Frick Environmental Center is a living building that allows people to immerse themselves in nature. Photo by Nic Lehoux.

It’s easy to notice the beauty of a well-designed building. As we walk through a dramatic new condo complex or the lobby of a stunning office tower, we can see the many ways these structures can elevate and inspire us.

But what about their massive environmental impact?

“Buildings create 80% of our city’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says Michelle Fanzo, executive director of AIA Pittsburgh. “So how we build new or renovate existing structures will have a significant impact on whether or not we achieve the goals of Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan.”

Good design, Fanzo explains, reduces greenhouse gasses, improves building operations and creates a healthier and more sustainable environment for human beings, who on average spend almost 90% of their time indoors these days.

In very real ways, our community’s architects are participating in climate action every day when they design good buildings.

In the wake of the Global Climate Strike last September and the ever-increasing focus our world must put on battling climate change, NEXTpittsburgh spoke with three Pittsburgh architects about how they are using the power of sustainable design to make a difference for our city and the world.

CHRISTINE MONDOR, principal at evolveEA:

Photo courtesy of Christine Mondor/evolveEA.

In addition to her high-profile role as chair of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, Mondor and her firm have provided planning assistance to a number of Pittsburgh’s new EcoDistricts.

Tell us how you came to do this type of work.

I became an architect because architecture can shift the way we relate to our environment. It can instill respect for habitat, reduce our resource consumption and can create inspiring places that give us hope for a better future. When we started evolveEA in 2004, we wanted to focus on sustainability. But it was difficult to find clients who had similar goals.

Now, things that were bleeding edge with sustainable design are commonplace and part of designing a code-compliant building. Unfortunately, our environmental challenges have outpaced our successes and our firm is always looking for ways to scale up our sustainability efforts.

How would you describe the contribution you’re making?

As a designer, I love tackling wicked problems that can only be solved by systems thinking.

Was there a specific moment that changed your thinking about sustainability and your contribution as an architect?

When I was young, my great-uncle Steve would tell stories of the fish that used to live in the small creek behind his house. When we would go out back the creek was yellow with acid mine drainage and devoid of any life — that was accepted as normal.

I grew to realize that our region doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring environmental issues. The feedback loop for poor environmental practices is immediate and tangible. We are on the front line and architecture is a way of reclaiming lost territory.

PATRICIA CULLEY, senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson:

Photo courtesy of Patricia Culley/Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

Culley helped organize her firm’s participation in the Global Climate Strike and led the BCJ team that designed the award-winning Frick Environmental Center.

How did you come to do this type of work?

I am a product of my environment; however, I choose my environment with great care. I moved to a farm to establish balance between my professional ambitions and my private home life. I volunteer my time on the American Institute of Architects and Green Building Alliance boards of directors to learn from my peers and to give back to my community.

How would you describe the contribution you’re making?

Architects have the unique ability to profoundly reduce the impact of the built environment on nature through sustainable design practices. That impact can be much more powerful if those strategies are shared broadly within our community. Throughout my career, I have volunteered my time to teach sustainable strategies to industry professionals and communities, with the hope that my small actions can spark enthusiasm and lead to significant change.

Was there a specific moment that changed your thinking about sustainability and your contribution as an architect?

Over the last five years, the rural environment where I live has seen significant development that has caused drastic change. The development is sprawling and disconnected, in total contrast to the meticulous care and considerations that take place when working with sustainable design practices. It is my hope that over time, sustainability will permeate the mindset and actions of all individuals who contribute to the built environment.

LAURA NETTLETON, founder and principal at Thoughtful Balance:

Photo courtesy of Laura Nettleton.

Thoughtful Balance founder Nettleton recently received the Environmental Excellence Award from the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) for her work around sustainable architecture and Passive House, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building, which reduces the building’s ecological footprint

How did you come to do this type of work?

In 2010, I became a firm believer — and early proponent — of Passive House standards as the best solution for providing highly energy-efficient and sustainable buildings without the constrictions of artificial “targets” required in more traditional green rating systems.

I delight in the benefits that Passive House has to offer existing buildings, including greater market appeal, outstanding air quality, thermal comfort, better quality envelopes, smaller and simpler mechanical systems, and amazing energy savings. To help introduce and spread the word about this unique approach to energy-efficient building, I founded Passive House Western Pennsylvania, a group dedicated to information and advocacy for Passive House in the Western Pennsylvania region.

We can really revolutionize buildings and achieve a sustainable future faster if we find new ways to finance, design and build them.

How would you describe the contribution you’re making?

My focus is creating awareness of Passive House strategies in the design, development and construction communities. I will continue to advocate for integrating sustainability into architectural practice without relying on conventional rating systems with the hope of initiating drastic transformation in the built environment.

Was there a specific moment that changed your thinking about sustainability and your contribution as an architect?

When the Felician Sisters moved back into their newly renovated building, I was amazed to learn that many of the Sisters suffering from pulmonary distress had fewer symptoms in the new building. The Sisters’ breathing and pulmonary function actually improved!

That discovery helped me connect the dots. I realized that our decisions really can make a huge difference in the lives of the people we work for. It is easy to hide behind the idea that what we are doing won’t matter in the vast scheme of things. But it’s important to realize this is how we got here, and how we will find our way out.

Maya Haptas has an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and is a freelance writer covering various topics from architecture and urban design to wellness and skateboarding. She is currently the assistant editor of Bigfoot Skateboarding Magazine.