grey and white interior
North Coastal Live Well Health Center, Oceanside, CA (photo, Lawrence Anderson)

What is the Role of Sustainability in Public Sector Design?

A recent METROPOLIS Think Tank hosted by HMC Architects evaluates the role of sustainability and equity in civic projects.

The image of the government client is one who is slow and bureaucratic, unwilling to take on risks.

“The old stereotype of the boss at a government agency is someone who is a bit conservative, not prone to making decisions quickly,” said Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of METROPOLIS at a recent Think Tank Thursday, hosted by HMC Architects. The statement was Rajagopal’s kickoff to a discussion on “Sustainability, Wellness and Equity in Public Sector Design,” in which he was joined by staff at HMC: Samantha Eklund, interior design department lead at the firm; Jennifer Wehling, director of sustainability; and Suzanne Sasaki, design principal.

Eklund immediately took on the prevailing wisdom: “I will say that civic work is actually my favorite market segment to work in. I think it’s because it’s so dynamic. You have the opportunity to shape the future, to promote social equity and really create solutions that will positively impact the lives of citizens on a large scale.” She continued: “I would say citizens are really looking for their government agencies to take a leadership role in addressing climate change and promoting sustainability in operations.”

interior of a community plaza building
County of Los Angeles Liberty Community Plaza (photo, Ryan Beck)

Wehling went to bat for the idea that government employees need and deserve a healthy workplace. “As designers, the decisions we make have impacts, even if it’s something as simple as choosing a new carpet. It’s not always a simple choice. What is that carpet made of? How is it supporting human health and environmental health?” One goal, she continued, is to bring a sense of nature indoors: “The idea of bringing biophilia into a space, which has been proven time and time again to reduce stress levels, improve mood and have other benefits.”

Government must serve as a fiduciary, spending taxpayer dollars wisely. “We have to be responsible with public funds,” said Sasaki. “It’s important because it’s part of good stewardship. Because taxpayers come into our spaces, they need to feel that it was a good use of resources.” But it must also be space that enriches camaraderie among employees: “We talk about views to the outside and natural daylighting, bigger open spaces, shared community spaces where staff can gather and enjoy being together again.”

Leadership in public commissions is crucial, the panel agreed. “The most important thing is this change in culture,” Eklund said. “I cannot tell you how many times we initiate a conversation on a project and we’re brought in by the leadership and they’re so excited about a whole new standard and a whole new way of working with their employees. We’re going to bring people out of the private offices and onto the floor. We’re going to create these amenity spaces. We want collaborative areas, all the buzzy stuff.”

There’s a lot at stake in the transformation and evolution of public sector design. “If leadership can’t promote sustainability, wellness and equity, they’re going to have a retention issue,” Sasaki said. “And as designers, we have to come to the table and explain why change is crucial and why it’s better.”

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