Balancing Optimism, Practicality to Drive Architects and Designers Toward a Sustainable Future

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Shaw spoke with ‘Metropolis’ Editor-in-Chief Avinash Rajagopal about how to best tackle the complexity of sustainability, and how the design industry is adopting a more interconnected perspective on the subject.

Metropolis is an
award-winning architecture and design-focused media company. Through its print
and editorial coverage
, virtual and in-person events, awards programs and
advocacy initiatives, Metropolis speaks to the future of architecture and
design. With a commitment to a sustainable, just and nurturing built
environment, the company strives to help the architecture and interior design
community make people’s lives better and safeguard life on this planet —
exemplified through its Interior Design for Positive Impact
Pledge
and Climate Toolkit
for Interior Design
.

Shaw’s Tim
Conway
, vice president of
sustainability — commercial division, recently spoke with Metropolis Magazine
Editor-in-Chief Avinash
Rajagopal
about how to
best tackle the complexity of sustainability, and how students and professionals
alike are increasingly adopting a more interconnected perspective on the
subject.

TC: As you know, at Shaw, we call our sustainability approach ‘sustain[HUMAN]ability’ to exemplify the importance of putting people at the heart of sustainability efforts. I’ve always appreciated Metropolis’ focus on the impact of design on people and the planet. That’s long been core to your work. How have you seen that conversation evolve?

AR: In the past few years, the conversation around the impact of design on
people and the planet has shifted significantly. This transformation is most
evident in the way sustainability has gone from being a fringe topic to being an
integral part of the design discourse. Now, sustainability is a prerequisite for
responsible design practice.

We’ve seen a movement from a focus on revealing challenges to exploring
opportunities for change. When Metropolis published our 2003 cover story,
Architects Pollute,” few were talking about the 40 percent of greenhouse gas
emissions the built sector is responsible for. Contrast this with our 2020
cover, “Interior Designers Save Us.” This evolution demonstrates a change in
mindset from merely pointing out problems to actively seeking and embracing
solutions.

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The conversation has also moved from discussing individual actions and projects
to addressing systemic issues. I’ve noticed that students and professionals
alike are increasingly adopting a more interconnected perspective on
sustainability. They are considering factors such as climate, health and equity
— which are all essential components of a truly sustainable design practice.
This holistic approach is promising and has the potential to create lasting
change in our industry.

TC: The topics around sustainability can be complex. How have you strived to overcome that through your content programs and initiatives?

AR: They certainly are complex. And we have tackled the complexity by
creating and supporting resources that empower designers with the necessary
information and tools.

As a media organization, that of course means telling stories about sustainable
projects while showcasing all the impacts around the project in a simple and
easy-to-understand way. For example, we started a new column called
Transparency
to showcase aspects of products that may not be easily visible to designers. We
have come a long way from publishing simple floor plans and elevations to
today’s diagrams and cross-sections that focus on how building systems work —
and why they matter.

We work to connect the dots between various aspects of the design industry and
facilitate conversations among different stakeholders — whether that’s through
our podcast, Metropolis-organized events or participation in the
Sustainability Lab at
NeoCon
.
Our goal is to provide a platform for leaders to share their ideas and to
inspire change in the industry.

I’m also really proud of our work on initiatives like the Climate Toolkit for
Interior Design — which delves into the interconnectedness of climate, health
and equity; and is meant to help designers address carbon emissions at a
methodological level. We also developed the Design for Equity
Primer
to
better address the equity gap in the industry. This resource compiles existing
knowledge in one place, making it accessible for designers with limited time and
bandwidth.

I could go on and on; but the key point is that by holding space for and
promoting all of these efforts, we help make complex sustainability topics more
understandable for architects and interior designers with varying levels of
expertise.

TC: What have been your keys to success?

AR: I believe one of the keys to Metropolis’ success has been our ability
to act as a facilitator and industry advocate. We’re committed to creating
resources that consider the bandwidth and day-to-day challenges faced by
architects and interior designers.

For example, we’ve been staunch supporters of the Common Materials
Framework
— recognizing
its value for the industry even if it isn’t something that every interior
designer uses daily. By understanding the essential role initiatives like this
play in our ecosystem, we can advocate for and promote them as much as possible
— contributing to the overall success of the industry.

But I can’t overemphasize the importance of providing practical tools and
acknowledging the bandwidth constraints of our audience, which I believe has
made it easier for them to adopt sustainable practices in their work. This
combined with fostering a sense of hope and optimism — one of opportunities for
change, rather than merely highlighting challenges. This positive outlook has
been instrumental in engaging our audience and inspiring meaningful action.

TC: What challenges have you faced in addressing these initiatives?

AR: Metropolis will always be challenged in striking the right balance in
the time we spend identifying gaps in the industry’s knowledge and resources,
creating tools and resources to fill those gaps, and ensuring that the right
stakeholders are engaged in the conversation. We also work hard to make these
complex sustainability topics accessible and understandable for architects and
interior designers, regardless of their level of experience or expertise.

One successful example of this is our work around carbon emissions and
interiors. By framing the conversation in a way that highlights the industry’s
impact and the need for solutions, we’ve been able to engage stakeholders and
inspire hope for change. This approach has opened people’s minds to ask tough
questions and dream up innovative solutions that may not have been previously
considered.

TC: What’s next for Metropolis?

AR: We will continue to create and support resources that help architects
and interior designers make positive impacts on the planet and people’s lives.
We’ll keep fostering conversations and collaborations, advocating for
sustainable practices, and inspiring the next generation of designers to embrace
innovative and sustainable design solutions.

One way we are trying to do this is through our Future 100
program
, which
showcases the work of promising design students from across North America.
This program not only allows us to stay at the forefront of the industry but
also fuels our optimism for the future of sustainable design.

I personally examine the portfolios of hundreds of these students; and it’s a
tremendous window into how quickly things are evolving — the interconnected ways
that students are thinking. I see a lot more experimental work — people really
taking chances, dreaming of things. In 2023, we’re getting students asking
questions like: ‘What if this entire facade was a living wall?’ Or ‘How can the
residents of this housing project be a resource to their neighbors?’
It’s
impossible not to be optimistic after you’ve looked through their work. It’s
amazing.


This article is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of
organizations to be honored by Shaw’s
sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership
Recognition Program
. Each of the 10 organizations selected for this year’s
recognition program is a leader in its own right and offers something from
which we can all learn about putting people at the heart of sustainability. To
read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw,
visit the landing page for this series.

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