Sustainability by Design: Architecture’s Unique Role
Much has been written about sustainability and sustainable architecture. My wife, Adrian Parr, and I co-edited a book called New Directions in Sustainable Design in 2011 (ISBN 9780415780377), which addressed multidisciplinary perspectives on the future of sustainability. We sought to address the larger issue of what it means to think sustainably. People tend to look to specific ways to “be sustainable”— but sustainability, to me, refers to an approach to living and designing. Buildings are not actually “sustainable” without an intensive use of resources and ongoing maintenance. But buildings and places are essential for our society.
By Michael Zaretsky '86
October 7, 2021
October 7, 2021
By Michael Zaretsky '86

It is important to understand that buildings are responsible for approximately 40 percent of the carbon emissions produced in the United States. CO2 is, of  course, one of the primary contributors to global climate change, and it is having detrimental impacts on our world in myriad ways.

Initially, I approached sustainability from a technical lens that addressed green building strategies such as reducing energy and water usage in buildings, reducing waste, and seeking to improve air quality. All of these are critical goals for our future buildings, but it is important to remember that Homo sapiens have been living in buildings on our planet for over 100,000 years*. We successfully created places that adapted to our local climates using local materials long before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. So, I always approach sustainable design by looking first at the local climatic and environmental conditions and exploring how people created habitation in that region before the Industrial Revolution. This is known as bioclimatic design or climate-responsive design, and it is where sustainable building design starts for me.

The reality is that we receive enough solar energy or wind energy to easily provide enough power for all of our buildings and infrastructure. However, our current economic models stand in the way of larger scale adoption of renewable energy sources that would eliminate carbon emissions and provide much healthier and more sustainable energy sources for our society.


“I am currently the director of architectural engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, and I was previously associate dean of faculty affairs and curriculum and associate professor at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati. On March 29, 2021, I will begin my new role as head of the architecture department at the University of Oregon.

I am a licensed architect and am deeply engaged in the relationship between social justice and the built environment. I am an active researcher and scholar and am involved in projects and initiatives that bring meaningful, innovative design to the communities that can benefit most from design thinking.” – Michael Zaretsky ’86

There are many contemporary technical solutions that are allowing us to create buildings that use reduced amounts of energy, water, and resources. Thousands of buildings have achieved LEED certification, awarded by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status is a green certification indicating that a project has achieved certain criteria in terms of energy use, water use, air quality, site response and related factors. While this has some benefits, it does not go nearly far enough to make a significant difference in our emissions or our built environments. Real change will occur through policy and through cultural and societal imperatives.

While I am deeply engaged in this discussion about sustainable design, I realized years ago that my interest was more focused on the cultural and social impacts of design. Regardless of how energy-efficient a building is, it is useless if it is not built with the input and engagement of the users and stakeholders who will be impacted by the project. In reality, approximately 95 percent of the buildings in the world are built with no input from architects, so there is an emerging discipline that addresses the role that architects and designers play in the development of projects for those who typically don’t have access to these services.

Over the last decade, my research has focused much more on public interest design (or social impact design). Public interest design evolved as a response to the equivalent public access that the medical and legal professions provide. Everyone has the right to receive medical care and legal services. Public interest design is a growing field that includes designers who believe that all members of society deserve access to design services.

Since 2008, I have been working with a nonprofit based in Cincinnati called Village Life Outreach Project ( We partner with a nonprofit and three rural communities in Tanzania to produce sustainable solutions to the challenges that they face — lack of power, lack of clean water, lack of sanitation, lack of ongoing medical services, and lack of safe building construction technologies. I have been leading the design and construction of a zero-energy health center in Roche, Tanzania, which has been built with the Roche community. I have worked with faculty and students at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Texas at Arlington in partnership with organizations across the United States and in Tanzania to create sustainable solutions that can be utilized and distributed by the local communities.

There are many innovative technical solutions on the rise aimed at producing much more energy-efficient buildings — and that is a good thing. However, I still believe that for us to address what it means for a building or place to be “sustainable,” we must address all of the social, cultural, economic, and political aspects of our built environment. There are many great thinkers working to address these issues. My hope is that this becomes embedded as a core component of our educational systems moving forward. We need our next generation to be focused on what it will take to create a truly sustainable society


*Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning,

3rd Edition by Leland M. Roth