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

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.

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.