When people consider what they can do to reverse the effects of climate change, they often think about eating a plant-based diet, driving an electric car or recycling. Options like design, architecture or construction less frequently come to mind. But that's what the Hearst Design Collection addressed at its The Future of Eco-Conscious Living seminar, presented by Hearst's Design U on Earth Day, Friday, April 22. Panels addressed such topics as preserving heritage buildings and reusing existing buildings instead of constructing new ones, as well as investing in sustainable clothes, furniture and other products.
"What's at stake is the erasure of American history," said Chi-Thien (CT) Nguyen, Chair of Preservation Design at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) during a panel titled "Preservation: A Solution Toward Better Eco-Conscious Living." It was moderated by Steele Marcoux, Editor in Chief of Veranda magazine. "Our work is about ensuring that these places stand in perpetuity. If you take all of the aspects of historic significance out of the structure, just the fact that we're reusing the building is climate action."
SCAD is living these principals on its different campuses. "All of our buildings used to be something else," Nguyen explained. "Globally, we've reused 100 buildings, including 60 buildings here in Savannah. We didn't cordon off a section of the city and build new. We spread it throughout the city. That allows the public to come in and interact with our resources. It's about inviting the public and the community in to touch the artwork. It's about letting people interact with history and resources instead of setting it on a pedestal for viewing."
"Preservation is climate action," added Nakita Reed, an associate at sustainable architecture firm Quinn Evans and host of the Tangible Remnants podcast. "Buildings leave tangible remnants, if you will, of the past."
Issues of preservation particularly affect African Americans and people of color, said Brent Leggs, Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. "Preservation at its core is real-estate development and entrepreneurship. It's about how you build a viable plan to sustain heritage, architecture and culture -- and how do we direct these strategies to Black and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities."
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is currently working on several projects intended to preserve African American history. In Akron, Ohio, the fund is creating a public park and memorial for activist and one-time slave Sojourner Truth, who delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech in Akron in 1851. "We're creating this public park that intersects culture and nature and community in a new and creative way," Leggs said. "Preservation is a form of acti-vision and social justice. It helps society to manage change that does not disconnect its work from the legacy of the past."
According to Leggs the fund is also creating a public park and memorial in Dix Hills, NY, around the home of jazz legend John Coltrane and his wife, Alice, where the saxophonist wrote his famous album, "A Love Supreme."
By connecting these historic sites to historical figures and stories, people are more able to understand the issues at stake. "The definition of humanizing heritage is the idea of making it accessible," Nguyen asserted. "The most important definition of humanization is empathy. Preservation is not just about tangible assets. It's also about being storytellers and preserving the culture, the heritage and the stories. It's about preserving the soul."
Later in the day, Elle Decor Editor in Chief Asad Syrkett moderated a panel titled "Material World: How We'll Build Our Sustainable Future," which took the idea of preserving buildings and brought it inside to include sustainable furniture, materials, cleaning products and clothes.
"Education is important in bringing change to the design industry," said Luam Melake, Senior Researcher of the Healthy Materials Lab and Donghia Healthier Materials Library at Parsons School of Design. "The problems that come with climate change are [made worse by] the lack of awareness about the issues. It's such an emotional problem, so it's about taking the emotion out of it and breaking it down for people. There are so many problems, but here are some actionable solutions." Among them: avoiding plastics, including vinyl and acrylic paint; investing in sustainable furniture and clothing, even though it may be more expensive; and using natural materials in place of synthetics wherever possible. Western consumers also need to be aware of how their habit of buying and discarding affect people all around the world.
"People in the global south contribute almost nothing to the climate crisis but are the most impacted by it," said Beatrice Galilee, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The World Around. "There are clothes strewn over the mountains in Chile that were discarded and then bought by the Chilean government. They didn't fit into a landfill and ended up strewn across these mountains. There's a lack of accountability for production that reaches all levels of design."
To combat the problem of too many disposable goods, sustainable office furniture producer Humanscale works to build products that will last. "We offer a 15-year warranty on our products, and we replace individual components as part of that if they wear out," said Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale. "We also do a lot of work to make sure these products last and look good after many years of use."
Galilee is inspired by designers who are creating buildings using only local, sustainable products, such as Mariam Kamara, who built a mosque in Niger using three materials gathered from within a 12-mile radius. "We need to ask ourselves how we can build but also invest in learning," she said. "We need to teach people how to build and design so that the results are products that are nurturing and supporting and not just shiny and extracted. I do feel hopeful when I hear these conversations."
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