The Green Ghetto

Why are sustainable ideas rarely recognized by mainstream design awards programs?

Architecture and design awards tend to mime the Hollywood model. There are gregarious speakers, a tolerance for long, rambling acceptance speeches, and elegant, enthusiastic audiences. Love and admiration hang thick in the air even as a hidden undertone of envy and contempt whispers softly. But, by and large, all is well and everyone feels good, making plans to come back for the same performance next year and dreaming of his or her moment in the spotlight. But all is not well: these oldfangled awards may in fact contribute to keeping the design professions out of the great environmental debate of our time.

This rumination began as I started reading the stories about our 2007 IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments award winners (5 Sustainable Species), which, I hope you’ll agree, make some pretty solid arguments for sustainable and human-centered design—in other words, good design. The piece about the Navy Federal Credit Union struck me between the eyes. Andrew Blum notes that turnover at the organization was higher than 60 percent and that now, with the new LEED building, it’s down to 17 percent. This impressive retention rate for call centers, long considered horrible places to work, is credited to the environmental features of the building: daylighting, views, clean air, and privacy when needed. Words like sophisticated, classic, and play­ful are notably absent at the Navy Federal Credit Union while they ring out ad nauseam at the IIDA’s mainstream awards, the coveted Calibres.

As I watch the proceedings of the 2007 Calibre Awards online, I’m baffled by the lack of real conversation about what makes these particular projects worthy of industry recognition. There is some ill-advised typeface identifying each nominee (as well as the need for good graphic design), but little useful information. There is, of course, an Environmental Award. But what does that mean? Is the other work honored not sensitive to the environment? That thought frightens me and makes me feel sad for these well-intentioned people who seem so clueless about the paramount concern of our time—global warming and the built environment’s role in helping to cool it down. While these interior designers celebrate the sophisticated, classic, and playful, their clients ask, as they have been asking for decades, for proof of value. It’s hard to believe that anyone running a business would be convinced by such mushy words.

I wonder if anyone at IIDA has studied the rich and useful information associated with the Smart Environments program. We have made it public in this issue as well as in January 2007, showing that some members of the organization are raising the bar for all interior designers. It’s frustrating to see this excellent work relegated to the green ghetto while the spotlight shines on projects that seem almost irrelevant, and even dangerous.

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