Highlights from the 2019 unConference

by | June 6, 2019 0 Ideas, Sustainability

The Living Future’s unConference was held this year in Seattle, a beautiful, amazing place – thriving and struggling. It is the convergence of a gorgeous natural environment, urban topography, of tech giants and homelessness, food, culture, coffee and so much more. In many ways it was the perfect setting to explore the topics of the event.

The conference theme for 2019 was “Collaboration + Abundance,” but my personal takeaway was more of a sense of urgency – “scale up impact!” Here’s what I found most enlightening and worth pondering this year:

Opening with a Call to Action

Bill McKibben, a long-time writer and climate activist from the front lines of direct action, delivered a challenging and inspiring keynote. He encouraged the audience (made up primarily of professionals like me) to get outside our comfort zones and take action regarding climate change.

McKibben has been deeply involved with climate change for many years, and his passion has led him into protests resulting in his arrest. The author of 1989’s The End of Nature, he notes that in earlier days it was about making the scientific case for climate change, and that we’ve been largely successful. He said climate scientists “won the argument, but are still losing the fight.” An example? Exxon now builds taller open sea oil rigs to accommodate the rising seas.

Keynote speaker and author Bill McKibben

But good stuff is indeed happening, and even starting to scale up. As an example, McKibben noted the positive impacts of leap-frogging renewable technology in remote developing world communities, which provide clean energy without the health impacts of indoor combustion stoves, or mega-electrical infrastructure projects. McKibben also sees people coming together for positive change all over the world.

McKibben ended by saying, “we don’t know if we can win, but we know too much to just idly stand by.”

The overwhelming and devastating global situation calls for everyone – including designers – to act.

New from ILFI

Expanding on the aggressive standards of the Living Building and Petal certification programs, ILFI has introduced new programs that offer more scalable options, particularly for urban environments. SERA is likely to use these new standards for project work and potentially even our own office. The new program is called “Core,” and works with Petal certification, or as a stand-alone standard.

Core Green Building Certification program

The Living Building certification has also been updated to version 4.0 which intends to minimize extremely arduous efforts to achieve positive, but small impacts within some of the imperatives (such as red list compliance and black water treatment.) ILFI noted that their goal is to better align effort with impact.

Also announced was a new program for volume certification, along with commitments from clients that include Google and King County, WA.

Celebration of the Senses

Gail Brager, one of my thesis advisors from UC Berkeley, led a great (well-researched) session with Barbara Erwin titled, “A Celebration of the Senses.”

Through project work and research, SERA has become familiar with Gail’s phrase regarding a goal of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) to create “rich, multi-sensory environments.” Yes, we need to meet all of the IEQ requirements for thermal comfort, air quality, acoustic sanity, positive daylighting, and connections to nature (biophilia). But the goal should not be sensory monotony (think of the many corporate office buildings of the 80s and 90s), but rather a spectrum of variable sensory occupant experiences. Not only can this have energy benefits (she noted, for instance, that HVAC control systems that go above and below 68-72 degrees F, save 7-15% per degree), studies show that they also improve health, cognitive performance, and positive perceptual experiences (delight).

Gail’s new favorite word is “alliesthesia,” which refers to dynamic needs and the pleasurable sensation of meeting those needs. This includes air movement, and variability in multiple realms including temporal, spatial, and thermal (like a warm fire on cold day).

Barbara and Gail encourage the session audience to consider the full-range of potential sensory experiences – there aren’t just five senses, just as there are more colors than just the three primarily colors. There’s an infinite range of overlapping and blended sensory experiences that can be incorporated by design teams into their environments.

While the idea of reducing our impact isn’t new to us at SERA, keeping up with the new ideas, tools and approaches is important to us. McKibbens and others encouraged my belief that we can do more, both at work and home. Most of us can find ways to scale it up!


Mark Perepelitza is a Principal and Director of Sustainability at SERA.

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