For Rob Winstead, community and sustainability are two concepts inextricable from one another. A nationally recognized expert in the space of learning planning and design for learning, the VMDO Principal was the first to serve as the firm’s Director of Sustainability before moving on to become the K12 Studio leader. Since signing on, he has helped shape the evolution of a long-standing practice that had originally formed from a mission of advocacy and a commitment to make a difference in the world through the design of community spaces.
Sustainability and Community: A Natural Conclusion
According to Winstead, sustainability came as a natural extension of the work that VMDO was doing at the time. After having its start doing projects in public education, the growth and trajectory of the firm caused the team to reconcile with design and sustainability more and more with each project they took on. In the end, making buildings that could safeguard the environment fit right in with the firm’s ethos.
“Looking deeper into it, we also found that there was a connection between sustainability and education. The same elements that can lead to a healthier world also led to healthier building environments, and that leads to students being able to perform at their best.”
There was also the longevity of educational institutions. With schools operating for up to 100 years with little changes to the overall infrastructure, VMDO saw there was a clear need to make these institutions as forward thinking as humanly possible.
As time passed, the unofficial tagline of the K12 Studio became, “Happy, Healthy, High-Performing” as VMDO increasingly incorporated aspects of wellness and sustainability into their designs.
Leading the Charge with AIA and Clean Energy DC
In 2009, the firm would gain significant notoriety for its sustainable architecture in particular through work done in Manassas Park, Virginia. From there, the teams would continue to pursue projects that served to further define their role as advocates and practitioners in sustainable design.
Such accomplishments include the first net zero energy educational institution at Piedmont Community College and Lubber Run, a net zero energy community center consisting of a concrete and mass timber structure built underneath a local park. Two of VMDO’s buildings been named Top Ten Projects by the Committee on the Environment (COTE), a frequency rarely achieved within the industry.
Fast forward to today, and now VMDO is a key player within Washington D.C.’s new carbon zero commitment, known as Clean Energy DC, which vows to make all of the city’s-built environments and public transportation methods net zero by 2032. To support this commitment, the firm has even opened a separate office within the D.C. area to better understand the needs of the community there.
What’s exciting about working with the initiative, Winstead says, is the unique focus it places on transparency and accountability. It’s something Winstead sees will greatly shake up the real estate market in D.C., as energy consumption becomes a key differentiator among structures with more sustainable buildings expected to offer real value to owners and tenants as more stages roll out.
He also says that in addition to working alongside D.C.’s energy commitments, the firm has aligned itself closely with the AIA’s 2030 Commitment, an industry initiative to achieve net-zero energy in the built environment by the year 2030.
Challenges with COVID and the Hope for New Building Innovations
While the pandemic has faced many with incredible labor shortages, Winstead finds VMDO lucky that no such problem exists within the firm. “As far as we’re concerned, that just means people want to do meaningful work, and we’re incredibly thankful for that.” And though supply chain troubles have affected many of their projects, Winstead is still hopeful of the future.
Citing a project for a high-school renovation in southern Maryland, steel shortages threatened lead times of up to eight months, prompting VMDO to seek out a recent innovation, cross-laminated timber, as an alternative. While a lack of local suppliers ultimately put an end to that plan, Winstead believes the high cost and lead times of steel and other materials will contribute to a more rapid adoption of sustainable alternatives in construction.
Addressing ‘Greenwashing’ with Evidence-Based Work
Beyond COVID, Winstead notes that for sustainability and wellness efforts to reach greater adoption, everyone working within the built environment needs to focus on results. As Winstead has noticed in VMDO’s own works, resistance to ‘greenwashing’ and ‘wellwashing’ tactics has led many to become skeptical of such projects that don’t have hard data to back up their claims. Net zero, he notes, is a signifier that, while challenging to monitor and regulate, is a firm quantifier for sustainability.
He also adds that more and more research is being done into how building elements can impact occupant health and wellbeing, but that hasn’t stopped VMDO from gathering proof of its own work. Initiatives like Post-Occupancy reports help the firm better refine their practice and translate wellness into tangible benefits like reduced absenteeism in the case of educational institutions.
“When we’re talking about making changes in places like schools, we need to be focusing on how these initiatives can help students perform at the highest levels and maximize their full potential,” Winstead says. “At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be the environment that’s holding them back.”
For him and the team at VMDO, being able to push a wider understanding and acceptance of wellness and sustainability practices through these types of metrics is what will ultimately lead to greater adoption throughout the industry.