It is an interesting time for practitioners deeply focused on sustainable design, and also for those who are not yet engaged. On one hand, the bar is rising rapidly with new rating systems and code requirements on the horizon that will impact the majority of new construction and renovation projects. On the other hand, modern design is evolving in response to a cultural yearning for authenticity, which is putting greater emphasis on connecting to place and history, engaging the natural world, and revealing natural systems.

The quest for authenticity is part of a much larger social transformation that many describe as a new paradigm, as we leave the industrial age and the information age behind to enter the “ecological” age. These broad ideas underlie a shift in perspective from one based on the domination of nature, to one that views man and nature as fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. This shift is gradually percolating throughout societies and ultimately influencing consumer demand as society seeks out authentic places and experiences that reveal our connection with the natural world.

The quest for authenticity and experiential design 
Authentic experiences are grounded in what is real, what is enduring, and what we can experience directly. As such, experiential design is less focused on buildings as objects and interior architecture as abstract composition, and more focused on direct, sensual experience and engaging the “narrative” of place. In addition to engaging traditional sustainability measures such as energy efficiency, day lighting, and use of healthy materials, a holistic and experientially based sustainable design approach will include the following:

 • Focus on experiential qualities: Experiential design is sensual, tactile, and revealed over time as spaces respond to the dynamics of the seasons and the time of day.
 • Connect with cultural history: Design can keep stories about the past alive by preserving and/or reusing artifacts or by leaving traces of the past through the use of architectural palimpsests.
 • Engage the natural world: In a natural setting this may mean organizing space to capture views, or finding opportunities to open up to the outdoors.
In urban settings, this may mean creating a bit of nature indoors with living walls, roof terraces, and pocket parks.
 • Seek out diversity: Rather than seeking beauty in uniformity and a tightly controlled palette, seek out materials, colors, and textures that create beauty through diversity.
 • Demonstrate interconnectedness: Develop building systems that are multifunctional and interconnected, like systems in the natural world.
 • Cultivate resilience: Be aware that efficiency has its limits, and use of redundant systems can be beneficial in the long run to increase longevity.
 • Use local materials: Explore the use of locally sourced natural materials, reused materials, and unique or artisan-crafted materials that have meaning to building occupants.

Raising the bar
Another important evolution in sustainable design practice relates to assessment systems, as the bar is rising rapidly for both voluntary rating systems and new code requirements. First, we are seeing rapid adoption of key elements of voluntary systems into the model codes. Beginning with California, a new statewide Green Building Code came into effect in January 2011, and this year, the 2012 International Green Construction Code (IgCC) is available for adoption by states and municipalities. ASHRAE/IES standard 189.1 is a complementary compliance option. So far, Florida, North Carolina, and Oregon have adopted the IgCC, as have many municipalities. Next, the voluntary standards such as LEED® are becoming noticeably more demanding, while those seeking status for their work as leadership projects are looking toward standards such as Living Building Challenge and Passive House for guidance.

These represent meaningful advances in codes and voluntary standards. However, ultimately, the goal is to make much better buildings that perform better against objective criteria as well as the more subjective experiential criteria. When that is done the result will be a generation of high-performance green buildings that are also beloved buildings. Beloved buildings resonate with people on a deeper level by connecting to place and culture and connecting people to the rhythms of nature in their daily lives. That is the future of sustainable design.

Above article by Sandy Mendler, AIA, a 
nationally recognized expert on sustainable design, has been a principal in the San Francisco office of Mithun since 2008. She was previously a senior vice president and design principal at HOK.