Sustainable Design + Resilience Planning with Ariane Laxo

We speak to Ariane Laxo, Sustainability Director and associate Vice President of design firm HGA. Our discussion today covers the intersection between sustainable initiatives and the world of architecture and design. To Ariane, addressing the climate crisis is of paramount importance. She says that from a scientific standpoint “we know that the next ten years are critical to counteract climate change.”

So what can architecture and design do to proactively face down this crisis? And what actually constitutes a sustainable built environment? Ariane poses these questions to herself at each design juncture. To her, a sustainable building comes down to one encompassing question: “How can we design in ways that help people thrive and don’t negatively impact human health?”

To address these questions, Ariane first outlines her industry’s overall carbon impact. The building industry itself produces a huge amount of global CO2 emissions, in fact, according to Ariane, about 28 percent yearly. Construction materials are another 11 percent on top of that. Including transportation industries (which are closely tied to the built environment), about half of global CO2 emissions originate in Ariane’s industry.

So, these things considered, how has the architecture and design industry gone about solving for a decrease in carbon output? Ariane points to a number of global initiatives beyond her own organization. Architecture 2030 has spearheaded change by proposing a goal of net zero emissions for participating architecture firms by the year 2030. She also mentions the International Living Future Institute and their Living Building Challenge, as well as the International WELL Building Institute as leaders in industry sustainability initiatives. She says that though there is competition in the industry, that when it comes to sustainability there exists a desire to share knowledge and information to help everybody solve for sustainability.

Ariane says any truly sustainable approach must be a comprehensive strategy, taking into account the ways in which the built environment impacts not just those who dwell within those environments, but must reach all the way to those who initially create construction materials. Too often these materials can cause chemical harm (from “chemicals of concern” in industry lingo) in the creation process, so sustainable thinking aims to put human health at the forefront, from materials to finished product. In short, “human health is non-negotiable.”

HGA’s end-goal is for each project to incorporate “regenerative design,” which Ariane describes as “projects [that aim to] give more back than we take.” Presently such an outcome isn’t yet feasible with each project, but HGA is on course to get closer to this aim as time goes on.

For HGA and Ariane, what solving for climate change in architecture really boils down to is a reduction in carbon. But for Ariane personally, she asks herself this question: “How can I help educate and inspire the people who have the power to make decisions, to make these choices for this collective good? … How can we help folks see that their decisions have this huge ripple effect?” Ultimately, Ariane conceptualizes her work as “solving for changing minds even more so than just solving for climate change.”


Karrah Krakovyak
Sustainability Innovator
More about Karrah Krakovyak
Highlights from this article

We have so much building stock existing that we can't just demo and redo. Like we have to be using these existing buildings. In one for one reason, primarily like from a climate change perspective, there is so much embodied energy in those existing buildings that we would basically be like releasing out into the atmosphere if we demo to them. And if we were crushing those materials down and putting more energy into making them something else, or they would go sit in a landfill. And we're also offsetting future carbon needed. By not needing to build a new building because we already have something existing. So they'll like automatically the amount of carbon we're using is way lower if we're starting with an existing building.

Human health being one, we have all, I think many of us either experienced ourselves or know someone who has experienced not feeling well in a space for various reasons, whether it's there's mold or there's poor air circulation, or it's too hot or too cold, even that. Is a simple example of feeling either better or worse because of your built environment.

So what you're talking about is the idea of regenerative design. So we give that we would like our projects to give more back than we take. Can we say that using we're not only going to use less energy, so we're going to be less bad, but we're also going to generate enough energy to serve our needs and maybe even the needs of our neighbors. So being able to give some more back to the grid.

And we're thinking about this library as a potential community hub in case of an emergency. So it becomes a resiliency hub. What does that look like if we're prioritizing the health of those people in a disaster situation, when they come to this space that may or may not have power, these are types of the the complex conversations that we're having.

I think before the pandemic, a lot of people we would bring this topic to and suggest let's do, let's, have a resiliency conversation about potential shocks and stressors that might impact your business and your building and how we might plan for it in our building design. But also, how are you as an organization also planning for it. Strengthening relationships with your greater community partners, et cetera. Before COVID those conversations sometimes we'd have clients say, yeah, absolutely. That sounds great. Let's talk about it. Some would say, Oh, we actually have a resiliency expert or a hazard mitigation planning department, but we never talk really to the building department.... Whereas I think now we've seen with COVID that the stronger we can make all connections within our organizations, the stronger or the more able we're going to be to withstand these types of stressors or shocks COVID so I think we'll continue to see more and more interest in conversations around resilience because COVID has made us all realize just how important that is.

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