Q&A: Lance Hosey on Sustainability and China

A couple of weeks ago we received news that Lance Hosey, a former director with William McDonough + Partners and author of a new book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press), had been named chief sustainability officer at RTKL, the global architecture, planning, and design firm. We wondered: what is a […]

A couple of weeks ago we received news that Lance Hosey, a former director with William McDonough + Partners and author of a new book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press), had been named chief sustainability officer at RTKL, the global architecture, planning, and design firm. We wondered: what is a chief sustainability officer? So we reached out to Hosey, who was travelling in Asia, and asked him about his new job, the future of sustainable architecture, and his first impressions of China.


Martin C. Pedersen: You were just named chief sustainability officer for RTKL. What does that mean exactly?

Lance Hosey: I’m RTKL’s first CSO, a position we defined to signal the strategic importance of sustainability. Last year, market watcher Ellen Weinreb put out a study on the emergence of this role in a variety of industries (“CSO Back Story”). The first CSO appointed to a publically traded company was at DuPont just eight years ago, and there still are fewer than 30. So this is a nascent position in business, and there is little consistency in how it’s defined, but it demonstrates the evolution of sustainability from an ad hoc practice adopted informally among project managers to a more strategic policy among senior management. I believe I’m just the second CSO in a large architecture firm, and my role at RTKL is to help develop ways to stimulate more innovation in all of our work.

MCP: What did you find attractive about the position?

LH: With a thousand people in a dozen offices on three continents and millions of square feet under construction every year, RTKL represents enormous leverage on the marketplace and a powerful platform to promote change. With even modest improvements in the performance of our projects, we can have a significant positive impact on the built environment. We plan to take full advantage of this position by martialing RTKL’s considerable talent, opportunities, and resources in new directions. Architects don’t necessarily think of size as an advantage, but with hundreds of people exploring new ideas, the potential rate of innovation can be astounding.

MCP: RTKL is not new to sustainable architecture. No one practicing architecture today can be. How do you envision integrating your role into what I’m guessing is an already established green building culture at the firm?

LH: You’re right, and RTKL’s track record is excellent. By LEED standards, we have hundreds of accredited professionals and about a hundred certified (or equivalent) projects—in fact, I work in a LEED-platinum office. And some of our recent projects are extraordinary. The new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, the largest Federal Government building with a LEED Gold rating, includes the largest installation of chilled beams in the US and reduces energy use by 30% and water consumption by 40% below standards. Now we hope to raise the bar, and we’re developing a new firm-wide strategy we’re branding as Performance-Driven DesignSM (PDD). Conventional approaches to green building emphasize technology, systems, materials and methods, with comparatively little attention put toward the basic form of a building, and often smart mechanical choices are expected to compensate for bad decisions made during concept design. We want to create a different approach in which performance is enhanced by every design decision and embodied in the very image of the building. Our hope is not just to improve the impact of our projects but also to set a new standard of design excellence.

MCP: Who hired you?

LH: RTKL’s CEO, Lance Josal, brought me on board, and I report to him. (We joke that any firm could benefit from more guys named “Lance.”) Since assuming his position a few years ago, Lance has put greater emphasis on strengthening RTKL’s design profile, and we hope to establish a more cohesive design ethic around PDD. For a very large firm to take big chances isn’t easy, and I’ve been impressed by their willingness to shake things up.

MCP: How will you actually impact projects?

LH: This is my first month on the job, so at the moment I’m being a big sponge, absorbing as much information as I can. For a while I will focus on strategy, independently of project teams, and we hope this will influence everything we do. We’re going to build an ecosystem to share knowledge and cultivate new thinking. But we’re also actively seeking a few more opportunities, and in the foreseeable future I hope to help influence the development of key projects.

MCP: You recently travelled to China for the first time. What were your impressions?

LH: In fact, right now I’m traveling back to Beijing from Shanghai. (We have offices in both places.) I found Beijing surprisingly comfortable for a city of 20 million people. The vertical scale is quite humane, with a fabric of mid-rises, even in the city core, where there are many tree-lined streets. Shanghai is more vertical but has a more interesting street pattern and varieties of scale and space. A young designer in our Shanghai office put together a compelling analysis of how local cultural and environmental conditions have influenced the differences between the urban plans and public life of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. There’s a rich diversity here that may surprise many Westerners, and the people are possibly the most hospitable I’ve met anywhere.

MCP: Is the modernization of China the beginning of the end, environmentally, or the beginning of the beginning,  or something in between?

LH: By 2025, reportedly 400 million people—more than the entire US population—will have flocked to China’s urban areas, creating eight megacities of over 10 million people each. This could require two billion square feet of new construction every year. Such unbelievably rapid growth is an economic dream that could become an environmental nightmare, if not handled gracefully. But China invented passive-solar urbanism 6,000 years ago, and many planning codes here still require south-facing orientation. The question is whether the transportation infrastructure can keep up with the pace of urbanization. What an amazing opportunity to revolutionize mobility.

MCP: What’s the next big goal in green building? What do architects and designer have to be aiming for?

LH: In 2002, your magazine conducted a survey to ask how long it would take before “green design” and “good design” became the same thing. Two thirds responded that they thought it would take 4-5 years, and the largest group (over a third) said it would take half that time. That was a decade ago, and it has yet to happen, as my own survey suggested in 2010. The profession must finally bridge the gap. Conventional understandings about “good design” emphasize aesthetics, but with little definition. Good design, it has been said, is like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography—you’ll know it when you see it. “Green design,” on the other hand, offers more discipline and concrete metrics to describe what it is, but typically its practice ignores emotional experience. We need new standards and strategies to create uplifting places that have a measurable impact on society, culture, and the environment. Can we quantify community and wellbeing? How do we measure pleasure? I hope my new book, The Shape of Green, will spark more discussion about these essential questions.

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