Lessons on Expanding Diversity From the Field of Sustainable Design

Activist designers at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference prove that equity happens when you take the lead, engage, design a plan, and follow through.

Speakers at the U.S. Green Building Council 2015 session. Left to right: Kira Gould, Gabrielle Bullock, Liz Ogbu, and Susan S. Szenasy

Courtesy Kira Gould

We’re turning a corner, or so I felt at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference last November, nearly 10 years after I began research on the book, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, with Lance Hosey, FAIA. The book came out in 2007 and it’s gratifying that the conversation we started continues. It’s even more gratifying that the discourse has broadened in ways that appear to be changing the face and the practice of design and related professions. Slowly.

The real issues we touched on in the book and have been exploring at events since it was published include diversity of all types, inclusion, engagement, and equity. The USGBC panel, “Women in Green: Expanding Diversity for Design in the Climate Change Era” was moderated by Susan Szenasy, Publisher and Editor in Chief, Metropolis and included Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, of Perkins + Will and Liz Ogbu of Studio O, both amazing architects, and me. We made it clear that gender diversity, while still a major issue for the profession (witness the enormous response to AIA San Francisco’s Equity By Design / Missing 32% efforts and the founding of the AIA’s commission on equity in architecture), is just the tip of the topic.

To find out where professionals stand on these issues, I conducted an informal survey the summer before our USGBC session, asking architects and designers (through AIA COTE lists, my own networks, Women in Green twitter accounts, and other channels) to talk about where we’ve come in 10 years and what they see as the challenges today, and it seems that we have not come nearly far enough. Here’s a bit of what I heard  (a more comprehensive compilation of the survey results from three dozen respondents to be released in the future):

Designer Wendy Brawer: “Progress toward equality has stalled. Institutional racism and sexism permeate the design world, diminishing the potential of all.

Architect Lisa Matthiessen: “There are still more women than men in sustainability as compared to the rest of design. But men are starting to take more of the leadership positions as sustainability is becoming more commoditized and standardized. Diversity in terms of ethnicity and race is still a problem.”

Architect Betsy Del Monte: “To some extent, the greater percentage of women in the [sustainable design] field makes it easier for those in general leadership positions—men—to discount imperatives of sustainable thinking.”

Architect Anne Schopf: “Getting all the voices to the table is very difficult. Power players make brash decisions based upon the moment, following the tide. New ideas are hard won and need intelligent leadership.”

Biologist Dayna Baumeister: “There has been inchworm progress for diversity across all fronts. Often it feels token. Whites are the minority in this country, yet they hold the majority of leadership positions across all sectors. This disconnect between the decision-makers and the individuals affected by those decisions begs for a diversity in leadership that mirrors that of the population.”

Architect Andrea Traber: “Gender diversity continues to be strong, however, ratios of women in top leadership roles are still not comparable to male leadership roles. Ethnic and racial diversity continue to lag. AEC teams still do not collaborate well, and an integrated design process is still mostly foreign to architects. It is practiced by exception. Diversity and inclusion are essential, as is a letting go of design ego.”

Market Transformation Expert Janet Stephenson: “Cultural, gender, and socioeconomic ‘tribes’ are still very much segregated by geography, habit, and language. Even when there is desire to be inclusive, the ability to do so through knowing who to reach out to, sharing a vocabulary to manage difficult conversations and different interpretations of words and behavior is limiting. We live in an ‘us and them’ culture. It’s a systemic behavior. How can we be inclusive when we only know how to criticize and respond with statements instead of having the tools to engage in debate that acknowledges similarities and builds on differences?”

The USBC panel presented a more hopeful reality. While the terms “inclusion” and “equity” are often used as buzzwords (or “diversity-washing” distractions), our speakers showed concrete ways they are manifesting meaningfully in practice today.

Gabrielle Bullock is Director of Global Diversity for Perkins+Will’s Diversity+Inclusion+Engagement Council and program, fostering a culture rich in diverse talent, engagement, and ideas. “The purpose of this program,” she explained, “is to ensure that our large firm resembles the communities we serve all over the world, to respond to an increasingly diverse client base that wants a more diverse team, and to address the education pipeline for architects. It is good for business. This is not just ‘the right thing to do’ but good for the practice as a whole. Research shows that the more diverse organizations are more successful.”

Graphics on the distinctions between diversity, inclusion, and engagement from Gabrielle Bullock’s presentation at U.S. Green Building Council 2015

Courtesy Kira Gould

Bullock was pointed about the urgency of the matter. “We can’t afford not to be diverse, inclusive, and engaged in the same way that we cannot afford to be sustainable in all that we do in the built environment. The future demands it.” For Bullock, engagement is the key action point—the step that makes diversity and inclusion matter, because it points to influence on a team or a project, not just presence in the room.  She noted that her work is “not just an initiative” or lip service from a large firm. “This is a call to action for us, not an exercise. We are loud, driven, and clear: we promote our mission, call for commitment and accountability, and this is about changing the culture, not about numbers—we are integrating in all business practices across the firm. Diversity is purposeful and deliberate.”

Marge Anderson, the chair of the U.S. Green Building Council and executive vice president at Seventhwave, joined us for a “cameo comment” and offered her characteristic verve and energy to the mix. She pointed out that the USGBC leadership has been gender diverse but not as diverse in other ways, and mentioned the work of the LEED working groups on social equity.

Liz Ogbu of Studio O, talked about the foundations of sustainability and showed a powerful image by Joe Bower demonstrating the difference between equity and equality. Liz describes her work as efforts to solve “wicked social problems” through creative transformations of places, systems, and communities. “It’s important to remember our purpose,” she noted, and quoted a provocative Lance Hosey question from his 2012 book The Shape of Green: “Does sustaining life mean just maintaining a pulse, or does it also mean embracing all that makes life worth living?” She emphasized the importance of dealing with people as individuals in the context of the culture. “Recognizing individuality helps us collectively understand power, privilege, and history. In this context we can design solutions for which users feel true ownership.”

Part of Liz Ogbu’s presentation at USGBC 2015, highlight the difference between equality and equity.

Courtesy Kira Gould

The session closed with a lively exchange with the audience and our moderator, centered around big questions that set the stage for the next phases of what I’ve come to refer to as the ongoing Women in Green Conversation: Where are the examples of projects that are benefitting from actual inclusion and consideration of equity issues? What are the metrics we use to show these benefits? What can architecture/design/engineering/construction learn from business’s efforts in this area—where should we emulate and where should we differentiate?

When Lance and I started research for our book over 10 years ago, we decided the best way to open the conversation was to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. That set us up for a dynamic discussion that turned out to be bigger than we’d imagined. Progress is being made, but the issue of diversity has opened up a dialogue that is widening and deepening over time.

At its center, there’s a kernel that many inspiring thinkers have tried to highlight for years: Diversity is required for all systems to succeed. Without diversity, we all suffer. With it, we thrive together.

Recent Viewpoints