Interviewed by Ahmad Zohadi

ASLA and APA, Managing Principal of the SWA Group


Ahmad Zohadi:

How would you define in your own words ‘sustainability’?

Joseph Runco:

Ideally, sustainability should be considered and justified at all scales: global, continental, regional, local, site and building. In practice, one must often ignore the larger setting and focus on the impacts and opportunities at the project scale, since these are the opportunities most often presented to the designer.
Sustainability is the integration of natural and human systems to produce environments that meet immediate and long-term needs, with no degradation or reduction of resources and opportunities for the future. Sustainability is first and foremost about awareness; about understanding of the multiplicity of forces and systems that must be balanced in a stable and regenerative way. Creating sustainable environments requires consideration of multiple systems and finding the right balance of environmental, social, economic and aesthetic needs. True sustainability needs to look at the productive capabilities of every site and project, rather than simply try to reduce impacts.

Should sustainability be controlled by government / global legislation or should it rely solely on architects’ ethics and why?

The designer’s creativity or ethical stance alone is likely insufficient to achieve the most sustainable project possible. The most creative and meaningful project solutions often arise from a seemingly over-constrained problem.
To the degree that governmental legislation can set minimum requirements that help “raise the bar”, such legislation can be helpful. Since project goals are usually driven by clients’ needs (both public and private), it is useful to have a benchmark of sustainable targets to start from. It is still up to the designer to ‘push the envelope’ to provide the ideas that allow or convince a client to achieve the best project possible.

Absolutely. In many ways, the focus on sustainability has introduced new complexities, and opportunities to create innovative and adaptive projects. As landscape architects, routinely involved with living systems, we have always had a degree of training and appreciation for larger natural systems-with a focus on physical, environmental issues. This training has often led to a degree of complacency that is currently being challenged by architects, engineers, the public and regulatory agencies. The current focus on sustainability that addresses a much wider range of concerns is challenging and stimulating, and is resulting in an explosion of experimental and innovative projects.
New technologies and understanding of systems addressing greenhouse gas reduction, water quality and efficiency, project life-cycle considerations, new materials, energy and food production and other approaches provide an unbelievable range of opportunities for creative project expression. Perhaps more important is the parallel consideration and integration of human values. Creating environments that are uplifting, healthy, beautiful, challenging, productive, economically viable and educational is as important as consideration of more commonly understood environmental values.

Will you decline a commission if your clients declare that they are not interested and they will not pay any additional cost to your sustainable design and why?

There are many reasons to refuse a commission based on business considerations or ethical concerns. Unless a project is inherently destructive from an environmental or social standpoint, there is always opportunity for design creativity and improvement of the project.
Budgetary limitations should be approached as a challenge to solve creatively. Sustainable design is not necessarily more expensive than ‘conventional’ design approaches. While some specific features may be more expensive in the short term, they may in fact present cost savings to the client when project life cycles and multiple objectives are considered.
All projects offer opportunities for creative problem solving, regardless of budget. As designers, we have a responsibility to achieve safety, sustainability, aesthetic and quality control goals on our projects, in addition to meeting a client’s objectives.

It is astonishing that in the last five years or so, almost everybody claims to be ‘sustainable’. Do you think that the world is really now so much more sustainable and why?

The concept of sustainability has definitely become ‘popular’ in the mass culture and the design profession. Everyone is on the ‘green’ bandwagon, and it has become a requirement to reference one’s green credentials. Claims of sustainability range from ‘greenwashing’ common products or packaging to authentic and serious efforts addressing resource and social issues.
The constant attention to the subject by the media can result in a sort of ‘green fatigue’ and a pervading sense of deprivation, of giving up something and that sustainability somehow means a change or lower quality of life.
As designers, however, the attention is positive. Sustainability provides an expanded framework for great design. Awareness of multiple issues provides opportunities for new ideas, for forward and positive thinking, the “dawning of the next age”. I am heartened by the energy and ideas that architects, landscape architects, engineers, contractors and clients are bringing to projects to address sustainability concerns. It is a time of exploration and experimentation that is invigorating.

Describe your ideal sustainable design.

My ideal sustainable design starts with a team of committed professionals and client. Sustainability by definition requires understanding of multiple, complex and interacting forces. Collaborative efforts between the very best design and technical professionals are the most effective, challenging and engaging way to design complex projects.
There is no single perfect project, as we work at all scales and land use types, from dense urban environments, smaller cities and towns, to rural, agricultural communities. The perfect project, at any scale, is regenerative and productive in every way possible (food, energy, water capture and use, water and air quality and use, materials use, carbon capture, healthy environments, etc.). It is not good enough to simply reduce impacts, we must do better.
Our designed works should also be memorable and consider time as a key component of design. Landscape architects typically consider and anticipate life cycles and change in the living elements of our projects, and the same thinking needs to extend to all elements of the projects, indoors and out. Landscape architects have a unique role, bridging between the natural world and systems and the human environment. With increasing pressures on natural systems and resources, landscape architects are an important part of the teams designing our 21st century sustainable world.

© Published by 2A Magazine, Issue 11