People, Planet, Design: A Practical Guide to Realizing Architecture’s Potential
Corey Squire, AIA
Island Press, 2023

People, Planet, Design is a debut book by Corey Squire, AIA. This 350-page manual marshals over a decade of sustainability experience toward one objective: identifying the leverage points that will maximize architecture’s ability to promote human flourishing and save the world from climate disaster. This is an ambitious goal. To contend with such enormity, Squire breaks the book into three sections. “Theory” identifies traditional practice as the enemy of progress and proposes a redefinition of design excellence in which sustainability is an inalienable part. “Practice” addresses how to create a firm culture that will consistently generate such excellent designs. Finally, “Design” provides detailed guidance on how to design excellently, organized by building system. 

I’ll address the last part first for a few reasons. Coming in at over half the page count, “Design” is the longest section of the book. It is also the portion that will be of most use to project teams, chiefly because of Squire’s heuristics. I am certain that every architect in America would benefit from having a copy of this book on account of them. These rules of thumb allow us to make sustainable choices at the speed of design, rather than sending a snapshot of the project off to the sustainability lab and waiting for the test results to come back (more on that problem in “Practice”). Architects are used to approximations, such as the 3:1 backspan rule for cantilevers. Squire shares rules of thumb for sustainability that will be new to many and that simplify the enormous amount of data and analysis now available. For example, rather than memorize the details of all seven climate zones in the United States, architects can remember that buildings east of Abilene (the 100th meridian) should have dedicated humidification, while buildings west of Abilene may need only to dehumidify basements. Rather than pausing design to dive into toxicity research every time a new material is proposed, architects can remember that bendy plastics require more scrutiny than rigid ones. Such accessible guidelines have been a missing link in the chain connecting sustainable knowledge to sustainable buildings. No longer. 

“Practice” focuses on issues at the enterprise level. It will be of special interest to leaders of firms that have high aspirations for sustainability but suboptimal results (and if you’re a firm that’s set high sustainability goals and met them all on every project, I don’t believe you). Some common practice issues include an ineffective vision, delegating responsibility to the passionate but powerless (such as volunteer sustainability committees), and knowledge management that focuses on collecting resources rather than providing quick answers. Squire is right to point out that cultural changes at this level will have more impact than the performance of any individual building. In other words, the focus in this section goes beyond how to design high-performance buildings to how to design high-performance practices. This structural approach connects to his previous work with others—including Helena Zambrano, AIA, illustrator of the book—on the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. 

“Theory” is the most motley section, in part because its intended audience is inconsistent. Chapter 1, “Form and Function,” is an abstract argument for the more conceptually and historically minded members of our discipline. Chapter 2 whips around to face a general audience, including clients and even those yet unconverted to the sustainability gospel. It describes what’s at stake (spoiler: just about everything) and what’s standing in the way. Chapter 3 is for those champions of sustainability (excuse me—of design excellence) whose passion and proficiency outweigh their persuasion. It covers effective communication skills, mostly around avoiding the historic pitfall of framing sustainability as an add-on expense. 

These chapters and the preface inveigh strongly against what Squire calls “traditional practice,” a catchall term that refers to both uninspired 3D spreadsheets (buildings entirely subservient to financial concerns) and trophy buildings whose prime directive is visual spectacle, all else be second. Traditional architecture, as Squires frames it, is anything nonexcellent. This sells architecture short. 

It sells architecture’s history short. Painting the concerns of yesterday as aesthetic but the concerns of today as pragmatic, as Squire does in the subsection “The Spirit of the Day,” obscures architecture’s legacy of addressing social problems. A health crisis—unsanitary overcrowding in polluted Victorian cities—led to the creation of the Garden City. Despite Le Corbusier’s romantic overlays, it was an affordable housing crisis after World War I that drove much of modernist aesthetics in projects like the New Frankfurt. The Tate Modern, by Herzog & de Meuron, demonstrated the potential of reusing rather than demolishing defunct industrial buildings. This is a lesson for historians and keepers of the canon: They must write problem-solving back into architectural history so that it can serve as an inspiration rather than a foil for the problems of today.

It also sells architecture’s future short. Architecture has a semiotic dimension that is just as enduring as its functional one. What buildings look like matters, and it always will, not just for the sake of their beauty, but for their meaning. When Squire dismisses the communicative aspects of architecture—some call it style—as shallow, irrelevant, and distracting, he risks construing performance and signification as competitive and discrete. They are neither. While the profession unquestionably needs to give more emphasis to how buildings perform, it must continue to consider what and how buildings communicate. To contest an assertion of the author, design does not “suffer” from a multiplicity of meanings. The imperative to simultaneously address performance, experience, and significance is intrinsic to the project of design.

The true potential of architecture doesn’t lie in picking the apple of sustainability over the orange of symbolism but in holding the whole fruit basket together, a challenge for which—despite its theoretical glitches—this inspiring and useful book is an essential companion.

Ben Parker, AIA, is an architect. A lifelong Texan, he will graduate in May 2024 with a Master of Architecture degree in Urban Design from Harvard University.

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