Building a Greener World — a Shift to a Sustainable Architecture

Amanda Sturgeon talks about green-building design and sustainability in architecture and interior design

Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute, recipient of the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award (2015)

Restoring the connection between people and nature has been a passion for Amanda Sturgeon for her whole life. As a green-building architect and advocate, she designed and managed some of the most sustainable buildings in the Pacific Northwest. To honour her extensive contribution to the green-building movement, Amanda was elected as a LEED (Leadership in energy and Environmental Design) Fellow in 2013, and in 2015, she received the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award, making her one of the top ten most powerful women in sustainability.

Amanda is the CEO of the International Living Future Institute, an NGO that advocates for more sustainability in architecture, design, construction and building on a global scale. Buildings are responsible for a substantial part of greenhouse gas emissions, and so a sustainable approach to the built environment can represent a great contribution to reducing environmental degradation. Interior designers, architects and engineers, who are working on the early phases of the building design, have the power to equip the building with sustainable materials and products as well as address the building’s environmental performance.

For this, it is necessary to teach and promote making sustainable design choices among young architects. The yearly event REGENERATION, co-organized by Macro Design Studio of Rovereto (TN, Italy) and Carlo Battisti, is meant to do just that — it is a design competition in which teams of young professionals develop a project of sustainable requalification of an existing building. It is also an opportunity to share knowledge and connect people from different areas, enabling much needed collaboration to drive a positive change. Our ECONYL® yarn has been a technical partner of this event since 2016. In these two years, carpets from ECONYL® yarn were one of the design elements included in the sustainable requalification projects, as ECONYL® fibers qualify for LEED® points, which guarantees to interior designers that they are a sustainable choice.

Amanda Sturgeon

The 2017 REGENERATION event, happening at the end of April, brought Amanda Sturgeon nearby, and she visited the ECONYL® nylon plant. We took the opportunity to talk with Amanda, and learn more about the important topic of sustainable building design — from one of the top ten most powerful women in sustainability!

Women bring a different kind of passion to sustainability

In acknowledgement of the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award Amanda was honoured by, we asked her to share her thoughts on women’s role in the field of sustainability. She notices that there are many women active in this field — contrary to architecture, where, as she recalls, she was often the only one. Amanda’s experience is consistent with observations that women have bigger interest in the topics of social and environmental issues. Amanda thinks this can be explained by the fact that women, as mothers and grandmothers, have a more pronounced natural tendency to preserve the world for future generations, and have a more pronounced passion for the subject.

Restoring the relationship between people and nature — with biophilic design

How does an architect, passionate about the environment, go about restoring the connection between people and nature? For Amanda, the answer lies in biophilic design — a way of designing buildings that incorporates the experience of nature: by natural materials, light, vegetation, patterns, etc. Biophilic design recognizes the human need to have a balanced relationship with the natural world.

In the past, the approach to building was very different from today. We used to build with materials from our surroundings, and in an energy and resource efficient manner. We relied on daylight and natural ventilation, making the buildings in tune with the climate. Then, the technological advancements such as lighting and air conditioning pushed us into “these sealed-off environments, that prevent us from really even knowing the time of day, or the season or the weather outside”, Amanda explains.

Amanda is hoping that after 60 or so years of human dominance over nature and the environment, the intimate connection between people and nature is making a comeback. “I entered architecture because I want to see this pairing of people and nature and their relationship. For me, the heart of why I do what I do, is to be able to see this relationship restored,” she says.

Amanda emphasises that for a biophilic, or living building, you need to start thinking differently as early as the idea for the design. A biophilic design is one “where you look at the natural function of the building, the place, the response to its climate, what makes sense from the region to build it from, and you create this living natural system as part of the whole design idea.” It is not enough to add a green wall in a building, or put a water element in the lobby, as some architects often think. According to Amanda, we still have a long way to go to teach architects to think differently. There are a few architects who already think this way, but they are a minority.

One of the obstacles to green-building design is also the fact that nowadays, the architect and the engineer are too isolated from one another. The architect is responsible for the design, the look, and how spaces function in the building, and the engineer is responsible for thinking about the building’s performance and energy use.

To do a truly living biophilic building, those two need to come together; they need to really intersect. The architect needs to understand how the building performs in order to create really good design, and the engineer needs to understand how that performance can be demonstrated in a built form. So, I think a good pathway to create more biophilic and living buildings is for those two, the engineer and the architect, to become much closer, and to really work together — side by side.

A perfect building is one that operates in a closed-loop system

For Amanda, the ideal building is one that imitates nature, acquires its energy from the sun, harvests its own water and handles its waste in a closed-loop system. At the same time, it gives a chance to be in contact with nature, and the experience of nature, conveying feelings similar to those you get when walking through a forest or climbing a mountain.

There are, of course, limitations to achieving this ideal. Amanda attributes them mainly to human greediness. “We use our buildings as a business, to build them fast and cheaply and make money and sell them. At the same time, we spend the most of our time in them, so people are ending up having to spend time in buildings that were built just to make someone money, but are really not good spaces to be in, neither for the community nor for the environment.” In order to change this practice of making profits at the expense of the environment, without delivering value to human lives, architects’ decisions should be guided not only by what is right for architecture, but also for the future of our planet.

We need to start thinking more about the building’s performance rather than its looks

When Amanda was in architecture school, she already knew she wanted to design as if buildings were natural systems. The professors, however, were often more concerned with latest trends and aesthetics. It is quite a shift in mentality, to start thinking more about the building’s performance, rather than its looks, but a much needed one. Amanda advises architecture students to always think about how the building will perform as a natural system when designing it, to teach their professors to consider this themselves, and to not take ‘no’ for an answer.

The role of certifications and legislation

The International Living Future Institute runs several programs meant for bringing about ecologically beneficial and restorative principles in communities all around the world. Among them is a rigorous sustainable building certification program: The Living Building Challenge. If a building complies to strict requirements in the areas of site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty, it achieves a LBC status. The REGENERATION competition, mentioned earlier, is based on the standards of the LBC.

Over the years, the number of eco-labels and green certifications has grown tremendously across all industries, from energy and food, to clothing and hygiene products, and the building industry is no exception. Arguably, the abundance of eco-labelling can be confusing and sometimes misleading. But in Amanda’s opinion, having a variety of certification systems and programs is a good thing, since it gives many options to someone who’s creating a green-building. Everyone can find a program best suited to their way of thinking and use it as a guideline.

What about governmental interference, in terms of policies and legislation?

When it comes to getting new ideas and movements started, “Governments play a key role,” says Amanda. The government should give incentives and make environmental friendly solutions, like renewable energy, affordable. Afterward, the market takes-off and takes care of things on its own, and new standards for an industry emerge. In the USA, where Amanda lives and works, she noticed a big leap over the last 3 years concerning energy consumption. The progressive policies of the Obama administration resulted in a significant reduction of the solar energy costs, which was followed by a noticeable increase of zero-energy buildings. With this trend continuing in the future, the USA might get ahead of Europe with regard to renewable energy. She still sees Europe as superior when it comes to building with the consideration of the surrounding space and climate culture. “In the US, often buildings have lots of glass, but are in a really hot climate, which is totally inappropriate. It doesn’t matter, people will build anything anywhere.” All in all, different countries have different approaches to green-building, and it’s hard to say that one is better than the other.

“If we want to create a green and sustainable world, we will, but we’re the only things that can prevent us from doing it.”

Amanda’s outlook on the future of sustainability, eco-design and green-building is an ever-positive one. Healing the relationship between people and nature has always been a passion of hers, and she believes that creating positive and hopeful visions of our future — something they do at the Living Future Institute — is contagious. Therefore, it is a big responsibility of everyone involved in the field of sustainability to share the positivity, and to awaken this desire in every person we meet, for participating in the creation of a sustainable world.

Want to know more about how to include sustainable design and materials in your next design project? Download the recording of our free webinar “Innovation in materials production and building construction”.

In the end, we asked Amanda, how positive about the future of sustainable and green-building she is on scale of 1–10. Her answer: “Way at the 10!”

Amanda’s positivity truly is inspiring, and without a doubt, the benefits of choosing sustainable materials for interior designers and architects go beyond environmental responsibility. To take the lead in sustainable design, arm yourself with information and knowledge and download our free ebook “5 reasons for interior designers and architects to use sustainable materials”.