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Practicing Sustainable Design: What the Last Ten Years have Taught Us

Barbara Ross

St. Gabriel’s Church by Larkin Architect Ltd. Photo: Steven Evns


Perspectives caught up with architects Roberto Chiotti (of Larkin Architect Limited, in Toronto) and Joanne McCallum (of McCallum Sather Architects Inc., in Hamilton) in separate conversations for the Spring 2009 edition of Perspectives. Both shared what their experience has taught them, about several key questions in current ‘green’ practice. Self-described as viewing their projects through “green-coloured glasses,” McCallum Sather have been working, since 1996, to apply principles of “sustainable design” wherever possible — particularly in their institutional work. Roberto Chiotti says, “I was introduced to ‘green’ design at architecture school in the early 70s, as a response to the first energy crisis, but the issues were quickly usurped by other influences. It was 20 years later that sustainable design re-emerged as an issue for me. While studying the work of cultural historian Thomas Berry and physicist Brian Swimme, I began to see how our current relationship to the natural world would continue to be unsustainable until we achieve ‘a mutually-enhancing, human-earth relationship.’ This realization was soon incorporated into the work of Larkin Architect Limited and refl ected in sustainable projects such as The Carter Centre and St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church.”   

Perspectives: How do you define “green building?”   

JoAnn McCallum: I believe that we should eliminate the concept of “green building.” The term allows barriers to be created and perpetuates the inertia of a very large construction industry. What we really need to be talking about is process, not product. Design is a means to an end: that of creating intelligent environments — urban and rural. Buildings that contribute to the energy grid and are net zero carbon emitters are possible, but can only be achieved with an integrated design team committed to the process.    

Roberto Chiotti: How I understand and defi ne “green building” continues to evolve. I think it is much more than achieving LEED Platinum or even “carbon neutral.” We must get beyond applying “green” strategies to our traditional designs, and develop an entirely new way to design that is much more.

JoAnn McCallum: Our focus has led to numerous opportunities to participate in workshops, seminars and presentations. In that sense, the partners of the fi rm have certainly established a national reputation for sustainable design. However, our clients and potential clients need to become better informed about what it is they are really asking for. Many ask for “green design” or specifi c certifi cation levels to be achieved, because it is the politicallycorrect thing to do — with an expectation that it simply gets delivered without any input or effort from their side. After 12 years, we are beginning to build up a portfolio of finished work that we think exemplifies the integration of design excellence with sustainable design concepts, and that is now drawing clients. Our firm fluctuates in size from 13 to 15 people and we are currently taking a step further — we are beginning to fund academic research, to better understand the potential integration of natural systems with technological systems. I am tremendously optimistic about the future.

Roberto Chiotti: Our interest has helped to secure work with like-minded clients who understand the imperative of “green design.” Ultimately, our default design approach to any project is “green” — within the current popular definition — even for those that do not espouse “green” values.

Perspectives: In your experience, what have been the biggest barrier(s) to realizing more energy efficient buildings?

JoAnn McCallum: If the recent financial crisis has taught us anything, it must surely be that you cannot transfer risk. Nor can you download it, bury it or hide it. The more fractured and less visible it becomes, the more exponentially dangerous. It is interesting to note that some of today’s so-called “green” buildings actually consume more energy than buildings constructed a century ago. There is tremendous inertia (and risk, both perceived and real) to exploring the potential savings associated with system integration. It is easier to understand building systems as separate and distinct silos and to size/specify them accordingly. As architects we must continually try to find the relationships between systems, in order to know the right questions to ask. Demanding that our clients and consultants think beyond theirown specific area of knowledge is exceptionally challenging and, for years it has felt like we have been pushing a rock uphill. Once we crest that hill, there will be a remarkable revolution in design thought, which is very exciting to think about. Intellectually and academically we are cresting the hill but our current risk-averse project delivery process systematically impedes progress.

Roberto Chiotti: In our experience, the first strategy towards achieving a more energy-efficient building is to have a well-detailed building envelope that will maximize a stable interior environment. We have found that actual operating conditions often deviate significantly from those modelled and that postoccupancy understanding of building operators is paramount to ensure systems perform the way they were intended. By way of example, post occupancy analysis of St. Gabriel’s revealed that electrical energy consumption was almost 20 per cent less than modelled whereas natural gas consumption was higher. The continuing support and education of the maintenance staff brought the actual fuel consumption back into line with expectations.

Perspectives: What do you think the focus for “green” practitioners, during the next fi ve to ten years, is most likely to be?

JoAnn McCallum: The business of architecture is possibly one of the most complex business structures to grow and manage. The ground rules are constantly shifting, technology is advancing, building systems are becoming more complex, and competition more fierce. And we practice within a framework that is increasingly litigious. At times I have felt very discouraged, but my views are slowly shifting. As design priorities change, we believe that the firms that have invested in their knowledge base will be well positioned.

Roberto Chiotti: I am concerned that our current understanding of “green design” is insufficient to lead us out of the ecological challenges that will continue to confront us. Thomas Berry remains hopeful but suggests “humans will need to reinvent themselves at a species level.” In terms of professional development then, we as “green architects” need to consider what leadership role each of us will play. As a smaller firm with “green design” as a primary commitment, the volume of work that we produce is less than the larger, well known firms, so it naturally takes us longer to establish a broad-based body of completed projects. But the buy-in and learning curve for staff was probably faster and easier to achieve than for a larger and longer established firm. I cannot agree with those who think “green architecture” will be normative within the next five to 10 years without considerable focus on relevant pedagogy.