Vivian Loftness on the Future of Architecture

Surrounded by a blooming garden, renowned researcher, author, and educator Professor Vivian Loftness illuminates the future of 21st century building. With a more than 30 year career spanning environmental design, advanced building systems integration, climate and regionalism in architecture, and indoor environmental health, Dr. Loftness has dedicated her life to ensuring that everyone has access to what is fundamental to human existence: nature.

Vivian Loftness

1. Why were you first drawn to sustainable design?

There are often two paths for architects. As a fine art, architecture is in pursuit of expression and uniqueness—the easily recognized buildings of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid exemplify this perspective.  As a humanistic and environmental discipline, architecture is the pursuit of placemaking with technical excellence – the crafted, contextual buildings of Renzo Piano and Lake Flato come to mind.  I studied at a program that was committed to contextually responsive design, to the study of the details that address human need, climatic variation, and geographic features. MIT in the 1970’s was not about high style, but rather, how the building functioned relative to its environment. Midway through my degree, the first energy crisis brought to light fundamental questions about the world’s oil supply. So an awareness of resource limitations has always been deeply ingrained in my practice of architecture.  From the day I graduated, there has been an ever increasing dimension to what I care about, from placemaking to energy to water to materials to health and indoor environmental quality, to land use and community.

2. How has the field of sustainability evolved throughout your career?

I think about sustainability as a series of ever widening but interlocking circles. The early years were really focused on energy conservation, on passive and active strategies to reduce our reliance on what was perceived to be finite. The formation of the US Green Building Council was really the most critical step in defining a broader set of goals for architecture, including atmosphere, carbon, water, materials, and indoor environmental quality. When LEED was launched, people began to coalesce around the impact of the total building, and our industry’s responsibility for solving local and global challenges. Equity and regeneration are the broadest goals to be incorporated into our field of work, with the understanding that we need to heal the damage that we’ve previously done.  Today, we need to clarify the mandate and relevant benchmarks for these imperatives with the specification that we have established for other aspects of sustainability, including textbooks that teach these fundamental principles of design.

3. What barriers face women in architecture?

When I began Architecture school, less than 1% of registered architects were women. It was not considered a profession that women should pursue, and certainly not one where they would excel. Now, well over 50% of graduating classes across the nation are female, so we have at least overcome that perceptual hurdle. While I was not personally held back because of gender bias, women still represent less than 8% of principals or firm leadership. I think the real challenge is the balance between work and life commitments. It’s an American problem in general, but architects have particularly intense surges of deadlines where for weeks on end, they leave late and work on weekends. In contrast, Sweden urges both partners to take twelve months leave after a child is born, one after the other, which removes the stigma that women alone require more flexible schedules. We must make it possible to be a practitioner in architecture while balancing the demands of a family life.

4. How do you measure the quality of a 21st century building?

In reality, architecture strives to bring art, humanity and technical elegance to placemaking. Yet we do not have metrics and milestones across all of these values.  The United Nations has defined Sustainable Development Goals which give us a clue as to what is needed in our shared future, and architecture plays a critical role. While we may currently assess buildings through measures of performance, like energy usage or thermal comfort, we have not yet addressed the building’s impact on our health and wellbeing. For example, a hospital room is designed to accommodate specific equipment, while leaving enough space for visitors and the doctor to move around. But do we know how these choices affect health outcomes? Does the room need to prioritize sunshine and fresh air, or be adjacent to a garden to catalyze movement in patients?  The same questions apply to any other space we build. What office designs promote high levels of concentration and collaboration? What school features are most conducive to learning, health, and community strength? We need to conduct great environmental and social science research to measure the real impact of our buildings, and to derive insights and standards which respond to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

5. How do we establish sustainable building methods as standard practice?

We need to make the economic case for healthy building practices, and uncover the consequences of people who inhabit unhealthy spaces. Certifications like the WELL Building Standard and LEED certainly go a long way in making sustainability a badge of honor, but we cannot change building requirements without making broader connections to worker health and productivity. For architects, that means taking a leadership role in conducting quantitative research, which we have not typically thought was our responsibility.  It requires environmental and social science skills, including the ability to structure a hypothesis, to gather data in a consistent fashion, to complete statistical analysis, and ultimately to draw significant conclusions. I do not know how an architectural firm could make critical advances in the field without researching what we have held as qualitative truths.

6. What is architecture’s role in creating healthy spaces for everyone?

More than decisions about energy use or materials in our buildings, we are a profession that influences quality of life. Architects choose to work in delightful spaces, either that they’ve designed themselves, or that they’ve handpicked because of their character or beauty. Yet when you spend time talking to the average person and observing their working conditions, you realize the degree to which we have historically underplayed our responsibility to our buildings’ occupants. Each new building and major retrofit creates places that people inhabit, and we must provide the healthiest living and working spaces possible.  Architects have the capacity to support equity, compassion and delight through our designs, which is the foundation to a healthier world.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace is one of the 25 projects being honored at the 2018 Emerald Evening and GBA 25th Anniversary Awards gala. Please join us in honoring 25 years of Pittsburgh’s green building history!

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