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Human-Centered Design Prioritizes Health, Wellbeing and Regeneration

HOK’s design focus is not only on reducing building emissions, but also the environmental impact of materials and the health of building occupants. The firm's regenerative design studio also explores how buildings can be net positive for the environment.

HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. The company’s human-centered design approach prioritizes health and wellbeing — helping people thrive physically, mentally and socially in the built environment. HOK ensures sustainable material selection on all interior projects, whether pursuing certification or not. This simplified framework — which addresses embodied carbon, green chemistry and sustainable sourcing — is yet another example of the firm’s commitment to lead on sustainable design.

Shaw's Tim Conway, VP of sustainability — commercial division, recently spoke with HOK’s Christine Vandover, sustainable design leader and senior project interior designer; and senior sustainable design specialist Elizabeth Baxter about the firm’s commitment to sustainability and enhancing the human experience through thoughtful design. The firm aims for a zero-emissions portfolio by 2030 — a goal driven by an expanded definition of sustainability. This includes not just a focus on reducing building emissions, but also considering the environmental impact of construction materials and the health of building occupants. To further this mission, HOK recently launched a regenerative design studio to explore how buildings can be net positive for the environment.

TC: Can you share a little bit about HOK, and the firm’s efforts related to people and the planet?

CV: As designers of the built environment, it’s our responsibility to create spaces that improve the human experience and the world we live in. HOK has long been a leader on this front. Our Guidebook to Sustainable Design, published in 2000, was one of the industry’s first references for “green” design and construction. A few years later, HOK was one of the first signatories to the American Institute Architects’ 2030 Challenge to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from new buildings. Today, we’re proud to report that we are on track to achieving a zero-emissions portfolio by — or before — 2030.

At the same time, we have expanded our definition of sustainability. While early efforts focused on building emissions, we now take a more holistic view of sustainability. We are looking at the environmental costs of building materials and structural systems (including embodied carbon and end-of-life disposal) as well as how off-gases and contaminants from materials impact the health and wellbeing of building occupants. We are proud to be working with the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) to implement new sustainability language into its code of ethics that encourages designers to address the wellbeing of building occupants and help them make better health choices and remain active.

[Our] regenerative design studio takes sustainability even further. We are partnering with leaders in science and technology to research and test how buildings can be a net positive for nature by restoring the Earth through the production of clean energy, turning wastewater into potable water and more.

HOK can do all these things only because we are a multidisciplinary firm. Our experts have diverse interests and specialties that feed into our broader knowledge of sustainability and wellness design. Yet no matter our individual interests, we all share a common goal: To leave a better world for future generations.

TC: What has driven your focus on these issues?

CV: Sustainability has always been part of our firm’s DNA; but the drive to expand our approach and commitment to sustainability took on new urgency in 2020 with the advent COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd and a greater awareness of the environmental and social injustices that exist in the US and elsewhere. 2020 also saw an increasing number of natural disasters associated with climate change.

Given these calamities, we asked: ‘What can we do to make a difference?’ We found that designing buildings and cities to be safer, healthier and more equitable; and to help minimize climate change are solutions that truly move the needle. Knowing that your work matters is a tremendous motivator.

HOK applied regenerative design principles to help LG's North American headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey enhance the local ecosystem | Image credit: HOK

TC: How has the sustainability landscape shifted in the past five years?

EB: What has changed most in recent years is that so many of our clients now share similar goals when it comes to sustainability, wellness and equity. Their ESG covenants require that they act conscientiously — [and] their employees, shareholders and boards demand it. It is now easier for us to discuss holistic sustainability with our clients and have them truly partner with us on solutions. This is especially gratifying. We also are having similar collaboration with our vendors and suppliers. Companies like Shaw are teaming with us to ensure the building materials we use are cleaner, healthier and more recyclable, reusable and circular.

TC: What challenges have you faced along the way?

EB: Designing spaces that promote the wellbeing of people and the planet can be challenging. Project stakeholders can have conflicting ideas about how best to implement healthy and sustainable design. A myriad of certification systems also makes it difficult to easily compare the health and environmental properties of building materials.

At a large firm like HOK, it was also a challenge to ensure our hundreds of designers spread across 26 global studios had the tools, resources and training necessary to effectively design for health, climate change and social equity. To remedy this, we developed a combined Finish Legend and Material Selection Tracker. This tool is available to all our designers via HOK’s intranet. It makes it easier for our teams to quickly verify the embodied carbon, green chemistry and sustainable sourcing of the materials they are specifying. The tool also allows us to set goals and view our results across the firm when it comes to reducing embodied carbon and eliminating toxic and non-sustainable building materials. This is just one example of how we are eliminating obstacles when it comes to sustainability.

TC: What have been your keys to success?

CV: In a word: communication. Internally, we have a group of sustainability champions and liaisons who represent the current and next generation of sustainable designers. These groups are growing in expertise and disseminating information and initiatives throughout all our offices and into projects. Outside of these two groups, we have implemented continuous training and workshops; and we embed sustainability education into the onboarding of new staff.

From a leadership perspective, having our firmwide and studio-specific leaders offering full support — specifically in our materials-tracking initiative — has made a dramatic difference in the amount and quality of data we are tracking and the early integration of sustainability into our projects. Beyond HOK, we have directly engaged dozens of manufacturers to share our initiatives and goals and listened to their respective goals and challenges. This has streamlined our communication with vendors and allowed us to collaborate on ways that we can improve the material-selection process to make our spaces healthier and more sustainable.

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 blog series.