Sneak Peek: The Scoop On Sustainability From Architecture For Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair

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Cameron SinclairDesign Like You Give A Damn—the apropos tagline for Cameron Sinclair’s company (Architecture For Humanity), a book co-authored with partner Kate Stohr and a telling statement to ponder if you want to know what the 2006 TED Prize Winner is all about. Cameron not only designs like he gives a damn, but has the uncanny knack for getting others to care as well. Whether you’re talking structural design for a community center in India or sustainable best practices for a start up in Seattle—it’s this idea of caring beyond profit margins that permeates Cameron’s philosophy + that we’ll hear more of in his keynotes at the Sustainable Industries Economic Forums. For now, here’s a teaser on the ideas Cameron will be discussing at the forums. Hope to see you in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle or Santa Monica for the main event!

SE: It seems like there have been some pretty big developments recently in the conversation on sustainability. How have you seen the conversation over the past three years or so?
CS:
Massively. I think the easiest way to answer that is to quote Eric Corey Freed, who runs organicARCHITECT. I saw him speak at a conference and he started his talk by saying, “Look, all this conversation about whether the green movement has made it or not—we won. Ok? Everyone get over it. We won the argument. When Middle America understands the need to be more sustainable, not only environmentally, but economically, we’ve won. So can we stop arguing about whether this debate is worthy or not? Let’s get to the next level.”

I actually do think we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve come out on top from a huge uphill battle to change the mindset of what being sustainable was from this kind of guilt-driven, tree-hugging paradigm into something that is much more business focused. That’s happened. The question now is, what is our role globally? What effect are we having? We’re beginning to look at the secondary and tertiary effects of sustainability as opposed to the primary ones, such as, “does this improve and protect the environment?” Now we’re looking at culture and society.

SE: Does the argument that sustainability involves not only environmental focus, but also social responsibility, get broken out into two separate issues to the detriment of people and planet? What is your take on that situation?
CS:
I tend to be a bit cheeky. I tend to think that the environment is a part of social responsibility, not the other way around. Ethics is the overall framework and within that is the environment. When you start saying that the environment is the main issue–and that social justice and social responsibility are secondary, I think you lose sight that social responsibility takes into consideration a whole array of things. So whether it’s access to education or access to health care, rights of employment, rights of citizenship or rights of the environment—all of these things fall under that umbrella of society. It’s what I call the “ethical footprint.”

SE: What topics do you think we need to focus on in order to get to that next level of well being for people and planet?
CS:
I think we have to be pragmatic. We can’t have a conversation at this series without talking about the environment and the politics involved in trying to push any of these things forward. We tend to take an idealistic or altruistic view on the environment. We don’t always look at the economic aspect. And if people don’t have jobs, if they don’t have security, then they can’t begin to think about looking beyond themselves. People become selfish when they become needy. So we have to think about how we make sure that our business models are sustainable economically, as well as environmentally. I think it’s important to talk about that.

SE: Beyond the challenges that have come with a global recession, what other issues are you seeing as businesses move into more sustainability 2.0 or 3.0 that are different than the basic challenges like making sure the return on investment is within five years or not?
CS:
I think a big thing for businesses to look at is the quality of life for their employees. Do you have people that are happy to work for you? Can you stand behind that? We’ve got people who are constantly on the road because of travel. The quality of their lives are being restricted by this unending growth. I think people want to return to a simpler way of working, but you can only tout your green credentials so far.
I have a big issue with a lot of the building that’s happening in the Middle East. Because a lot of it is “green.” They’re saying that they’re building “carbon-free cities.” But they’re using essentially slavery to build them. We’ve got to think about the entire food chain when we’re talking about doing a project. If you’re thinking about doing green T-shirts and you say, well it’s low impact dyes and we’re using organic cotton, but the people who are putting those T-shirts together are working under labor practices that you would probably not be proud to talk about, then maybe your product isn’t so green and maybe your employees are not as happy as you think they should be.

With these subjects, there’s a layering affect. We have to look at a holistic approach to business models. We need to realign the way we think about success. There’s a big conversation that needs to be had on how to define success and sustainability for the next generation.

SE:  What are some of the key things to remember as business owners and stakeholders start taking those conversations forward?
CS:
First off, you’ve got to make sure that you’re hiring people with the right skill set. And by that I don’t mean what college they went to, but what is their passion? If you have people who are not passionate about the model, then it’s really hard to keep morale going.

The other thing is making sure that your people have access to opportunities like sabbaticals. We have two members of staff that came in this year and were so inspired by our work that they’re going to architecture school to get their degrees. And we let them go off to follow their vision and when they come back there will be a seat for them. Letting your staff know that they can take a one or two-year sabbatical and come back is huge. I want to have the most educated, passionate people working in the company. And I believe that being less rigid about the way you hire and lead people can yield great results.

SE: What kinds of issues are you seeing developing nations tackle and what can we learn from their successes and solutions?
CS:
I was in Cambodia this weekend and what struck me was the resistance to poorly built westernized homes—which is the concrete block, metal roofed structures that dot Asia and Africa. There was a respect for the indigenous architecture. A lot of the local architects and engineers in Cambodia were resisting Westernized architecture and trying to utilize local materials and construction techniques—but using thatching and bamboo in ways that never have been done before.

What we can bring back from that is a focus on looking at the building materials that are indigenous to our own continents. For instance, most of our work on Native American reservations involves natural building materials. Most of the tribal groups we work with are huge proponents—because it’s part of the culture—for integrating natural building materials using new ways of using these resources.

In the Western world, we’ve become big proponents of globalization. We ship our fuel from overseas. We bring our materials in from China. A return to the homegrown is needed and I think it’s a growing trend. Look at the craft industry in America. The word craft was pretty much created in the United States and you look at companies like Etsy where people are desperate to create hand-made crafts. I think hopefully, we can begin to explore that phenomenon and see it as a positive thing and not a hindrance to progress.

SE: How do you see the concept of “design thinking” and more thoughtful planning acting as game changers in architecture and beyond? How can they help us meet our goals of being a more sustainable society?
CS:
I think people have forgotten the idea of the designer as the leader—and that’s leader with a little “l” not a large “L.” We don’t need a dictatorial form of decision-making here. It’s the idea that the designer acts as a guide within a project and helps negotiate stakeholders to come together to find common ground. For instance, in the Lower 9th in New Orleans, most of the design solutions we came up with happened in the collaboration phase between all these stakeholders. It was not a situation where we flew in, presented a design and hoped the community would like it. I think that collaborative design process is really what’s leading the new thinking, not the cape-wearing architects that people imagine.

SE: What topics and ideas will you be speaking on at the Sustainable Industries Economic Forums? And what is the value in the dialogue being had at these events?
CS:
I’ll be talking about several topics. First I want to talk about new models of giving and aid. We spend billions of dollars in taxpayer money on aid and yet we don’t have adequate levels of transparency and sustainability for that.

The other thing I want to talk about—which ties into the first topic—is what are the economic advantages of doing good. We’ve talked about the environmental and social good that can come out of this way of thinking, but there are people making money and being profitable at doing this—and there’s nothing wrong with making money. If you aren’t economically sustainable, you can’t be environmentally sustainable. That’s just a fact.
So, I want to have a conversation on how we find new models and encourage young entrepreneurs to have these business ideals integrated into their companies, as opposed to having to learn them and add them in as they progress. So that ethical, sustainable business practices are part of the incubation period, not the growth period. Right now, it often happens that you get a business model, make money and then worry about sustainability. I think we need to flip that equation.

Cameron Sinclair is the Co-Founder of Architecture For Humanity and winner of the 2006 TED Prize. He’s also the keynote speaker the 2010-2011 Sustainable Industries Economic Forums Series. The Sustainable Industries Economic Forums will take place in four cities across the West this year—Santa Monica, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. For more information and to register, please visit: www.sustainableforums.com

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