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The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE®) 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. Expand your positive impact: Engage in our advocacy efforts. Enjoy our last newsletter (and follow us on Twitter). To learn about the Framework for Design Excellence (formerly the COTE Top Ten Measures), click here >

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GAF x COTE: Looking at the Future

This 2019 video was compiled by GAF, a COTE sponsor. 

Defining Design Excellence | Measure 5: Design for Economy

By Billie Tsien AIA posted 03-19-2020 16:22


In 2019, AIA adopted the COTE measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. We’ve been exploring the measures in a series of posts. We asked Billie Tsien, AIA, of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, to share her thoughts about Measure 5: Design for Economy, which reads:


Providing abundance while living within our means is a fundamental challenge of sustainability. How does the project provide “more with less”? Possibilities include “right sizing” the program, cost-effective design decisions, economic performance analysis, economic equity strategies, notable return-on-investment outcomes, contributing to local and disadvantaged economies, etc. Provide examples of how first cost and lifecycle cost information influenced design choices. Identify any additional first-cost investments and how they are anticipated to improve life-cycle costs and longer-term economic performance.


“Providing abundance while living within our means” is the beginning of the first sentence in Measure 5: Design for Economy from the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. I love this phrase because of the profound optimism inherent in these words. Even as we search to use less of the world’s resources, we do not give up beauty, we do not give up amazement. This is not about paucity or stinginess, it is about generosity.

Recently, I have been looking at rag rugs that have been created by Berber women. As time has passed they have become settled and are no longer nomadic but this has meant that they are not able to use wool from their sheep. So while they still use their traditional looms they substitute the wool with any sort of cheap fibers that are easily available. This technique is named Boucherouite (from the Arabic bu sherwit, meaning “a piece torn from pre-used clothing. Women use recycled wool and cotton as well as lurex and nylon. And at times they may use plastic from grain shipping bags as well as packaging material.

The rugs are wildly beautiful.

photo: Gebhart Blazek /

And they are indeed an abundance from limited means.

So how can one use this to think about architecture?

We are working on a project which has a tight budget. It is on a campus that is built primarily from schist, the primarily grey metamorphic stone.

Stone will likely be too costly, so we have found an inexpensive, machine-made black brick that has an irregular face and a manganese glaze that makes it slightly reflective. While economical, used alone it will feel monolithic so, taking the cue from this beautiful rug, we are looking at inserting glazed colored bricks as flecks of brightness into the wall. If we can, we would like to use the “rejects” from the brick factory. This is the beginning of our research.

The world around us is trying to address the same issues. It is a reminder that we can look at other practices of making (ones that have nothing to do with architecture) to find new ideas for how to achieve abundance within our means.


Billie Tsien, AIA, leads the New York-based practice, Tod Williams Billie Tsien | Partners, which has been recognized with many design awards and the AIA Firm Award in 2013. Tsien is a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group.


You can find more stories in this series here; Measure 1: Design for Integration; Measure 2: Design for Equitable Community; Measure 3: Design for Ecology; and Measure 4: Design for Water. Stories about Measures 6 through 10 will appear in forthcoming posts (and COTE news).