Nov 07, 2012
THEME: Learning, Sustainability

A Confederacy of Doers: The Benefits of a Practice-Based Education

As the national research knowledge manager for healthcare sustainability at Perkins+Will, I do a mix of deep research and more traditional project work with clients like Stanford University Medical Center and the National Guard Health Authority for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In most disciplines and on most projects, there is an inherent need for research. This need is of particular importance in the emerging field of sustainable design, where each new generation of projects seeks to identify innovative solutions that raise performance standards. For example, “sustainable buildings” seek to do less harm to the environment than their predecessors while “living buildings” strive to do no harm at all, but many of us now aspire to “regenerative buildings” that have the capability to heal. Significant gaps currently remain in our knowledge and expertise in this arena, but practice-based research involving real-world constraints is helping us to get much closer.

When working with project teams during design and construction, I’m often confronted by roadblocks that exist outside of the framework of deep research, such as the perception that sustainable design inherently has a high cost premium that lacks a meaningful return on investment for the funder. I first began to confront these obstacles while working on a design-build project for school. The experience of working for a client with a budget, in collaboration with real user groups and practitioners, was one of the most valuable parts of my entire academic career. Though severely delayed by Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Mission Family Center was fully constructed and achieved LEED Silver certification in August 2010 (the very first building to do so in the city of New Orleans). In addition, this project inspired my thesis, Sustainability for Sale; The Caress of Commodity, which explored the human and ecological benefits provided by sustainable design as well as the need for financial incentives in a free market society. An architectural thesis provides the opportunity to bridge academia and practice; it often guides the beginning of a professional journey. Since I wrote my thesis, the primary focus of my professional career has been a continued quest to prove the financial benefits of sustainable design. It is an iterative process (frustrating at times) that requires client, consultant, and contractor education on each project. It also requires an enduring enthusiasm for partnering with others that share your values.

I found an opportunity to do just that when my alma mater, Tulane University, arranged an engagement with their Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) program at the School of Architecture. While I was eager to work with the MSRED program as a way to support my school, I was also eager to cultivate an understanding of the multifaceted benefits of sustainable design in a future generation of real estate developers. In many ways, working with the MSRED program resembled my typical research collaborations: geographically disparate participants sharing knowledge and using technology to work towards a common goal. Any expertise gap we experienced was mitigated by the intense curiosity of the graduate students, a quality that many practitioners have neglected. The research focused specifically on understanding the financial opportunities provided by sustainably designed, developer-led healthcare villages. This is a model where the developer funds, constructs, and operates a campus in conjunction with a local healthcare provider; while fairly new in the United States, it’s a typology that is likely to become more prevalent in the future. The collaboration with MSRED culminated in a white paper, Healthcare Villages: Development Strategies for Our Health, which collects, organizes, and analyzes extensively sourced research. It is a concise and invaluable resource that the students and I are eager to share with current and future collaborators.

My engagement with the MSRED program may have begun as a means for me to contribute to my alma mater and to continue my specialized research, but it resulted in a resource for a wide network of beneficiaries. It is this scale of impact that represents the greatest value of a practice-based education, though it remains an overlooked benefit by many professional firms and academic programs. It seems that another quest for demonstrating value may be in order.

A version of this blog post originally appeared in Metropolis Magazine’s POV blog. You can read the original post at

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