Outside the circle: Broadening our view of sustainable design


By @Corey Z. Squire AIA and @Helena Zambrano AIA

All professions tend to be a bit insular. Doctors have lunch with other doctors, lawyers marry other lawyers, and architects have a tendency of living in a world of their own making. “Outside the Circle” was a lecture series that was designed to introduce the architecture community a range of ideas, problems, and solutions, that relate to the built environment, but have been tangential to the major concerns of our profession. Presented by the San Antonio AIA COTE from fall 2017 through spring 2018, the series was a major success for our chapter and can serve a template for COTE chapters around the country.

AIA_San_Antonio_lecture.pngOur first session explored happiness. We looked at two simple questions, first, should occupant happiness be a criterion for a successful building? And If so, how can architects deliver something so abstract? According to our audience, the answer to the first question was a rousing “yes” and according to our presenter, happiness is not abstract at all, but an objective field of study that is well understood and predictable. Our presenter was Dr. Harry Wallace, a professor of psychology at Trinity University who studies both happiness and narcissism. The lecture focused on the difference between “subjective well-being” (a feeling of life satisfaction) and “emotional happiness” (a spark of joy) and how architecture affects each differently. For example, a client who moves into her dream home might be emotionally happy on day one, but a year later, her subjective well-being will depend more on her health and community than on having a marble countertop and a steam shower. One way of better aligning these two definitions of happiness is to, instead of asking clients what they want, ask clients what they think will make them happy. These questions have two very different answers.

The next two sessions focused on how architecture impacts our physical health. Two scientists, a clinical immunologist, and a US Air Force toxicologist, showed how the built environment impacts our health just as much, if not more than diet, exercise, genetics, or doctor visits. It was clear from both lectures that architecture can act as either an environmental toxin or really great medicine. The differences between these outcomes can be just a few simple design or specification decisions.

Dr. Claudia Miller, of the University of Texas School of Medicine at San Antonio, likes to imagine a world where architects put doctors like her out of business. She is known for describing a new class of diseases called TILT (Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance), where prolonged exposure to small quantities of environmental chemicals, such off-gassing building materials, overwhelm the immune system and result in the onset of severe chemical sensitivity. This disease, which has seen a rapid increase in cases, is caused entirely by the design of the built environment. Architects can protect the health of building occupants by avoiding all VOCs (not just lowering them), eliminating formaldehyde, and providing operable windows and high-quality ventilation. Occupants can safeguard their own health by avoiding products with fragrances or by spending more time outside.

Going outside was the focus of our third lecture, delivered by Dr. Brian Howard, a toxicologist with the US Air Force. Dr. Howard showed how the outdoor world is not always as clean and pristine as we might like to believe. Just as we need operable windows to protects us from indoor chemical pollutants, we need buildings to protect of from outdoor environmental toxins. The lecture focused on groundwater and how it can often be contaminated by chemicals such as jet fuel or firefighting foam. Municipal water is often tested and treated to remove these threats, but buildings that rely on well water are at risk and need to have whole building water filtration systems.

Zooming out one step further, from our minds, to our bodies, to our ecosystems, our fourth and final lecture was presented by Dr. Terry Matiella, a Professor of Entomology and expert on monarch butterflies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Matiella focused on ways that architects can take advantage of ecosystem services to improve the performance of buildings as well as the health of human occupants and the surrounding ecosystem. She presented research on the ecological impacts of urban heat island and stormwater retention, concepts that we often think of from an architectural, rather than ecology perspective. The main takeaway of the lecture was how small actions can go a long way. Monarch butterflies can thrive in an urban environment, but the need milkweed and other wild flowers to support them as they migrate through a city. Replacing small areas of turf with native plants or even providing window boxes with milkweed could be the difference between a healthy monarch population and a pollinator desert.

The responses from the architecture community on this series have been very positive. We don’t always get the opportunity to hear about current research from experts in other fields. Based on the success of the series, we’re looking for other ways to gain insight from “Outside the Circle” in the future.

Helena Zambrano, AIA, CPHC, is the Sustainability Director at Overland Partners Architects. Corey Squire, AIA, is the Sustainability Manager at Lake Flato Architects and a member of the COTE Advisory Group. Helena and Corey have chaired the San Antonio COTE for four and three years, respectively, and were recently married, possibly inspiring them to seek new ideas from outside the circle of architecture.