Eric Corey Freed
Eric Corey Freed
April 21, 2020

Earth Day 50

Eric Corey Freed
Eric Corey Freed

Today, the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—the one day a year we reaffirm our commitment to understanding our planet’s interconnected systems and to protecting it for future generations. More than one billion people across 190 countries are participating in Earth Day.

The first Earth Day in the U.S. was a protest. Back then the evidence of humanity’s disregard for our environment was everywhere. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara ravaged the beaches in 1969. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it actually caught fire.  Public outcry was so great that something had to be done, and the government responded.

In 1970, U.S. President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment and appointed a young Harvard grad named Denis Hayes to be the national coordinator. (Today, Denis runs the Bullitt Foundation, housed in the Bullitt Center in Seattle, considered to be the greenest office building in the world.)

Remember that in 1970, there was no LEED, no such thing as EUI, and no concept of embodied carbon or even healthy materials. Passive solar was not yet even a formal concept, and asbestos and lead paint were commonly used in thousands of everyday building materials. Despite this, over 20 million Americans (10 percent of the total population at the time), demonstrated from coast to coast.

“It was a gamble,” Senator Nelson recalled, “but it worked.”

Back then, CannonDesign was already an award-winning architecture firm, though very different from where we are today. In 1970, our Buffalo office had not even yet started work on the now-famous Metropolitan Transportation Center.  In the decades since, we’ve built over 50 million square feet of LEED-certified space (with another couple of million in the pipeline). We’ve expanded into energy modeling, parametric design, modular construction and creating our own software. I’d love to see the look on the face of our founder, Will Cannon, if he were alive to see how far we’ve come. But it’s just the beginning.

Today we’re on a path to making every building a green building. That is our primary sustainability goal. It has to be. We cannot merely hope to get down to zero emissions; we have to make it happen! To accomplish this, that means that, at a minimum, every single project must address the following three things:

  • Zero Embodied Carbon: We must explore low and zero carbon materials starting with our structural and enclosure systems.
  • High-Performance Envelope: We must design smart, engineered skins to reduce operational energy use, and right-size the systems to match.
  • Smart Materials: We must source the healthiest, most responsible materials available to us.

I know this kind of change can seem scary. After all, architects have been building the old way for 200 years now. But remember that change can happen quickly when people want it bad enough.

It only took the automobile 15 years to replace horses as the preferred mode of transportation.   The internet went from an army experiment to our primary form of communication in just a few decades. We welcome rapid change if we can see the value proposition.

So that’s what we need to do: we need to show our clients the benefits of these approaches. Following our commitment to Living-Centered Design, we are committed to leading our clients with empathy as we show them how we can achieve:

  • Reduced Absenteeism (through the use of fresh air)
  • Higher Productivity (through the selection of healthy finishes)
  • A Boost in Cognitive Performance (by designing an approach to daylight & views)
  • Higher Valuations (through certification & process)
  • Talent Retention (through wellness & air quality)
  • Lower Premiums (by planning for resilience)
  • A Slash in Operating Costs (in energy performance)
  • Higher Profit per Square Foot (using post-occupancy evaluations)
  • Future Proofing (by planning for energy & carbon futures)

Our commitment to this is woven throughout our firm, building on the goals of every one of our markets, offices and leaders.

Our commitment to a sustainable world is woven within our firm,” says our CEO Brad Lukanic. “I learn more every day about how we can positively impact our planet and, as a father of three, those are powerful moments as we chart a course ahead. Internally, our Living-Centered Design philosophy enhances our foundation to harness our design energy to create a better world. What an amazing opportunity we have to direct our energy on projects, to clients and within the built world—not just with places and space, but by shaping it for future generations.

Achieving this will take some effort from everyone on our team, with a touch of experimentation, and a willingness to try new things. This type of innovative approach is already deep in our DNA as a firm, and the reason why I chose CannonDesign and to be part of this family to facilitate this future.

Let’s hope we’ll all be around in 2070 to celebrate our 100th Earth Day! Let’s plan now to make it a giant celebration, and not a protest. Let’s celebrate how, despite the odds, we overcame our fear, greed, and stubbornness to create this future. Let’s imagine this future is without dependence on carbon emissions, producing waste or resource depletion. Let’s imagine it so clearly that we start today to make it a reality.

Check out these 50 ideas for celebrating Earth Day.