design excellence. “It is intentional,” says Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a St. Louis–based sustainability consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group and a past COTE awards juror. “There is something in the winners that can inspire almost all of us as we do different kinds of work.”
Entrants are encouraged to submit post-occupancy project data along with documentation of community engagement, energy savings, connection to occupant health and well-being, and support of the AIA 2030 Commitment, among other parameters. While the juries do seek projects that demonstrate conventional design qualities, like aesthetics, they also have to determine if projects adopted or exceeded best practices in sustainable design—a bar that continues to rise as technology and design priorities evolve.
“Performance needs to be integrated,” says Blackwell, who juried this year’s COTE awards. During his review, he searched for projects that used common-sense passive-design strategies. “Otherwise, it leads with its chin,” he says. “It is more about environmentalism than environment.”
“Some aspects are easier to measure and compare, like energy use or Walk Score numbers,” says Michelle Amt, AIA, who chaired the 2021 jury and is also the Charlottesville, Va.–based director of sustainability for VMDO. Harder to assess is “how did the community benefit from the design? Because community means different things. For some [design aspects], the metrics aren’t there yet.”
Read the author’s interview with Colloqate Design principal Bryan C. Lee Jr. on the connectivity between environment, architecture, and justice.
Reworking Design Strategies
Many architects are beginning to communicate the broader value and benefits of holistic design and planning to their clients. Government financial incentives—like tax credits offered to the private sector for LEED certification—help, but designers can also reframe their clients’ notion of the bottom line. Developers are largely motivated by monetary returns on investment, but what if architects could better describe the economic gains from investing in people, neighborhoods, and well-being for lasting value?
Higher education institutions have embraced the long game. They expect capital investments to last 50 to 75 years minimum, Lazarus says. High-performance campus buildings become showcases for faculty and student recruitment and integral to the brand of the institution, cementing its role as a sustainability and knowledge leader. During the early stages of design, university clients are more likely to engage students in the data collection process and publish post-occupancy data. Their willingness to study and share the process and product of their designs is an important next step in increasing data transparency, establishing realistic expectations, educating other clients, and encouraging more higher performing buildings.
Perhaps the fact that six of this year’s COTE Top Ten Awards went to university and college projects then comes as little surprise. However, other common building types—K–12 schools, multifamily housing, community centers, offices, and retail stores—did not manage a spot in the winner’s circle. These background buildings, which constitute the majority of our stock, should also be inspiring, functional, and worth updating. Blackwell cites the dogtrot house as exemplifying inherent potential for excellence: “The typology is modest, yet beautifully conceived, shades, and brings in air and breezes.”
More complex programs, such as affordable housing and adaptive reuse, can also pursue this expanded notion of design excellence. “There are a lot of everyday buildings that we have to seize their potential, like abandoned strip malls and big box stores,” Lazarus says. “We can’t always demolish and rebuild, or all of that embodied carbon has gone to waste.”
Repositioning the Narrative
Architects can change the value question of building performance to help clients not just focus on how much more they have to do, intervene, or pay, but also on building habitation, strengthening community, and improving the health of people and the planet, says Anne Schopf, FAIA, a partner at Seattle-based Mahlum Architects, whose Rainier Beach Clinic, also in Seattle, won a 2021 COTE award. And architects sometimes will need to hand over control to more convincing parties, such as community collaborators and stakeholders.
Schopf cites the example of Shelley Halstead, founder and executive director of Black Women Build-Baltimore, an organization that supports home ownership and wealth-building in Black communities by training Black women in carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing as they restore vacant and dilapidated houses in West Baltimore. During her keynote presentation at this year’s AIA Conference on Architecture, “Halstead talked about her projects that radically re-inhabit neighbourhoods, creating real dignity and quality spaces for people who are … urban pioneers, making new homes in vacant houses,” Schopf says. Halstead, a master carpenter who briefly practiced law before returning to the craft, convinces her investors and apprentices to find value in building neighborhoods and upskilling people when the benefits are not immediate or guaranteed. Can architects be as clairvoyant and compelling?
The pursuit of design excellence comes with significant responsibility. Erica Cochran Hameen, Assoc. AIA, a 2021 COTE juror and assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, tells her students that architects should design for longevity: “Houses, hospitals, schools, places of worship—these are buildings not just made for one client or one person, but for whole communities and for generations.”
So how should architects describe or calculate what clients invariably request: project payback? “Some things don’t really ‘pay back’ like others,” Amt says. “For example, research into material chemistry may be important at a certain stage of a project, but if there’s no budget and no time, sometimes people just fall back on what they know.”
When something does add value, the manner and approach with which designers convey that value can determine next steps. Cochran Hameen believes the profession is shifting the conversation from hard numbers to explaining project impact such that all team members and user groups know what is at stake. “We can’t always talk about kilowatt-hours or metric tons of carbon with clients,” she says. “We have to make clear what kinds of outcomes our decisions can have—for example, this design option or process will [result in] similar carbon savings or impact as planting 100 trees.”
Being strategic about which design aspects to highlight is also key, Cochran Hameen says: “[For school projects,] explaining published studies … where certain environmental qualities are shown to improve test scores or, for offices, how good indoor air quality can improve employee satisfaction or reduce worker sick days [may resonate more with clients].” Metrics and data matter, but architects must also interpret and give context about why they are important.
Schopf connects the notion of project value and objectives with design excellence. “In every project, you’re trying to meet discrete and sustainable goals,” she says, “and design excellence can be seen as the elegance of the solution.”
Though the uptick in the number of architecture firms signing the AIA 2030 Commitment is encouraging, environmental performance is only one aspect of design excellence; it alone cannot change things when almost everything needs to change—or at minimum be updated—in professional practice. Firms can advertise their number of LEED Accredited Professionals and their energy modelers’ software expertise, but can they train their designers to speak and engage with skeptical developers or wary community members in disenfranchised neighborhoods?
Greater expectations are being placed on architects than ever before, Lazarus says, and the skills and knowledge they need to bring to projects are rapidly increasing. But this is a good thing. “We need to own the responsibility,” she says. “This means having a deeper knowledge of things like embodied carbon or social justice and equity, and knowing when to bring in collaborators and, at the very least, what questions to ask.”
The profession needs to continually ask what defines beauty and delight in our communities—to whom and by whom? Who gets to experience inspiring design without being scrutinized or ushered away? Should a classically beautiful project with a lavish budget get more accolades than a modest project with a strapped budget in an underserved community?
In the face of coinciding and substantial environmental and social crises, these are the questions architects must answer in their pursuit of design excellence moving forward. Architects who can fold long-term impacts on community and social value into their vision in an authentic and impassioned manner will likely find themselves positioned to create projects that can improve the lives of more than the exclusive few.
This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of ARCHITECT with the headline “What Makes Architecture Excellent? Prioritizing People, Place, and Purpose.” Read Terri Peters’s interview with Colloqate Design principal Bryan C. Lee Jr. on the connectivity between environment, architecture, and justice.
This story has been updated since first publication.