Op-Ed: Reframing sustainability

B+H’s global sustainability lead, Holly Jordan, on the challenges of aligning technical expertise and design in the context of our current climate crisis.

Some would say Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank tower forever changed Toronto. Undeniably, the 56-storey glass and steel tower which launched in 1967, brought with it a new international style with B+H as the architect of record in a joint venture with John B. Parkin & Associates.

Photo courtesy of B+H

Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower, designed by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe with B+H as Architect of Record in Joint Venture with John B. Parkin and Associates, was completed in 1967.

I connected with the magnitude of that design legacy when I arrived in Toronto and my first project was to propose an intervention within the TD Centre’s 5’x5’ Miesian plaza. I was struck by how, as one moves throughout the plaza, new compositions of the urban landscape are framed by site’s two principal towers. Hand drawing the plaza from various perspectives, I overlayed these skewed views on the regimented grid to develop an installation of upper and lower surfaces, introducing a new horizontal framing within the space.

As B+H’s Global Sustainability Lead, I find myself revisiting this notion of reframing often. During my time at B+H, we’ve returned to the TD Centre, replacing outdated building systems and envelopes, applying LEED and WELL certifications, and even introducing a green roof atop the iconic banking pavilion.

In the context of climate crisis, this means I’m constantly investigating our processes and rethinking our definitions of excellence, with the ultimate goal of aligning our technical expertise and design abilities to realize architecture that is impactful. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: we can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking that got us into our current predicament, and if we have an hour to solve a problem, we should probably spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes solving it.

Sustainability in the design and construction industries has evolved in recent years. Today, we’re focused on topics like energy usage, natural daylighting analyses, thermal performance of construction assemblies, thermal energy demand, and embodied carbon, to name a few. While we benefit from engaging with exceptional consultants on many of these fronts, it is critical today that designers understand the objectives of these metrics and their role in positioning projects towards environmental stewardship.

As both a licensed architect and a trained engineer (before I arrived in Toronto, I studied Architectural Engineering at Penn State), I have somewhat of a unique perspective on balancing technical drivers alongside design aspirations and environmental considerations. In fact, what first drew me to sustainability is how it bridges these two disciplines. I am, however, somewhat of an outlier in an industry that has historically treated design and performance as bifurcated processes, where sustainability requirements are tacked onto a project as a post-rationalized garnish rather than a foundational building block.

However, reverse engineering a building for sustainability (save for a retrofit) yields inefficiencies and fails to maximize a project’s true potential. Today, a successful project cannot be realized by a designer running off to a corner to imagine a form on their own. Our world does not offer the privilege of designing new buildings where performance can be addressed at a later stage. Instead, if we truly aspire for harmony between performance and design, success requires having technical expertise at the table from the very outset,

In my mind, leading a sustainability practice today isn’t limited to technical expertise, though. Instead, I believe my job entails reframing sustainability performance targets not as an inhibitor of creativity, but as a ground-source of it—an essential input that directly shapes the experiential or aesthetic outcomes. As one of my colleagues, Warren Schmidt, a new Principal at our Vancouver Studio recently said on a video call, “Nothing is more boring than designing on a blank canvas without constraints.” What separates architects from artists is the need to creatively respond within constraints, and creating a beautiful design today is rooted in how it navigates its context, function, and responsiveness.

Today, as B+H marks our 70th year anniversary, our highly integrated design teams not only work together, but are fully engaged with client decision-making and contractor-led construction. By consciously seeking out hybrid and/or symbiotic solutions, maximum project benefits can be realized. For example, a structural solution can also serve a mechanical solution, such as passive trombe walls or the precast, integrated mechanical floor system utilized in the University of Windsor’s Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation. More recently, with the Library and Archives of Canada’s Gatineau 2 building—the first net zero archival facility in the world and the first federal building built to Canada’s Greening Government Strategy—our team designed a building where programmatic and performance requirements go hand-in-hand. The building, a cube of layered precast concrete, houses six archival vaults. A thick exterior envelope simultaneously safeguards the building’s contents, while achieving incredible energy efficiency inside.

Library and Archives of Canada’s Gatineau 2 Building (Photo courtesy of B+H)

The interconnectedness of design and performance is perhaps best represented by the work of our planning and landscape and biomimicry practices. The latter, led by Jamie Miller, often utilizes what we call the “Living Story” methodology, which entails closely studying a site to observe and understand the behaviours and tendencies of its natural systems. I believe Einstein would approve of this approach. Rather than imposing a design on the environment, this approach in essence asks nature to design it for us: look closely enough and the environment will tell you where to sit structures or build pathways and where not to. This approach unites the built and natural environment to act in harmony as one ecological whole.

As an architect, I value both these passive, low-tech design strategies and technologically sophisticated solutions. Today, the construction industry is inundated with data and that requires designers to become effective data curators. In this spirit, we continue to explore and apply computational design in our workflows, aiming to automate complex data output to facilitate design projects and critical decision making.

Leading a fulsome team inclusive of all project aspects is critical to developing exceptional design solutions. Throughout my career, the most important lesson I have learned is ultimately to avoid siloed thinking and embrace collective, balanced solutions. No single discipline or perspective at the table possesses all the necessary information to make decisions. Rather, each has an essential role. In this context, ensuring that design can adequately respond to our current challenges is also a question of communication and convening the right voices in in conversation. Critically, the best ideas are only realized once they are not only shared, but also understood. This requires firms to reconsider their approach to training, knowledge sharing, forums, and discussion.

All this leads me back to my first point: as designers, we must reframe our definition of sustainability to more accurately capture the important human element of our work. When it comes to sustainability and building performance, success has typically been measured only in numbers and percentages, yet this can often miss out on how our work shapes and impacts people. As we contend with climate crisis and deepening inequity, two issues that are interconnected, we must expand our classical definition of sustainability to encompass equity, inclusivity, and accessibility, and then design accordingly.

On YouTube, I recently came across a bicycle design that literally did not reinvent the wheel, but rather rethought it. Sergeii Gordieiev, Ukrainian engineer and YouTuber, split the bicycle’s rear wheel into two halves, separated on two discrete axels. The connecting frame allows the two halves to work together as one cohesive wheel. It’s mesmerizing to watch and immediately understandable in a broader context.

I love this concept of taking something well understood and rethinking its most basic principles. It’s this notion of reframing and altering one’s perspective that I see as essential to my role, ultimately asking different questions—new questions—in pursuit of improved solutions. What if we built no new buildings? What if the buildings we designed functioned like a tree and our cities like a forest? As designers, we’re primed to find solutions, but it oftentimes takes reframing the problem to get to where we want to go.

Holly Jordan is the Global Sustainability Lead at B+H