Sarah Post Holmberg
November 14, 2018
I was studying Environmental Studies and Philosophy at Bowdoin College when I spotted a flyer for a program called Global Ecology. Over the next year, this program would take me around the world to meet activists who were taking grassroots action to empower local people and connect them with the resources of their land. Global Ecology was about land and resources, but it was also about equality.
I watched children climb trash heaps in Manila, and rice farmers laboring in the scorching heat. I met Vandana Shiva who was saving seeds in India, and the work was heartbreaking, and fascinating, and impactful, all at the same time.
I had always been drawn to nature, and thinking about how we operate in it. Now my deep connection to the natural world had a cultural perspective.
I wasn’t thinking about career yet, but I was beginning to think about how much time we spend inside, how many resources buildings use, and I realized we should care about our buildings. I began to view architecture as a lens through which we might see our relationship to the world. This seemed like a good profession for me—a way to put into action the values that had been shaped over the course of my travels.
I joined Hacker in part because I could see that the firm was making strong efforts toward energy-efficiency and sustainability. My first push as an employee was to solidify those values by getting us signed onto the 2030 Climate and Energy Commitment. As part of this commitment, we developed the Sustainability Action Plan to serve as a living document not only of the work we are currently doing, but of our intentions and aspirations for the future.
Last year our sustainability effort was rebranded as Social and Environmental Advocates (SEA). We felt the word ‘sustainability’ had grown a bit stale and lost some of its meaning, and ‘social and environmental’ better expressed our two intended outcomes for every project: that it have positive impact on the planet, and that it benefit people and communities. ‘Advocate’ because we believe leadership is most effective not from the top down, but from advocates working within each project.
Hacker now has 22 Social and Environmental Advocates who gather bi-weekly to go over every project, identifying the opportunities and challenges. We break off into work sessions where we can share expertise and experience to arrive at informed social and environmental strategies. What are the possibilities, what are the constraints, how do we play those against each other to come up with something that truly enriches their communities and the world?
Sometimes people come to the SEA sessions to just listen, then they hear a nugget that applies to their project, and off they go. It’s productive work, and exciting.
Clients are open to cost-effective ideas that create smaller carbon footprints for their buildings, and our voices and perspectives are critical to driving that work forward. By listening deeply to what our clients want, we can find opportunities to create outcomes that take their visions one step further.
Equity is another piece of this work, and it so often overlaps with sustainability. When you think about climate change, for example, disadvantaged people have the least opportunity to rebound from natural disasters. Equity is also a factor in the design process. We know that building diversity within our design staff will create better design, so we are making efforts to bring in more people from different ethnic and geographical backgrounds. As a woman in a male-dominated field, it’s also obvious to me that we need more women at the design table, and it feels great seeing that happening.
As part of our efforts, last year the entire office went through equity education and training. The work is uncomfortable—it forces us to take a hard, honest look at our implicit biases—but our trainings have been vitally important and transformative, laying the groundwork for deeper listening and understanding.
Design has power. I love to make beautiful things that people appreciate, but I also want to elicit some kind of beneficial cultural change in the process. What is architecture’s role in building and serving community? How can our work be a lens through which we can better see our connection to the world? How can we leverage the power of design to create meaningful change? Those are the questions that interest me and drive my work.